victorian home

Vancouver learns how to make an old house pay

Vancouver’s remaining old character houses still have a lot working against them.

There are a lot of people who do care deeply about preserving the charming old houses. Author Caroline Adderson’s Vancouver Vanishes Facebook page, which archives the ongoing demolitions, has 5,131 likes.

But there are people who think old houses can never be energy efficient, and are filled with mould and rot. There are those who don’t find them aesthetically appealing, and there are others who simply don’t care about them. And then, there is the biggest impact of all – the fact that the new market demands bigger, newer houses. The more square footage, the more money for everyone involved.

As we all know, the old houses are coming down to make way for big, new ones. As a result, Vancouver’s west side, and pockets of the east side, have been completely transformed. The sale of an old house, particularly in Kerrisdale, Dunbar or Point Grey, most certainly marks the end of its existence. One Dunbar homeowner currently has an ad posted on Craigslist to sell their solid, well-built, 1,820-square-foot, four-bedroom character home for $1, if someone could relocate it before it’s demolished. The chances are probably slim.

Heritage home at 1828 West 15th Ave. A laneway home has been added to the rear of the property. All photos by Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail

Where houses are concerned, we’ve been on a clear-cutting frenzy these last several years. Somewhere in the order of 1,000 demolition permits are issued annually in Vancouver. As a city, we have been big pushers for the big and new. It’s not exactly the greenest of policies.

And so, in an attempt to abate the demolition of nearly 1,000 homes a year – a substantial number of them built prior to 1940 – the city approved a policy that restricts demolitions of pre-1940s houses deemed worthy as having character. The plan includes a requirement that 90 per cent of the materials from a pre-1940s character house that gets torn down must be recycled. As an incentive, if the house is retained, there’s an added floor space allowance.

Not surprisingly, there was some outcry from builders, realtors and architects whose business is devoted to new builds on the west side. Houses will be devalued, they argued. Seniors who own them will suffer financial losses. But really, could a solid arts and crafts house that sits on a 50- or 60-foot lot on the city’s west side really become so undesirable as to drop significantly in value? Is the only answer to Vancouver’s real estate market the big, bulky and generic new house that too often replaces it?

Could the new rules hurt such a robust market?

David Peerless, owner of Dexter Associates Realty in Kerrisdale, specializes in west side homes. He says the answer is no.

“We’ve found that demand for properties that are affected by the policy has not dramatically changed,” says Mr. Peerless. “The pre-1940 house has a slight stigma to it, but what we thought would have been a very big effect on the market, we haven’t really experienced.”

Instead, the value of a house, he says, is still based on many factors, not just the new restriction.

“I think people are trying to zero in on this one policy as [potentially] causing a really dramatic shift in prices in the city, but there are a lot of factors that make up the value of a house.”

Contrary to reports, the old house can be a winning proposition. Adding value to a character home with infill might be harder, more time consuming and sometimes more costly in the short run, but there are other benefits.

The Beaddies increased the value of their 1938 house a couple of years ago by adding a laneway house. They are long-time Vancouverites who inherited an old four-bedroom house at 1830 West 15th, just off Burrard. They already had a principal residence elsewhere, and they didn’t want to sell the house on West 15th and risk their tenants being evicted. So, they decided to build a laneway house on the lot in order to boost their income. They added a two-bedroom, 1,027 square-foot house that is now home to a young family. In the main house are tenants who’ve lived there for 12 years.

Instead of selling off the property, the Beaddies discovered that they could increase its value for the community and make it work for their pocketbook as well. As a result, the house is not only saved, but the property now offers housing for two families.

“It’s an income for us, now that we are retired,” says Mrs. Beaddie, who prefers not to give her first name. “And it also does provide housing, and we try to maintain the houses and be good landlords. If you have property, you have to take care of it, and do the best you can. And you have to provide housing where you can.”

It wasn’t an easy process, mind you. Mrs. Beaddie says there were several headaches, including the fact that they couldn’t install double-glazed windows on the main house, in keeping with the character. That meant expensive storm windows had to suffice.

But asked if she’d go to the bother again, she responds, “Oh yes. I would recommend it.”

The city’s attempt to protect character houses is commendable, albeit far from perfect. It doesn’t make sense that only houses built prior to 1940 are protected, for example, when there are many great architectural designs from the 1950s, 1960s and yes, even the 1970s.

As well, the only way to protect what’s left of the historical housing is to offer bigger incentives to boost their value. When square footage is at such an all-time premium, it’s essential that the old houses become so valuable that the development community is motivated to work with them. That’s the only way they’ll survive.

Laneway housing builder Jake Fry proposes zoning that would allow for laneway strata-titled homes that could be sold off. Such zoning has been used in Kitsilano in years past.

“Those houses are intact and more valuable because they are beautiful and old and had other value components. So it’s in everyone’s interest,” he says.

“The city needs to be credited for taking a step in the right direction. [The new plan] hasn’t been negative. It’s been neutral. But my personal feeling is it should be more rigorous in preserving what’s left of the character stock, by using bigger enticements.”

Rick Michaels, former assistant director in development services for the city, agrees that the current policy isn’t incentive enough to boost the dollar value of character homes. He says the builders and architects are turned off by the many codes and requirements they have to fulfill in order to retain an old house in exchange for more floor space.

“We can do better than the laneway house,” says Mr. Michaels, who is now a development consultant. “Put three units on the site, stratify them and look at different forms of home ownership. It may not impact the market. I don’t know. But you need to go there. There’s no choice in the matter. There has to be a reward there.

“It doesn’t punish the existing neighbourhood by its form and massing and density. It does the exact opposite. It builds the community rather than making it a bunch of strangers or whatever.”

As well, the added density will offer housing for retirees who want to stay in their community.

“That’s a healthy attribute, and it’s needed. They’ve got their doctor in the neighbourhood, family and friends, shopping. They want to stay but want less of an entity.

“You could do that in all of the small density areas.”

From Kerry Gold, Special to The Globe and Mail

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