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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

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From hyperloops to hailing rides:

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This is just the start of Justin McElroy’s puff piece for the CBC on Railvolution.

I am not going to be dragged off topic by venting on hyperloop or ride hailing. What triggered me was the reference to the lack of affordable housing – as though the lack of it was somehow the fault of transportation planning or unique to Vancouver. Indeed I do not understand why mainstream journalists continue to play around with the issue without placing the blame squarely where it should go.

Canada used to do affordable housing quite well. Though the word “affordable” is rather more recent. Back then it was pretty much accepted in the advanced western countries that the housing market did not work at all well for people on limited incomes and no wealthy background to help out. Housing the poor was regarded as an obligation that had to be accepted by government to avoid the sort of problems described by Dickens and Victor Hugo. Slums were always a feature of industrial landscapes – and for much of the nineteenth century seemed to be regarded as an unfortunate necessity. Until some manufacturers with social consciences – or religious obligations – started building decent homes for their employees. The quakers who ran most of the confectionary companies stand out in my mind – Cadbury and Rowntree. In fact the Rowntree Trust is still in the same business in the UK now.

In Canada the federal government funded public housing – up until the Jean Chretien administration when Paul Martin became Finance Minister and began the change to neoliberal – monetarist policies that cut back public spending on the poor in favour of tax breaks for the rich. This was pretty much the same policy that Thatcher had adopted in the UK – she forced the sale of the best council housing to the tenants in the stated conviction that it would convert them to Conservative voters.

While I am not saying there were no housing issues prior to this point, what is indisputable is that provincial and local governments have had a hard time since federal support for housing was withdrawn. And it is also noticeable that other publicly supported tenures such as co-ops have also been having a hard time.

Of course Vancouver is not alone in “experiencing challenges around affordability”. It has been made worse by the previous BC Liberal government turning a blind eye to money laundering. Vancouver was already a favoured destination for wealthy immigrants – again due to the federal policies that promoted the business class.

“municipalities across the region have faced pressure to keep land around transit-oriented developments affordable for those that need transit most” is really one of the silliest ways of looking at the issue. Municipalities can determine zoning: that is about the extent of it. Arguably, places that continued to stick to single family zoning for much of their territory did a lot to price people out. But then the places that did see development weren’t exactly cheap either.

The region had a strategy to limit sprawl, but that was blown out of the water – once again the BC Liberals decided to invest in highway expansion which far exceeded anything that was spent on transit in the same period. The Olympics were designed not just to attract visitors to a sports festival but to blow a hole in the regional strategies of Greater Vancouver and Squamish-Lillooet and encourage housing development and car commuting along the expanded Sea to Sky Highway. Jack Poole was a developer first and foremost.

So the combination of Hayekian fiscal measures federally and reckless mismanagement provincially is more than enough to explain why decent housing close to jobs has become so hard to find here. What is less acceptable is that having a so called “progressive” governments at both levels in recent years has not seen anything like an adequate response to the need for effective housing policies. It is not as if there is a shortage of resources. When governments find it possible to buy an oil pipeline and building the boondoggle Site C, they have no credibility at all when they plead poverty as a defense of inadequate social policies – where housing ought to have a much higher priority. And during a climate emergency when investing in tar sands and fracking should be anathema.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2019 at 2:37 pm

Book Review: “Reimagining Our Tomorrows”

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Making Sure Your Future Doesn’t Suck

by Joe Tankersley

Published by Unique Visions Inc ISBN 978 1 7326281 2 0  US$10.99 paperback

“Futurist Joe Tankersley explores a world where technology is used for good and we have the resources to build communities that care.”

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I have been doing quite a few book reviews lately but they have not really been particularly relevant to the purpose of this blog. So they have been appearing on my other blog which deals with anything outside of the scope of “Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves.” This blog reaches a wider audience that includes people interested in planning and urbanism, as well as the direction in which we are moving thanks to rapid technological change and the need to change where we get our energy from.

It is also necessary for all of us to take some time out from the terrible news we see every day. Terrible isn’t just the appalling toll of deaths and injuries on our transportation system and our seeming inability – or unwillingness – to take that seriously. Or the choices we still seem to be making at the ballot box that produce very little real change. Or the bleak prospects facing Ontario, the US and the UK thanks to their short sightedness. We need a source of hope. And hopefully some direction. This book is not really intended for me. I cannot claim to be “an experienced changemaker trying to keep up with the pace of disruption”. But I do hope that some of you reading this are “doers and dreamers anxious to ensure our best days are still ahead of us”. And I would not have started writing this blog in the first place if I did not think that we need to change direction and that there are already lots of examples of places that seem to be managing better than we are.

Tankersley used to work for Disney. And he learned a lot there about the value of storytelling and of how to think positively about the future. It doesn’t matter much if he is “right”. What matters is that he offers an alternative view to the “present trends will continue” narrative that seems to dominate our main stream media and professional planners. It is not inevitable that we will remain wedded to fossil fuels, and internal combustion engine cars. It is also not necessary that we keep on doing what we always have done and expecting a better outcome.

Reading this book was not effortful. That seems to me to be a Good Start. It also doesn’t stir in me the need to argue. (Unlike what happens whenever I post something to Twitter or Facebook  and get blow back from people I neither know or indeed want to.) Just one small quibble if I may, which I hope gets picked up in the next edition.

the village wasn’t self-reliant when it came to just seafood [the rest of the paragraph is about growing vegetables]

p131 ‘Reimagining sustainability’

What he meant was that the village wasn’t just self-reliant for seafood, it was also better than that for growing food in general and (by the way) energy production.

And the quibble is simply a matter of word sequence affecting meaning. It probably made sense to him when he said it – but on the page the sense is reversed.

I think that is about the only thing I felt the need to quote.

The book also has two pages of book references, and a page of online links – followed by the “Help Me Spread Optimistic Futures” page – from which I learned that the book is self published (linked above) and there is a Facebook page.

I hope that at least some of you will find something inspiring in these pages. The idea of finding new uses for McMansions and suburban malls is indeed not just encouraging but spot on, and something our planners need to embrace wholeheartedly. There is even a paean for a future design of cargobike which I know will appeal to some of you.

 

Written by Stephen Rees

November 3, 2018 at 3:02 pm

Short term rental

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Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 11.58.19 AM

This blog post is cobbled together from facebook postings prompted by recent events: I had been seeking assistance there but it turned out with a bit of luck and my very own Miss Marple we were able to track things down.

Context

Short term rentals have exploded everywhere. There have always been short terms lets for tourists – holiday cottages, flats and bed and breakfasts all offering furnished accomodation as a cheaper alternative to hotels and with more or less service. We have all (I suspect) used them. The internet changed how we booked them. We no longer buy a copy of a magazine like The Lady (which used to have lots of holiday lets in its small ads over the winter) we go to a website like Craigslist, or one of the growing number of specialists sites and apps of which airbnb maybe the best known but there are lots of others. In Vancouver, many advocates for increasing the supply of rental housing have been pointing to the explosion of these services as one of the reasons that rents are high and vacancy rates near zero. The revenue from these short term rentals is a lot higher than a long term tenancy.

The City of Vancouver “enacted a new bylaw that permits Vancouver residents to operate short-term rentals in their principal residence for stays of less than 30 days” starting April 19 this year. “Secondary suites can be operated as a short-term rental by an owner if it is their principal residence” but they need a business license.

A Series of Events

There are over 80 suites in our building and there has been a fairly high rate of turnover. We also see plenty of care aids coming to visit their clients.  We try to get to know our neighbours. We also have a common laundry.  There are of course rules about how these facilities are shared. There is a system of reservation of laundry times – and one of the things that has changed recently is the number of times people have been in the laundry having the machines explained to them. Whenever we ask who these people are they usually are said to be relatives of the owner. One or two owners seem to have a lot of visitors.

One day we met a very pleasant young man in the elevator going down to the laundry. We asked him when he had moved into the building and he explained that he was in a short term rental. He said he was only here for three days prior to going on a cruise to Alaska. Miss Marple observed him going into a newly renovated unit – one we had been into on an “open house” event. At that time it had its own, newly installed washer and dryer.

Every strata has bylaws. Bylaw 14 in ours is pretty straightforward

No strata lots may be rented or leased

It goes on to set out a few exceptions but none cover short term rentals or operating a bed and breakfast out of your suite.

 

We did a quick scan of the airbnb web page looking for something in our vicinity, but found nothing. Then a couple of days later, there was some undelivered mail on the shelf by our mailboxes. Two envelopes – both addressed to the suite in question and from Booking.com in Amsterdam. There was no name of the addressee but a company “Royal Crown” on one “Royal Crown & Suite” on the other. Miss Marple did a Google search and there it is – not on Booking.com but airbnb. I have taken screen shots, so let me know if that link doesn’t work in the comments, and I will add them here.

I looked at the information and saw what appeared to be a business licence number. The City has the data on business licenses available as spreadsheets you can search. I established that the number quoted referred to two people I do not know and an address of a suite on Howe Street.

So I used the VanConnect app to report what we had learned to the City. Apparently many people are disappointed with the lack of action by the City on this issue and there is also now a Twitter account that is increasing the pressure (hat tip to Sean Orr for that link). You can also go to this report an issue page on the City’s site.

I also joined up for airbnb and tried to send the owner of the unit a message. That wasn’t possible since there was not a single date I could book the unit. This seemed a bit odd to me, so I reported that to Airbnb Support.

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The response time “may vary” is a flat lie. They just don’t want to communicate any more with me. There is, of course, no other way to communicate with them. I have never used airbnb – and now I don’t think I ever will.

Action

I don’t expect the Strata Council or the Building Manager to act as though this were an emergency. I do think that it may offer us a way of increasing the strata revenue since the by law also identifies a fine

(b) if the rental continues beyond the provisions of the Residential Tenancy Act, levy a fine of $500 every 7 days of prolonged occupancy, such fine to be added to the monthly assessment of the owner;

Now I also think that we probably need to add some wording at this point to cover the short term issue. The fines are now much greater than $500 for seven days for non-compliant short term rentals. Just by looking at the 8 reviews for September alone on this one suite – and taking them at face value – there is some revenue due. The Property Manager seems a bit hung up on the Residential Tenancy bit so we may need a General Meeting to resolve that.

The City could fine the owner $1,000 a day for as long he stays in business: the bogus business license should act as a trigger. Hopefully we will hear a bit more in due course and if we do I will update this post.

There is also the really useful Condominium Home Owners’ Association of BC. They have a number of bulletins on short term rentals – these are pdf documents to download listed here: look in the index under “rentals” for “short term rentals”.

By the way, since I joined airbnb I have now submitted a complaint using their online form, and got this response

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The City has now responded to my complaint using the VanConnect app: the status is “In Progress”. The City has also responded to my partner – just acknowledging receipt of the complaint. The building manager says that he has spoken to the owner. However, the listing is still on airbnb complete with the bogus business license number. (Last checked October 11, 2018)

 

 

 

Written by Stephen Rees

September 29, 2018 at 12:19 pm

Posted in housing, Vancouver

Tagged with

Houses

with 5 comments

 

The illustration below was drawn by Raymond Briggs. It shows a typical British terraced house, of the type built between 1880 and 1914. The reason I have that on my hard drive is that it was used in a discussion on twitter about the way to increase density in  Vancouver.
Raymond Briggs Terrace house

Originally I wanted to point to Briggs illustration of the home where Father Christmas lives but this was the nearest I could get to it. Note that very little has changed about the houses – the most obvious one being the car that is parked outside each one.

R Briggs FC houses

I was born in a house like this in East Ham. So I know exactly what happened as these houses aged. They were steadily modernised. When my parents bought their house in 1948 it was pretty much in the same state as when it was constructed fifty years earlier. There was an outside toilet, water was heated in a geyser over the sink for daily use, and in a gas “copper” for bath nights and laundry. In the 1950s they got a local authority grant to put in a bathroom (they halved the back bedroom to get the necessary space) and installed a solid fuel boiler in the kitchen to heat the water.

There was some discussion in later years of getting gas fired central heating, but the death of my grandmother meant that the family could sell two houses in East Ham and buy a larger, newer one in Loughton. We joined the exodus from East Ham while I was at university. The local population there now is largely from the Indian subcontinent.

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The houses continued to be modernised. Compare this current Google streetview to the one below. The original double hung sash windows in wooden frames were replaced by double glazing in modern plastic frames before 2008. No doubt the loft was insulated at that time too. It is also notable that the next door neighbours did the same things to their houses. More recently, the windows have again been replaced, this time with glazing bars closer to the original design but an enclosed porch has now been added, and the decorative masonry mullions have vanished. The house number is once again etched into the window over the front door – just as Briggs illustrates.  The grey French slates on the roof have been replaced by concrete tiles.

But don’t forget I have done this before but amazingly WordPress doesn’t provide me access to images before 2017. This dates from 2008

“Actually the vast majority of London terraces are two storeys. Most were built between 1880 and 1914 and have two distinctive features: the narrow frontage to reduce liability to property tax (then determined by length of street frontage) and designed to meet the specifications of the 1880 Public Health Act. ”

What prompts me to write this is that the building we live is now being studied for potential replacement. It is 44 years old. The windows need replacement as the heavy wind driven rain now gets inside – and some of the sliding doors to the (now enclosed) balconies no longer close properly. The roof needs replacing again and the drains are giving rise for concern. Our flower beds look more like ponds right now.

In this neighbourhood it is not unusual for houses much newer than that to be demolished and replaced by larger, lot filling houses. Unless there is a laneway house, or legal secondary suite, the population density does not change. In fact this census tract lost population in the last ten years.

We do not seem to value buildings here. They are regarded as disposable. Even the ones we declare as “heritage” are not guaranteed a longer life, nor are they preserved but will continue to be “brought up to code” with each generation. And we will certainly not consider how existing buildings could be maintained and repurposed – even though there are plenty of good examples of how that can be done. But we might well convert a few surplus shipping containers into living space for the marginalised.

POSTSCRIPT  This is not to suggest that Britain does not pull down fairly recently built  multifamily buildings

Bacton Low Rise Estate`Demolished

Bacton Low Rise Estate Demolished picture by Roll The Dice on flickr

“With Camden council as client and developer, they retain any value generated from the sale of the units which is then reinvested back into social capital, with no developer cut.” A model which ought to be adopted here, I think.

Story here

 

 

Written by Stephen Rees

January 30, 2018 at 1:14 pm

Posted in housing

Growing Smarter

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growing-smarter-webThis is the title of a new report. Actually the title is longer than that but I like to be snappy when I can. The publisher adds “Integrating Land Use and Transportation to Reduce GHGs” which you may be sure is right up my alley.

Two things before I go further. This report was published on September 27, and I have only just learned of it. I thought I had spent quite a bit of effort making sure that I kept on top of this topic since it is specifically addressing BC. It was not until today that I saw a tweet from Charlie Smith which linked to an article in the Georgia Straight by Carlito Pablo.

Secondly, the report was commissioned by The Real Estate Foundation of BC. Now my association with Real Estate in BC had lead me to create a mental link between realtors and the BC Liberals. During the campaign against the expansion of Highway #1 there were credible sources saying that the then Minister of Transport, Kevin Falcon, was holding fundraising breakfasts for the realtors in this region and the Fraser Valley and promising that highway expansion would enable them to continue to build and sell single family homes. As opposed to the denser forms of development that tended to support transit. The implication being that RS1 supports right wing voters.

The other important thing to note is that you do not have to rely on my opinion or that of Carlito Pablo. You can download the full report for yourself from the link above.

But I am going to copy here the list of recommendations

Recommendations include:

  1. Bolster regional government authority and integrate transportation planning with land use in ways that support climate action.
  2. Strengthen the Agricultural Land Commission’s authority to protect farmland and limit non-agricultural use of protected land.
  3. Strengthen coordination amongst key agencies, ministries, and orders of government and support collaboration through the Climate Action Secretariat and the Local-Provincial Green Communities Committee.
  4. Use market-based tools to more fairly share the costs of transportation infrastructure and expand transportation choice.
  5. Update tax and fee structures to support sustainable financing of civic infrastructure.
  6. Help establish a Low Carbon Innovation Centre in the Lower Mainland.
  7. Create long-term transportation financing agreements between local, provincial, and federal governments.
  8. Update community GHG reduction target requirements and provide provincial support to help meet these requirements.
  9. Establish GHG impact assessment standards for local and provincial transportation projects and planning agendas.
  10. Reinvest in BC’s Community Energy and Emissions Inventory (CEEI) system to provide defensible transportation sector data.

The report was commissioned by the Real Estate Foundation of BC as part of its research on sustainable built environments in British Columbia. The report was prepared by Boston Consulting, in consultation with the Smart Growth Task Force, with contributions from MODUS Planning, Design and Engage

This all looks very promising, and I am going to download it myself before I type anything else.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 5, 2017 at 2:46 pm

MoV Das Wiener Modell

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At the Museum of Vancouver  in association with Urbanarium, an exhibition about the extensive social housing provision in Vienna, which started with the collapse of the Hapsburg empire after WWI and continues to this day.

The Vienna Model exhibition, curated by Wolfgang Förster and William Menkins, explores housing in Vienna, Austria, through its portrait of the city’s pathbreaking approach to architecture, urban life, neighborhood revitalization, and the creation of new communities.

Vancouver is consistently ranked alongside the Vienna as one of the world’s most livable cities. Vienna has a stable housing market, with 60% of the population living in municipally built, owned, or managed housing. By comparison, Vancouver is undergoing a housing crisis. Vienna’s housing history and policies provides alternative approaches for British Columbia.

As Vancouver embarks upon a community engagement process revolving around housing, The Vienna Model expands discussion about urban planning options and encourages dialogue and debate on the future of the city.

In addition to its investigation of design that is focused on community, Vancouver- and Vienna-based artists and cultural researchers Sabine Bitter and Helmut Weber have selected art projects and public works that reflect Vienna housing into a broader context. These are included in the exhibition and illustrated catalogue.

 

Comparisons

MoV  Das Wiener Modell

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Housing and Transportation

Most the exhibition is about housing and how to make it available to people who cannot afford to buy their own home. There did not seem to be a great deal of emphasis on transportation but I did find this

MoV Das Wiener Modell

“Built as part of Vienna’s efforts to encourage the use of bicycles, it reduced car parking to 50% of the usual requirement (one spot per apartment), replacing it with more attractive and transparent bike storage rooms on the ground floor, a bike repair centre, and large elevators for tenants who want to take their bicycles up to their apartments. Situated… next to a subway station and the city’s bike network.”

MoV Das Wiener Modell

The best transportation plan is a good land use plan and this one does well by putting places that people want to visit close at hand. This obviously reduces car use but apparently they still need underground parking.

MoV Das Wiener Modell

This picture makes it clearer that the external wall is merely a facade enclosing more conventional buildings

MoV Das Wiener Modell

This is about Seestadt Aspern one of the newest developments – I think you can read the bit about public transportation without me copying the text. Let me know if this doesn’t work on your phone.

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Looks a bit grim to me – sort of Cuban – but maybe it will be better once it’s finished and populated

MoV Das Wiener Modell

Apparently most people here (93%) favoured the Vienna approach until there was a debate which turned quite a few against it (video). But there was still a 81% favourable!

The most frequent mode of discussion in the main stream seems to focus around markets – supply and demand – amid much frustration that simply building more doesn’t affect demand when there is a seemingly limitless amount of money available to buy real estate as an investment (as opposed to somewhere to live). Lost in this is the history of Canada has something of a leader in housing provision – back when we still believed that government can sometimes do things right. Public housing provision does and can make sense. But I do think that having a split between planners who do housing and planners who do transportation will simply repeat the same errors once again – the dangerous “projects” (US), the soulless “council estates” (UK) . So mixed use – not poverty ghettos – and lots of amenities within easy reach – as well as jobs and homes next to each other. A bit like cities were before planning – but without the health hazards!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 6:43 pm

We have been changing

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censusSFhomes

This graph appeared on my flickr stream today. I was surprised, both by the relative position of Metro Vancouver compared to the other Canadian metro areas, and the steepness of the decline. I do not usually get into the land use, density, urban design stuff but what I see from other blogs and discussions had given me the sense that somehow we were losing the battle against sprawl. I know that people are quite rightly concerned about large houses in the ALR – that people in Richmond now refer to as AirBnB hotels – and that so much recent development seems to have followed the freeway expansions into areas which were not identified as of the Growth Concentration Area identified in the LRSP. But what this graph shows is that the conventional single family home on its own lot – or one that shares a lot – is no longer the dominant form of the region. And that we are outperforming both Montreal and Toronto in delivering other types of residence.

This is indeed good news, and a strong indication of why we not only need more and better transit, but that it will be successful because we have the density to support it. This also seem to be the subtext of a lot of commentary I have been seeing about why the BC Liberals did so poorly in this region. That includes, of course Peter Fasbender (former Minister for Translink) losing his seat (Surrey-Fleetwood).

And the source for this graph (Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto) was new to me too.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 13, 2017 at 5:10 pm