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Aug. 7, 2022

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Vancouver mulls code changes to address housing shortage

Council’s proposals slammed for lack of equity perspective

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

As Vancouver’s population grows and its affordable residential stock remains slim, city staff continue to discuss what government can do, and residents share their concerns.

The Vancouver City Council reviewed ordinances Monday outlining proposed zoning code updates, followed by a public hearing – a gradual move in tackling its housing crisis. The city is considering modifications to nine local standards and codes. They address density, middle housing, building incentives and adjusted building standards.

The council’s favored ordinance, which will be scheduled for a second reading, included a recommendation from the Planning Commission to limit micro-housing. Specifically, the committee noted that tiny home developments should not be eligible for a new affordable housing density bonus, which applies to projects for households earning up to 80 percent of the area median income.

Under the city’s density bonus, there can be a 50 percent increase in single-family districts and 100 percent in multifamily districts. This is a broadened version of Washington’s mandated bonus for affordable housing owned or controlled by faith-based organizations. It would also limit the type of structure or building heights that could be built in these areas; for example, an apartment development would be prohibited in single-family districts.

Community concerns, council input

During the public hearing, Siobhana McEwen, Council for the Homeless’ equity and advocacy director, said the proposed changes lacked perspective through an equity lens, especially as it relates to micro-housing and the city’s Multifamily Tax Exemption tool. She said the quality of lower-cost homes is often “skirted or decreased” so developers can gain a guaranteed profit, which can be dehumanizing for its low- and middle-income residents.

“Poor people, people of color (and) people with disabilities do not need a lower standard of living codified into city planning in order to make housing and homeownership accessible,” McEwen said.

Chris Dickinson of Vancouver shared her concern about short-term rentals, such as those operated through Airbnb, emerging from increased middle housing stock. She urged the council to consider implementing moratoriums and concise language to codes to prevent short-term rentals from consuming the community’s affordable housing.

“Despite desperately needing more housing, we have been neglectful in taking steps to prevent these new forms of housing from simply becoming more short-term rentals,” she said.

Margaret Milem of Vancouver requested future clarity regarding where data is sourced, as “national statistics do not always match local conditions.”

All council members were supportive of the ordinance that excludes micro-housing from being eligible for an affordable housing density bonus rather than the secondary ordinance that permitted it. However, Councilor Sarah Fox said the community’s housing demand could be tackled with more micro-housing density.

“There’s a housing crisis and we need more units,” she said.

Councilor Diana Perez said city staff are moving in the right direction by addressing the “missing middle,” or housing types ranging from duplexes to courtyard buildings, with some reservations.

“I think we need to be looking at all spectrums of housing options for the different incomes we have, but we also need to look at where in the city we are placing and using the (Multifamily Tax Exemption) bonus,” she said.

There is a great intention, but the result may be less advantageous, Councilor Kim Harless said.

“I worry, like council member Perez mentioned, that the intention can be good, but the outcome be that folks (who) are the most vulnerable end up being the ones in the unit because … it might be the only option because it would be the most affordable,” she said.

Councilor Erik Paulsen shared his support for using the Multifamily Tax Exemption tool, stating it could be effective in expanding the city’s affordable options. Micro-housing is a part of the missing middle, he continued, and it is affordable by its nature. Paulsen suggested the council can add the exemption tool later if they find it necessary.

Eight of the zoning changes would permit the development of housing types that already exist in other local jurisdictions. State mandates required the city to adjust two codes that highlight specialty housing options and accommodations for households making less than the area median income.

By modifying zoning codes, the city is anticipating a growth of its less-expensive housing production and adding to its overall housing inventory. The goal also allows private markets to develop these types of options.

Change would unfold gradually to increase housing density and options, and ensuing development proposals will still be required to have at least one public hearing or review before being implemented.

The council meeting can be viewed on CVTV.org.

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