Is it time for Vancouver to allow more micro-lofts?
We spoke with Jon Stovell, one of the city's leading figures on urban development and real estate
July 13, 2016
They’re adored by some, maligned by others, and particularly popular in Gastown. With some measuring a mere 220 sq. ft., micro-lofts present a way of living that, while normal in locales worldwide, is seen by some as less than ideal—and a symptom of Vancouver’s affordability problems. Jon Stovell, the president and CEO of Reliance Properties and the recently-appointed chair of the Urban Development Institute, is leading the charge in Vancouver on more micro-loft-based developments in the city. Van Mag caught up with him to discuss micro-lofts, building higher and working with established communities and city hall.
Since becoming chair of the UDI, how has your experience been?
It’s happened at a time when the housing market is absolutely front and centre in the public consciousness. All levels of government are focused on the region’s housing market and what solutions can be brought forward on the affordability issue. Being involved in one of the province’s largest industries and the chair of the organization representing over 600 developers, which are building 90 percent of the multi-family housing in the region—it’s quite a spot to be in right now.
You’ve referred to Vancouver’s housing policies as “glacial.” what is being done to positively change that?
Well, not that much. Our perspective is that supply—lack thereof—is what’s creating the problem with affordability. The dynamic of neighbourhood planning in Vancouver is making it extremely difficult for municipal politicians to do what they know is the right thing, which is to approve a lot more housing.
Is there just too much red tape to wade through?
Well, they have their own red tape, which is horrendous and very high cost. Equally important: I think it’s very difficult for municipal politicians who are elected on very low voter turnout to do the right thing, because they face significant blowback from neighbourhoods that want both affordability and no change at the same time. [The voters] should turn out, and by the same token the politicians are nervous because low voter turnout means a small interest group—or a small agitator group—in a neighbourhood can affect their political outcomes.
It’s a harsh term, but do you think it’s a bit selfish of some people?
I think thats exactly the right term. It is selfish. In San Francisco, there’s this huge YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement, where younger generations—millennials—are saying I’m tired of everything that’s getting done in the neighbourhood getting stopped by vested interests. What UDI has been advocating very strongly—we’re hopefully going to be an advisory to a new collaborative group of the prime minister, the province, and the city—is that senior levels of government (whether it’s federal, provincial, or both) need to give municipalities mandatory growth targets. This is so the municipalities have the moral authority to do what they know is the right thing. It’s a societal-wide change that would come from a higher level of government.
There’s this really great experiment that’s been done with community groups before and it sounds kind of trite, but it actually works. They get a large map of an area of that community, put it on a giant table and dump a whole bunch of building blocks onto the table. You say, each of those building blocks represents, 10 people, or 20 people. You’ve got to put them all on the map. They first pile them up and then go, oh, they’re too high, and then they spread them all out over the map, to which they say, you eliminated too many other houses. They start over again, and eventually they end up with an arrangement of blocks they’re happy with. The point being, you have to land the blocks on the map. That’s whats missing now in [Vancouver’s] planning. We don’t go out to communities and say, “We need you to grow, let’s talk about how we’re going to do it.” What happens usually is we go out to communities and say, “How do you want your community to change?” And they say, rightfully, “Not at all, thanks.”
Something that’s much-discussed recently in Vancouver is the micro-loft idea. Could you tell me a little bit more about your desire to expand the availability of those in Vancouver?
We see this as absolutely essential. There’s a thing I call bottom rung on the ladder, for both rental housing and home ownership, where the bottom rung is now too high for so many people. There’s this incredible demand for a type of home that simply doesn’t exist. We did [the micro-lofts] in Vancouver with a property called The Burns Block. We were only able to build 30 units—it was kind of a loophole within the ethereal bylaw [that] we were able to take a previously gutted, single room occupancy hotel and turn it into micro-lofts. It was a huge success; we rented it in a week on Craigslist, without even having to spend any money on marketing. It’s had a waiting list ever since. The suites range from 220 to 290 sq.ft. They’re beautifully designed with built-in wall beds and all the amenities already included.
So in Vancouver, if another opportunity like the Burns Block came up, are you not allowed to sell those, you’re only allowed to rent them?
Right. So we have another application in as part of our Burrard Place project, but you cannot sell a unit in the city of Vancouver that is below 398 sq. ft. The suites bought for micro-lofts are about 300 sq. ft. You also cannot build a rental apartment in Vancouver below 320 sq. ft., so we’ve been railing at the city for three years about changing this regulation, and so far they haven’t budged. There’s very limited circumstances in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside where you can do micro-lofts. You can only have so many. It has to be in conjunction with all these other things, such as still leaving affordable SRO-style housing. While that’s been happening, and while we’ve not been developing micro-lofts in Vancouver, we’ve just sold out a micro-loft tower in Surrey, right on central city plaza. We have 398 units in the building, 300 of them are micro-suites. They’ve all sold out now, almost without any parking.
So you’re allowed to sell units such as those within Surrey?
Surrey does not have a minimum unit size. Victoria does not have a minimum unit size. Micro-lofts are happening in Toronto, Montreal, and all across the United States, yet in Vancouver with its incredible housing affordability problem, [the city is] resisting us.
Who do you see being most interested in micro-lofts thus far?
It really is that 23-to-33-year-old cohort, people who are still very active socially, probably single, or at least don’t have kids yet. They’re working like mad, establishing their careers, and spending much of their time out and about. The principle of a micro-loft is called “trading space for place.” It’s all about a work-life balance and having a very livable but less financially onerous home in a great location where you can tie into the free amenities that are in the city. We have another saying for micro-lofts: “a 300-sq.-ft. home with a 3-million-sq.-ft. living room.” Your living room is the city. It’s like when you’re travelling, and you have a home base. But to mitigate that, we also have these amazing amenities in the building like multiple bookable dining rooms, rooftop decks, study areas, gyms, social rooms, and outdoor spaces.
Do you see micro-lofts really being a viable option for families with children?
Absolutely. Our project in Surrey called Prime on the Plaza is not just micro-studios—we have “micro 2s” and “micro 3s.” A micro loft is a single room with a wall bed. A micro 2 has a sliding door system that create two separate sleeping partitions while still leaving the kitchen and bathroom accessible to both rooms. A micro 3 has two enclosed rooms using sliding doors, as well as 1 dedicated bedroom with conventional drywall walls, and a solid door. All 3 bedrooms can access the kitchen and the bathrooms. That would be ideal for a young family. Also, in a micro 2, when you aren’t sleeping, the doors completely retract—and now you’ve got a giant living area as big as a living area in a lot of single-family homes. So we’re really into that modality and pushing the design envelope. We’ve done a lot of research, analysis, and studying of how to perfect this mode of housing.
So what is the issue in Vancouver with that then?
In my UDI forecast presentation I made earlier in the year before I came in as chair, I basically said we have to burn the policy book—we’ve got all these calcified, conflicting regulations that have built up over the years. When you get a regulatory collision, as they call it, they don’t know which regulation is more important, so they go, “Oh, I guess you can’t do anything.”
Let’s develop a more mature attitude about our future. Also, we need to physically grow up. Our Burrard Place project is a 550-foot building, the third tallest in the city—it’s under construction right now. I had said that we should be routinely building towers in downtown Vancouver that are 750 feet, or higher, especially if we can commit to putting rental housing in them. In my view, Vancouver is being overly cautious toward this type of development.