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Letter: Why 'pre-approved designs' are not a housing solution

Why not? This letter writer has 11 reasons.
City hall - Nov. 2021
Pre-approved housing designs aren't New Westminster's answer for the housing crisis, this letter writer says. He has 11 reasons why.


At the last council meeting, Coun. Daniel Fontaine presented a motion that would allow the city planning department to develop a catalog of "pre-approved" single-family, duplex and laneway houses.

Coun. Tasha Henderson did a very good job outlining the myriad of logistical complications this would involve. I'd like to add some reasons, related to the housing supply process, why the proposal was lacking an understanding of not only how the city works, but also how the housing industry works and the nature of the housing crisis.

  • 1 — There are already standardized house designs.

Most detached housing is built on spec by contractors. To reduce their costs, they reuse the designs over and over again. You can drive down almost any street and see the same house repeatedly. The building departments are already familiar with those.

This is actually how most of neighbourhoods like Queen's Park were built. A small developer would build kit houses bought from magazines like Sears.

Repetition is human nature. It is already happening. This is nothing new and certainly not the job of city staff.

  • 2 — The prescriptive nature of the laneway house design guidelines already limit design variability and leave very little area to deviate from the standard.

Again, this is a reason why they all look similar. There is no need or ability to standardize the form.

  • 3 — The current housing crisis is not related to detached houses, duplexes, or laneways. The crisis is related to there not being enough secured rental and more "affordable" condos.

A main reason why there are not a lot of laneways is because they cost in the area of $300,000 to $400,000 to build.

This means that rental prices for these are out of range for most people and most laneways are built for extended family.

At best, laneways cater to affluent families who have children leaving the nest.

They do not provide a measurable benefit in this housing crisis.

  • 4 — In most cases, delays for laneway permits is in the requirement for development permits.

This arduous task involves many layers of process. One of the most arduous aspects of this is the public consultation and public hearing process.

Especially when the permits involve subdivisions and heritage revitalization agreements (HRAs). We have seen hours of staff time being wasted in public hearings because a few Queen's Park residents don't want more people in their neighbourhood.

So, the issue is more of the overall, province-mandated process, not in the standardization or complexity of the project.

  • 5 — With average land prices in New West above $1M, and the desire by developers to maximize floor space ratio (FSR), the construction costs of most houses are in the area of $800K.

Therefore, new single family houses are well into the $2 million range. This is not an area of crisis.

In addition, if a house built is not on spec, those types of owners will not want a cookie-cutter design. If they do, they will go to the contractor who did one they like and they will use their own template.

  • 6 — Designs by architects and designers are covered under copyright protection.

Even though a client commissions the building, the design authorship and copyright belongs to the designer/architect.

For this reason, you will not get professionals submitting designs for free. Reusing designs would require a complicated legal and financial relationship with the city. This is an added cost and layer to an already complex and stretched system.

While rarely does anyone challenge this in single-family houses, this is because 99% of detached housing is already standardized and repetitive.

  • 7— For all the same reasons that single-family houses aren't affordable, duplexes and short-run townhouses are the same.

There aren't many small townhouse and duplex projects because the available FSR and unit limits make them an almost impossible form to finance. There is just no return on investment.

The only way to fix that is to change the OCP and the zoning bylaws, and that is not what Fontaine's motion proposed.

  • 8 — Some will argue that every new single-family house has a secondary suite and laneway so they are providing rental housing. Again, this is a relatively small number of the amount of rental needed.

Also, more importantly, these are not secured rentals. This means that tenants have little protection.

In addition, basement suites present a problem in that most owners don't register them, pay the licence fees, and have fire department inspections. Currently there are not enough city staff and ability to monitor and enforce this.

  • 9 — New Westminster has been a leader in sustainability objectives. As detached housing is the least sustainable form of housing, New West should not be promoting building them.

Without discussing all the other ways they are not good for the environment, the majority of landfill construction waste comes from single-family houses.

In the same meeting, the New West Progressives argued not to demolish the Canada Games rec centre because of sustainability reasons; they should be even more upset about the daily demolition of single-family houses. Especially if their motion is promoting tearing existing houses down.

  • 10 — Building single family housing is a zero sum game. It doesn't provide housing.

True, it might make an illegal suite into a legal one; no new housing has been created. In that case, remember that there were tenants evicted to build that new unit.

Again, as New West leads in housing protection and production; detached houses are counter to that.

  • 11 — Detached housing permits, apart from the financially disastrous laneways, are already relatively fast, while multi-family permits languish for years in the quagmire of the planning department.

One of the reasons for that is because staff are spending time on detached permits.

One way to speed up the development of affordable housing that would ease the housing crisis would be a moratorium on laneways, single-family and duplex permits. Take these costly wastes of time off the board so staff can focus on the important work.

It's completely understandable that Fontaine does not understand how city planning and building departments work and how housing supply works. For this reason, it might make sense for him to take some time to learn about his new job, how the city works and how things are a lot more complicated than simply pulling out the Sears catalog and ordering another Plan No. 31.

Robert G. Billard