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Municipal Politics

The Landfill Is No Place for Vancouver's Character Homes

A disposable city doesn't do much for affordability, either.

Fiona Tinwei Lam 24 May

Fiona Tinwei Lam is a Vancouver author, editor, teacher and former lawyer.

Almost every day, I walk past the little white stucco house with its diamond-paned windows and octagonal turret topped with a weathervane on the corner of West 12th and Trafalgar, just around the corner from my home. The bright pink-painted walkways and stairs to the house's two entrances match the froth of cherry blossoms in the nearby trees in early spring. But the blossoms are gone now, as is the "For Sale" sign that was marked "Sold" very soon after it went up.

This house is one of the remaining unique older homes in our neighbourhood. My son and I keep hoping that the new owners -- hopefully an individual or family rather than a developer -- bought the house in order to restore it. But more realistically, we wonder if and when the telltale orange fencing will appear around the cherry trees on either side of the house, just as it has for many solid character houses all over town, houses that are not included on the city's heritage register (which has not been updated since 1985).

How long before this house's garden is bulldozed over, before this well-crafted home is crushed and dumped into the landfill, only to be replaced by an exorbitant generic substitute that maximizes square footage over green space?

The Globe and Mail recently quoted city statistics indicating that over 1,000 demolition permits were issued last year. According to Caroline Adderson, the creator of Vancouver Vanishes, a Facebook page documenting the loss of Vancouver character homes, an average of about 70 houses were demolished a month in Vancouver in 2013.

A few months earlier, another character home in our neighbourhood was demolished in a day. A haze of dust hovered over the site as a front-end loader shovelled the shattered wood into a dumpster. A 2011 City of Vancouver policy report on deconstruction states that demolishing a typical home creates 50 tonnes of waste, excluding the concrete foundation. According to another report prepared for the Greater Vancouver Sewerage and Drainage District, 55 per cent of waste arising from demolition, land-clearing and construction that goes to the two Metro Vancouver landfills comes from residential demolition. Wood represents the largest proportion of that waste by weight (54 per cent, with a total annual estimated weight of 150,823 tonnes).

One wonders how many of these perfectly livable houses have ended up in the municipal landfill, wasting valuable old growth timber, erasing all evidence of the craftsmanship of bygone eras. One also wonders about the fuel needed and greenhouse gasses emitted by all the bulldozers, loaders and trucks used in the demolition process, as well as the fuel and carbon emissions related to the manufacture and transport of new materials for construction. In addition, a total of almost 50,000 trees have been chopped down in Vancouver over the past 17 years, with an average of five big trees per day cut down last year primarily because of construction. How is this situation consistent with city hall's aims to make Vancouver the "greenest city in the world"?

Do as the Germans do?

It would seem that the greenest choice would be to retain and restore existing older buildings. Studies and reports in other jurisdictions facing the same issues can be instructive. A study published by the Institution of Civil Engineers in the United Kingdom in 2010 states "new homes use up to eight times more resources than an equivalent refurbishment. This is because most of the building mass and structural elements in an existing property are already there and only rarely need replacing.... Large-scale and accelerated demolition would neither help with meeting energy and climate change targets, nor would it address social needs. Refurbishment offers clear advantages in time, cost, community impact, prevention of building sprawl, reuse of existing infrastructure and protection of existing communities. It can also lead to significantly reduced energy use in buildings in both the short and long term."

The study points to various carbon dioxide reduction programs undertaken in Germany from 1996 to 2005 to rehabilitate older buildings in order to reduce their energy consumption. As a result of these programs, energy consumption was reduced by 80 per cent, with the renovated homes actually exceeding German new-build standards.

One of these pilot projects, the Zukunft Haus pilot program in 2003 to 2005, involved 915 homes in 34 blocks of apartments in western and eastern Germany that were in poor condition and mostly built before 1978. Measures included upgrading and installing energy efficiency measures such as insulation, high-quality glazed windows, efficient heating systems, solar collectors for water, heat recovery ventilation mechanisms, and wherever possible the addition of south-facing balconies and door porches. As a result of the program, the renovated older homes became twice as energy-efficient as the German new-build standard. "So clear was the evidence and so enthusiastic the uptake for these programs that the German government relaunched the carbon dioxide building rehabilitation programme in 2006. It now aims to bring all pre-1984 dwellings up to current German new-build standard by 2020. It was further extended to all building types in 2007."

The study also refers to the German government's system of grants, loans and tax incentives to expand the energy efficiency program to cover 17 million blocks of pre-1984 buildings (covering schools and public buildings, and including 30 million dwellings) as part of the country's aim to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent by 2020.

By following this kind of model, Vancouver and other North American jurisdictions could reap immense benefits not only from the creation of green jobs and the reduction of materials going to landfills, but also from significantly reduced energy use and carbon emissions. The key green principle of "reduce, recycle, reuse" bears repeating in a culture and society inundated with products fabricated to swiftly become obsolete. Vancouver's well-crafted character and heritage buildings were built to endure, not be discarded in the landfill before their time.

Harassed to sell

Despite the environmental benefits of retaining and renovating existing housing stock, the persistent demolition of Vancouver's character homes continues. Owners complain that soundly built character homes in Dunbar, Oakridge and Kerrisdale have been demolished swiftly for pure profit, without regard to neighbourhood character, history and community, only to be replaced by big expensive new homes that sit empty for over a year or more. According to the Vancouver Courier, some elderly residents in Marpole are being harassed by realtors urging them to sell their homes: "One resident said her 84-year-old mother has been called so often that she is afraid to answer the phone or the door."

The video above shows some of the solid pre-1940's Vancouver homes that have disappeared over the past few years. Credit: Vancouver Character House Network.

How does this situation accord with the city's persistent call for increased densification and the need for more affordable housing, or with its attempts to promote neighbourhood communities and decrease social alienation? And aren't the green goals of energy efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions undermined by the presence of these large new vacant houses that use up gas and electricity while no one is living in them?

As Kerry Gold of the Globe and Mail states, "It's as if the history of Vancouver is being sent to the scrap bin, a disposable city. The house that once stood has been torn down in exchange for a bigger, flashier house that won't be occupied by more people. In fact, many of the new houses stand vacant for several years, creating a ghost streetscape feel. If ecodensity is the city's goal, then sending solid houses to the landfill in exchange for bigger ones would seem to be the contradiction."

City council approved a Heritage Action Plan on Dec. 4 last year that had 14 recommendations, including raising demolition fees for pre-1940's homes, streamlining heritage retention applications, and relaxing building regulations for renovations of older houses. Fine-tuning and expanding existing zoning (such as the effective RT8 zoning that fosters the retention and renovation of character homes in parts of Kitsilano) may also be in order, or increasing property taxes for absentee non-resident owners of vacant new homes.

But critics are concerned that the Heritage Action Plan's timeline and the update of the city's heritage register are a year or more away. In the meantime, hundreds of character homes will be irrevocably demolished and neighbourhoods irreparably affected. CBC Radio reported yesterday that city hall is so swamped with applications for building permits for new single-family homes that it must hire new staff. Policies need to developed and implemented soon so that neighbourhoods aren't constantly required to go to battle each time a heritage or character house is at risk of demolition.

'Cities need old buildings so badly'

There have been many articles over the past year that have decried the increasing number of demolitions as a loss of Vancouver's history, soul and character. Yet, interestingly, the front page headline in the print version (the online headline differs slightly) of the May 16 Vancouver Sun was "Aging Metro Vancouverites sitting on $163 billion worth of real estate." The article summarized a speech given by a prominent developer to nearly 1,000 fellow developers, finance and construction industry executives, and politicians that blamed community resistance to densification in older neighbourhoods for creating obstacles to affordable housing.

The existence of older apartment buildings and houses actually can foster the availability of affordable rental housing and affordable homeownership. In her classic 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs devoted an entire chapter specifically to the need for older buildings. She famously stated that "cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them." Jacobs was referring to "a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings" that would be accessible to young families, seniors and people with lower incomes.

Older homes with smaller square footage and smaller lots are generally less expensive, as are rental units in older apartment buildings. The demolition of older homes in favour of large luxury homes leads to fewer basement suites for rent and higher housing prices.

Furthermore, greater density does not necessarily lead to greater affordability for those who can only afford to rent and do not possess or have access to significant financial assets. A 2008 submission to city council by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives questioned the central premise that increasing density is tantamount to greater affordability. The condominiums and townhouses that we see popping up all over town are often unaffordable to lower middle class and the working poor, and too small for young growing families, all of whom need affordable rental housing within the city.

The Washington Post reported on a recent empirical study in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation which demonstrated how the presence of smaller, older buildings makes cities more economically vibrant: "In Seattle, the report found one-third more jobs per commercial square foot in parts of town with a variety of older, smaller buildings mixed in. In San Francisco, it found more than twice the rate of women and minority-owned businesses. In the District [of Columbia], it found a higher share of non-chain businesses." In short, there exists a relationship between the presence of smaller, older buildings not only to a city's soul and history, but also to its accessibility, affordability and economic differentiation.

Vancouverites are doing more than "sitting on real estate" and their homes are more than potential MLS listings: Vancouverites are citizens in a democracy who are living their lives and raising their families in homes within communities and neighbourhoods they care deeply about. It can be argued that skyrocketing house prices and land values caused by the flipping of properties and the demolition of older, smaller homes are the actual underlying culprits for the lack of affordable housing. The root cause of the present housing problem may very well be a reductive, profit-driven world-view that is unable to see the forest for the timber.

Author's note: There will be a rally on Sunday, May 25 at 3 p.m. in front of the Legg Residence, 1241 Harwood Street in Vancouver, to protest the destruction of character and heritage homes and demand better protection of character and heritage buildings.  [Tyee]

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