Letter: Gentle densification a greener option

Garden and laneway suites not the green answer for densification

Re: MLA report: Solutions exist for housing challenge, Oak Bay News Nov. 4.

I am dumbfounded that our Green Party MLA suggests encouraging garden and laneway suites as No. 1 in his list of solutions to the housing challenges. Such hidden densification Band-Aids are the least green option of all, for if you build additional homes (with their patios and parking) in the rear gardens of single-family houses, then productive soil and urban forests are decimated.

The primary recommendation of provincial government experts in transport and housing is “gentle densification” – which offers a viable long-term solution to housing and transport problems, and is also the most green of all solutions. Yet our green MLA does not even include this in his list.

Gentle densification is where floors of modern apartments are added above shops in existing shopping precincts already served by transit.

It is very green because: New homes can be added without loss of garden or urban forest; the tenants do not need to use their cars to shop; the higher use of existing transit helps pay for it.

The other positives include: Aging seniors have modern rentals with elevators and within easy reach of services; shops have a resident population of new customers; the rental market is increased. (There is a shortage of all rentals, not just affordable ones. Adding a lot of modern rental units will ease the rents on old units.)

When the best solution is also the greenest, why aren’t politicians pressing for it?

Wait, there’s more. Gentle densification is even better than that. Currently we have a lot of aging seniors who are “house poor” because there are no modern rental apartments  for them to move into, and out of their family-sized houses. (When your health begins to fade, the financial logic is to switch from owning to renting a home so that you can more easily match your home needs to your changing health reality). Affordability is often not an issue with suitable rentals for seniors, because once they move into a rental and sell their house they cease to be house-poor and instead become cash-rich.

One of the most critical yet most ignored facets of the housing shortage is that of housing suitable for raising young children. Why this shortage? Because seniors are still stuck in their homes, so those bedrooms do not have children in them. Providing senior-suitable apartments will free up their houses for young families.

The federal government is increasing the quota of immigrants to 300,000 a year. Why? Because young Canadians are delaying having children. Why? A big reason is the shortage of housing suitable for raising children. Why? Seniors are stuck in their houses. Meanwhile all those immigrants will need to be housed. What will that do to the housing affordability and rental shortages?

So if building new apartments above existing shops solves many interconnected housing shortages, why isn’t it happening? Why has there been a net loss of rental apartment buildings in BC since 1980? Condos.

It is far more profitable to build (or convert to) condo buildings and sell the units to out-of-town flippers, than to build apartment buildings for locals. This has been true since the B.C. Strata Property Act was made law in 1974. The construction of new condos vs. new rentals is extremely out of balance, yet not a single politician from any party is pressing for a temporary moratorium on new strata titles to encourage construction of rental units instead of condos.

Stephen Bowker

Oak Bay