Vancouver, Part 3 of 3: Rowhouses increase housing supply but at lower cost and risk

From Globe & Mail writer Frances Bula: "Monique Choptuik knew what she didn’t want when she and her husband went looking for a place to live last year.  Not another single-family house, but not an apartment either.  'And I didn’t want strata [i.e. condo],' says Ms. Choptuik. "So she started looking at townhouses and rowhouses.  There was only one she found that wasn’t [strata]: one of a group of three houses at the corner of 33rd and Cambie.  'Now, when I work in my little garden at the side, people stop all the time,' she says.  'They’re curious about our place and they wish the city had more of them.'

"So, in fact, do city planners and housing advocates and people struggling to find more housing options in this expensive city.  Between 2008 and 2011, only 40 freehold row houses were built in all of Metro Vancouver.  In the same period, Toronto, already a city rich with historic row houses, added another 11,277 to its stock.

"'We were a city of single-family housing that suddenly jumped into building condo towers and we missed a stage. There’s a huge gap in the market for next-generation ground-level housing,' says Olga Ilich, the former B.C. Liberal MLA who is chairing a City of Vancouver task force on affordable housing.

"While most cities with any claim to livable density – New York, Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston – are characterized by attractive stretches of freehold row housing, Vancouver has remarkably little of that form.

"The province finally put through a small legislative amendment – it got royal assent this week – that removes a legal hurdle that had blocked freehold row housing in Vancouver.  The legislation will now allow covenants to be registered on land titles requiring owners to maintain their party wall – something the City of Vancouver’s legal department was insistent on having before allowing freehold row houses, even though other municipalities were more permissive.

"(The Cambie row houses circumvented that complication when developer Art Cowie, now deceased, came up with the peculiar measure of building separate walls for the row houses, with a one-inch gap between them.)

"Unlike the high-rise condo projects, which take a lot of time, money and big developers to pull off, row-house projects are typically done by smaller builders, Ms. Ilich says.  Once those small builders get an easily replicable model, they can build as many units as any condo developer and with lower costs and risk.

"Some developers dismiss row houses (both strata and freehold) as inefficient and unprofitable compared to condo towers.  Even the developers building row houses mostly insist that the freehold row house appeals only to a small niche market of people.  That’s even though many say their freehold row houses sell for more per square foot than a similar townhouse that’s in a strata.

"Despite those obstacles, developers say they’ve been surprised by how this form of housing provokes an emotional response in buyers and a tendency to hang on to them.  Townhouses throughout the region tend to be listed less often and sell faster than other forms, says Geoff Duyker at Mosaic Homes, a company that specializes in building what look like very traditional row homes."  Full article here.