Lexicon of housing and real estate

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

An introductory lesson that distinguishes old, new and misused residential tenures and types

Michael Geller

The past, present and future of public housing is evident at the Little Mountain housing project, one of about 85 projects built around B.C. since the Second World War and in need of renovation or regeneration, says Michael Geller. Photograph by: Stuart Davis, Vancouver Sun

Many years ago, while planning the transformation of BC Packers’ waterfront lands in Steveston, I made the mistake of trying to explain “land residuals” to BC Packers executives. I will always remember president J. Bruce Buchanan taking me aside and explaining that in his company, residuals had a very different meaning. Anyone who has ever visited a fish packing plant will know what he meant.

Today, I often hear people improperly using terminology related to housing and real estate, sometimes with unfortunate results.

Recently, I attended a panel discussion at the Dunbar Residents Association’s annual general meeting. I was impressed with the high quality of panellists and the general discussion, but at one point an audience member expressed disapproval of a nearby housing proposal because the developer had promised seniors’ housing, and the project was really condominiums.

She did not seem to appreciate that seniors’ housing could mean one of many things, and that a condominium is simply a form of tenure.

At another event, a respected housing analyst talked about the market demand for townhouses and condominiums. Again, a townhouse is a form of development, whereas a condominium is, yes, a form of tenure.

In both cases, I knew what the speakers were trying to say. To the Dunbar resident, seniors’ housing meant rental housing, or perhaps a care facility. In the housing analyst’s mind, condominiums were apartments. But as we all know, not all condominiums are apartments.

It will be increasingly important to understand housing terminology in the future, since developers will be offering more options, such as single-family condominium developments and “fee-simple” townhouses. (The latter was pioneered in Vancouver by former city councillor Art Cowie, who sadly passed away recently.)

We can also expect more co-housing, which offers different forms of housing with a higher provision of shared amenities, and alternative tenure options, such as life-lease and shared-equity.

With increased public discussion on whether the housing at the Olympic Village should be social housing or market housing, or whether a seniors’ project can be a condominium, I thought it might be helpful to review other types of housing terminology from yesterday and today.

Last month, I was invited to teach a class at SFU on the history of government-assisted housing. I spoke about the significant number of programs over the past 60 years, many with now-forgotten acronyms.

Government-subsidized housing in Canada was initiated after the Second World War by the then-Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, or CMHC. Veterans’ housing and public housing assisted those who could not afford to buy or rent on the open market. Veterans’ projects were built along Fourth Avenue and Broadway in Kitsilano, and in New Westminster.

Some of Vancouver’s early public housing projects included Little Mountain, Skeena Terrace, Raymur Place and Orchard Park. Today, there are about 85 public-housing projects around B.C. built by CMHC and now managed by B.C. Housing. Most are in need of renovation or regeneration. However, if the controversial redevelopment of the Little Mountain social housing complex by the province and the city is any indication, this will have to be managed with much more thought and care.

In the 1970s, the federal government transferred responsibility for the delivery and management of public housing to other levels of government and specially formed non-profit groups and charitable organizations. New National Housing Act rental social housing projects were built by organizations such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis, the Society for Christian Care of the Elderly and numerous ethnic-based societies.

Organizations such as Columbia Housing took advantage of the new National Housing Act’s non-profit co-operative housing program and oversaw the creation of dozens of projects. Unlike New York’s Park Avenue co-ops, and earlier Vancouver co-ops, however, the residents of these new projects have not enjoyed equity appreciation. But they have enjoyed security of tenure and a communal co-operative lifestyle.

One of my favourite 1970s programs was the Assisted Home Ownership Program — or AHOP — that provided incentives to developers building a home that sold for $47,000 or less. Some purchasers of single-family homes had to hang their own closet doors, since they did not come with the units. But their homes are worth considerably more today.

Recently, the City of Vancouver announced the Short Term Incentive Rental program, or STIR, to encourage construction of market rental units. While this is a first for Vancouver, there have been numerous federal rental programs: Limited Dividend, Assisted Rental Program, Canada Rental Supply Program, and the Multi-unit Residential Program. How can we forget MURBs?

When it comes to seniors’ housing, there has been private and non-profit independent living, personal care, intermediate care, extended care, congregate housing, assisted living, and most recently, supportive housing. While nearly all has been rental, some condominium ownership projects have been built in North America as both independent living and care facilities.

Another seniors’ tenure option is life lease. One excellent example in Vancouver is the Performing Arts Lodge at Bayshore Gardens near Coal Harbour, which allows seniors to purchase an apartment at a reduced price on the understanding that when they move out, their initial payment will be returned, but without any increase.

A once-popular U.S. life-lease program offered seniors the right to purchase at a reduced price, based on their age, and remain until their death on the understanding that their estate would receive nothing back. This worked for many years until residents started to live longer in their attractive and supportive environments and “beat the annuity tables.”

Today an increasing number of American projects offer an innovative new tenure option for seniors. It is called rental!

Michael Geller is an architect, planner, developer and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. From 1972 to 1981, he worked for the CMHC, overseeing the development of thousands of government-assisted housing units across Canada. He can be reached at [email protected]

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun


Comments are closed.