By Alex Boston, Lisa Helps, Kahir Lalji, Alison Silgardo, Atiya Mahmood and Bob Simpson. This op-ed originally appeared online on August 31, 2020 in the Vancouver Sun.
As well as addressing an urgent need for province-wide job creation, B.C.’s COVID recovery response should fix some of the most acute vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, notably: seniors health, housing affordability, and social isolation.
With scarce fiscal resources and growing calls to address an even bigger crisis — climate change — how can B.C. effectively respond to these short and long-term priorities? Fortunately, some of the biggest, most cost-effective, untapped opportunities are literally on our doorsteps and in our backyards.
A half century ago, most single-family homes were occupied by families of four. Today, a majority are occupied by couples and solos. Solos are, in fact, the fastest growing household. This is primarily a function of attrition: the kids left home, the spouse died, and dad — or more typically, mom — is left alone. This housing and demography mismatch presents challenges, but also massive, untapped opportunities.
Secondary suites and laneway homes create new affordable housing units and a revenue stream for homeowners. Home sharing reduces social isolation, a widespread condition with health consequences similar to smoking. COVID has intensified social isolation amongst seniors. Doubling occupancy in a home also cuts per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in half.
Despite their disproportionate numbers, seniors are far less likely to have a secondary suite or share a home, even if they are low-income or lonely because of unique barriers. They may have limited capacity to become a landlord or home share host, harbour legal concerns or be house-rich yet lack capital for basic retrofits.
Fledgling efforts across B.C. and beyond are beginning to hurdle these barriers.
The city of Kitimat, for example, incentivizes secondary suites with forgivable loans based on the affordability of rental rates.
In Los Angeles, Backyard Homes helps homeowners finance and manage additions and laneway homes in exchange for below market rates.
HomeShare in Toronto matches older adults with students. In exchange for reduced rent, students provide five hours per week of household chores. A recent study found diverse benefits in intergenerational home shares: new friendships, greater happiness, better grades and more beautiful lawns.
Hollyburn Family Services on Vancouver’s North Shore is working to set up a registry to facilitate home sharing for seniors. This online dating program to match single detached homes amongst solo seniors could create hundreds of new homes for less than the cost of one social housing unit. Because of its non-traditional approach, it’s been challenging to secure program development financing.
A provincial government can play a powerful role taking these solutions from margin to mainstream. Three highly cost-effective investments could yield large, long-term dividends.
One, the B.C. government could build the capacity of non-profit housing providers to facilitate home sharing and secondary suite management. Two, it could diversify residential energy conservation programs to include upgrades that increase home occupancy, stimulating jobs across B.C. Three, it could incentivize pre-fabricated, wood building manufacturers to construct attractive, affordable, net zero, modular laneway homes for sale at discounted rates in return for long-term, affordable rental housing agreements. Forest-based communities have been hit by a triple whammy: COVID, the softwood lumber war and declining fibre. Pre-fabricated wood building manufacturing is a value-added sector with growing domestic and international opportunities.
The conditions for success, nevertheless, start locally. Leading B.C. municipalities permit secondary suites and laneway homes. All municipalities should consider at least one rental unit per single-family parcel. Two accessory units are worthy of consideration in neighbourhoods close to shops and frequent transit where they support walkability and public health, and cut transportation costs, carbon and congestion. The City of North Vancouver permits a laneway home, a suite and a primary residence. Victoria is exploring a similar innovation as well as a primary residence with two secondary suites for appropriate neighbourhoods.
Municipalities can increase height allowances in new homes with suites so units can be entered at or close to grade, increasing accessibility for seniors and people with disabilities, and permit larger windows, improving liveability.
Modest cultivation could let thousands of flowers bloom. If 10 per cent of single-family homeowners were encouraged to add a suite, it would generate 85,000 new rental units, increase revenue for an additional 85,000 homeowners and enable thousands of seniors to downsize in their own homes and ‘hoods. This would cut at least a quarter of a million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.
We need to start thinking outside the box. Currently, we’re not even thinking inside the box. We’re simply looking at the walls of the box, overlooking the people inside. Let’s look at these problems systemically. The only way we are going to solve them is together!
Alex Boston is the executive director of Renewable Cities and a fellow with SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue; Lisa Helps is the mayor of Victoria; Kahir Lalji is the B.C. director of population health for the United Way; Alison Silgardo is the CEO of the Senior Services Society of B.C.; Atiya Mahmood is the graduate program chair of the department of gerontology at Simon Fraser University; Bob Simpson is the mayor of Quesnel.