Celia Brauer is offering to sell off 60 per cent of her Main Street area property so she can downsize within her community, in the neighbourhood she’s known for the last 17 years.
After all, Vancouverites are used to the sharing economy that includes car share, tool share and even dog share. Why not share freehold property?
Ms. Brauer is a master gardener who raised a family at 3860 Ontario St. on an unusually large property that is 43 feet by 200 feet deep. Her house has 3,500 square feet of living space and the backyard, a former orchard, is deep and park-like, lush with trees and shrubs.
There is plenty of room for another house, and she’d like to build her own small house to the rear. Although a laneway would normally be allowed, there isn’t one at the rear of her property. The only access to her future dream house – if she’s allowed to build it – would be from the front street. There is seven feet of clearance on each side of the big house.
She is waiting to hear whether the City will give her the green light for her plan, which could take time, says her designer and general contractor, Bryn Davidson, who co-owns Lanefab Design/Build. The City is planning to address whether a bylaw change for laneway houses without lanes should be allowed. The matter was supposed to be on city council’s agenda next month, but was postponed.
“There is a line in the bylaw that says you have to have a lane, and it’s totally arbitrary,” Mr. Davidson says. “We have tried to build some support [with the City] and said, ‘This is an easy change. It would make a huge difference for somebody like Celia, and it doesn’t impact anybody else.’ It’s a minor impact on the city. It goes to this idea of needing all sorts of housing options.”
And her realtor, Noam Dolgin, is using the opportunity to launch CoHo BC, a network of people and realtors who are interested in co-ownership. He says Coho BC works within current zoning in creative ways in order to maximize a property’s potential beyond the norm. In this case, the norm would be to build a bigger house, around 4,500 sq. ft., which is allowable, and huge.
“It’s an obvious site for a shared type of agreement, because you have such a large lot,” Mr. Dolgin says. “This lot is not big enough for a multifamily development. It’s too small under current zoning. So, basically, the City is requiring you to do a single-family house on it. But it’s a shame to see it used for one giant monster house for one small family.”
Ms. Brauer has thought about selling off a share of her property for several years, and Mr. Dolgin, who lives nearby and whom she’s known for years, has a background in sustainability and has been working on a collaborative housing strategy for the last year. He’s got legal counsel, financial support through Vancouver City Savings Credit Union , and even a couple’s counselor on board to offer support (his wife).
For the average income earner, the detached home has become out of reach, but Mr. Dolgin is proposing a model that puts it back within their reach. The collaborative approach, he says, makes a detached house a better investment than a condo.
The condo market in the last year has seen prices soar as much as 26 per cent in Greater Vancouver in March compared to the previous year, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. A recent Colliers International survey of the Multiple Listing Service said the median asking price of condos in Vancouver had reached $962,500. The gap between condo prices and detached house prices has never been closer, according to realtors. That’s because income-earners in the region can’t compete with investors who are purchasing detached houses; they also find the new uninsured mortgage “stress test” guidelines on pricey houses a challenge.
“Single-family homes are multimillion-dollar investments right now, and condos have become homes,” Mr. Dolgin says. “But if you’re paying $1,000 a square foot for a condo, you can do a lot more in the detached market for that right now. And you’d be at a much higher quality of living than in a boxy condo somewhere.”
Co-ownership, he adds, is nothing new. Co-op housing and co-housing are a model of shared ownership, but on a much bigger scale, involving many units.
Buying into a shared property is really no different than having a neighbour, he says, except with his model, you get to choose your neighbour.
His model also involves buying into freehold property that may be more than $2-million, which is intimidating for most people. The problem for many potential collaborative buyers has also been finding other buyers to partner with, and to easily enter into legal arrangements, with an exit strategy in place, should one buyer decide they want to sell.
If he can create a large network of potential buyers, then when people want to sell their collaborative housing share, there will be hundreds, potentially thousands, of interested buyers to choose from.
“Realtors are open to it, they understand the concept, but the average buyer has not come around to it as a whole. So I think it’s about educating them and making it simple to do, and giving them a sense that when they go to resell it’s more normative, we will be able to find you a buyer, we can make it happen.”
Ms. Brauer is selling the house and 60 per cent interest in the land, and she is also asking for two years to rent the basement suite while she builds the laneway house, assuming she gets approval. The buyer would enter into a legal partnership agreement with her before the sale is firm. If the City doesn’t permit the laneway house, the co-homeowners would have the right to buy each other out after two years at an agreed-upon amount, or put the property back on the market.
“In the interim, she’s a tenant, and she’s also an owner who loves the property and will garden for you,” Mr. Dolgin says.
“But it’s highly possible that [the City] will soon pass it,” adds Ms. Brauer, who can’t see why the City wouldn’t go for higher density on such a big lot.
“Noam is trying to create this community idea to help a lot of people. And me trying to do this is helping to make the idea a reality. There is a problem in Vancouver with housing. We all know that. This kind of collaborative idea is a good one for people who want to get into the housing market, and to share space.”
Current zoning in detached house neighbourhoods [misleadingly called “single family”] allows for three families per property, including the main house, a basement suite, and a laneway house. An entire property costing anywhere from $1.5-million to $3-million is unattainable for most people, but if two or three groups pool their resources, it comes within reach.
Mr. Dolgin is holding CoHo BC’s first social mixer Saturday at 5 p.m. (cohobc.com). Ms. Brauer will be present, hoping to meet a potential collaborator.
She is open to a variety of arrangements. Two families could buy into the large main house and divide it into separate living areas, for example. She’s an artist, and she’s open to the idea of creating an arts community with several people living at the house. Another option is an investor purchases the main house and rents it out. And Ms. Brauer could act as a built-in caretaker for the property. If stratification of the property became legal down the road, she’d be open to legally separating the land, too.
“Of course, anything would have to be done in partnership with a new purchaser,” Mr. Dolgin says. “The two of them would sit down and say, ’here’s the lot, here’s what we think makes sense as a way to share this land.’ “
She grew up in Montreal where she was used to sharing space, such as a courtyard. As a downsizer, she would be happy to share space again, such as the big yard. She would be careful to build a laneway house that wouldn’t interfere with her trees. However, if the buyer wants a privacy fence, she’s fine with that, too.
Ms. Brauer sees the collaborative model as a panacea to unaffordability and the commodification of housing, where homes have become investments.
“If we think that you have to have money to live here, it crushes everything,” she says. “We can’t keep doing what we are doing. We need to come together creatively. It’s not just about how much money can the world give us—it’s not healthy,” she says.
Mr. Davidson says he has a lot of young couples coming into his office looking to build or renovate together, so he thinks the idea has legs.
“There will be a lot of demand for it,” he says. “There are so many people who want to live in these neighbourhoods. Maybe once the financing and everything gets normalized, maybe then it will be easier.”
Mr. Dolgin says the “missing middle” idea of creating a lot more density on detached house properties is fine, but working with existing zoning, and housing, is more sustainable, and readily available.
“It’s very nice to say we can rezone and put a bunch of housing on here, that’s an advantage too. But let’s think creatively; let’s have a city hall that creates more and better housing in a neighbourhood that needs it, and better utilizes the land.”
Ms. Brauer is on a timeline. She needs to sell an interest in her property soon, because of personal circumstances. She’s not openly worried, though. If the city isn’t ready for her approach to sharing her land, she’ll accept it.
“It may not work. And if it works, fine, but hey, I can’t fight city hall,” she says. “I will try for a few weeks, and if it doesn’t work I’ll put the whole house on the market.”