This is a short article I submitted to the Christchurch Press. The ideas in it derive from many useful background papers that explore how the City of Vancouver planners are using secondary suite development to help deal with the serious (un)affordability of accommodation in Vancouver. One report from 2009 a gold mine of useful information on both the history of and obstacles to the current permissive policy in Vancouver : click here to download the report , Secondary Suites Study jf ,
Monday’s editorial and recent Press articles and letters have identified the escalating problem of (un)affordable rental accommodation in Christchurch. However, I don’t share the Editor’s or Gerry Brownlee’s pessimism that central government can do nothing to help create a rapid solution.
Can you imagine adding thousands of new bedrooms, bathrooms, toilets, kitchens, living rooms and laundries to the useful rental stock of accommodation in Christchurch – all fully insured and easily financed – within the next year? I can. Simply follow the example of Vancouver, Canada. City planners there have embraced a wide range of initiatives to legalise and encourage secondary suite accommodation in residential areas to help meet the problem of unaffordable accommodation shortages in this beautiful, but expensive, city. City planners (or EQC commissioners) can do the same thing here in Christchurch with the stroke of the regulatory pen. Simply remove the existing stifling regulations on family flats and secondary suites in our City Plan (keeping all the other good building consent processes already in place).
A secondary suite is a self-contained dwelling unit that has been created “within” a larger principal dwelling. A unit typically shares the main dwelling’s yard, parking area, laundry, and storage space, but has its own kitchen, living area, bathroom and entrance. Generally, no ownership nor subdivision is permitted (although ownership solutions in the form of laneway houses, smaller self contained units or cottages in the back of a residential property, work well in Vancouver). Almost half of all new residential homes now contain one or more secondary suites, adding to the stock of tens of thousands of such suites in Vancouver. High rise tenements in marginal regions that become tomorrow’s ghettos and today’s eyesores, are not wanted in Vancouver. But secondary suites in prime residential areas, like Kitsilano and Commercial Drive, are actively embraced.
Not so here in Christchurch. The current City Plan permits small family flats or secondary suites in residential areas, but only under extreme restrictions that effectively negate the viability of having extra self contained accommodation on a property. B&B’s are of course completely legal anywhere Christchurch, with a nominal restriction to no more than four guests, but no B&B is permitted to have a “kitchen” – the trinity of a stove/hobbs with a sink and benchtop. No one knows how many non-consented secondary suites or B&B’s with functioning kitchens that there are in Christchurch. But in the last two years they will all have been to put to VERY good use, illegally of course. To continue to make secondary suites persona non grata in post quake Christchurch with its’ serious accommodation shortages is bordering on the insane.
It’s really a matter of demand and supply. Give a solo parent or family with small kids, young single professionals, older retirees, or migrant trades persons and their families, a self contained two bedroom apartment attached to an existing, beautiful home in a pristine residential area close to schools, parks and restaurants/shops – think Ilam, Merivale, Selwyn, Sydenham, Riccarton, Beckenham, Cashmere, Lyttleton, Governors Bay, Addington, St Albans , etc – and the demand soars. And from Vancouver’s experience, so does the supply.
Consider the logic. An established couple whose children have moved on, with a four bedroom home in Ilam, Sydenham or Lyttleton Harbour could spend perhaps $20,000- $40,000 adding in separate kitchen, bathroom, laundry, and/or living space to their existing home. For $100k a small self-contained cottage could be built out the back on the quarter acre section. Their insurance company is happy to extend their existing policy to the new extension – completely the reverse of any other form of new residential construction in Christchurch. An unfurnished unit in a desirable area might be rented for between $200-$300 a week, more for a furnished unit. That’s between $10k and $15k return a year on a $30k investment! And of course that rental income stream and insurance on the underlying asset keeps the banks happy lending on such small scale projects.
To the scare mongers who would cry that such a change would lead to the destruction of local family residential neighborhoods, I can only say- visit Vancouver, year after year rated in the top 3 most desireble cities to live in in the world. Read the history of their debates about legalizing secondary suites. It took them 50 years to overcome established property owners objections. Maybe it will only take us two years and 10,000 earthquakes. The beauty and social diversity of the wide range of residential neighborhoods in Vancouver testifies to the power that a properly (less) regulated market in secondary suites has for helping to solve rent crises and accommodation shortages.