Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Opinion: Are you prepared for a flood or earthquake in Vancouver? Vancouver Courier September 11, 2017

A "Quake Cottage" was set up at city hall in 2015 to allow people to experience what an earthquake might be like. Columnist Michael Geller would like to see an earthquake simulator exhibit set up at a venue such as Science World.

Forest fires and hurricanes highlight importance of disaster planning 

Hurricane Harvey brings catastrophic floods to Houston. Crews battle large wildfire near Peachland. Irma takes aim at U.S. — six million Floridians flee home.  Mexico recovering from deadly 8.1 earthquake.

      Floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes. So much misery around the world.  Is this the result of global warming? What if this happened in Vancouver?
While Vancouver may not be prone to hurricanes and forest fires, we are certainly susceptible to flooding and earthquakes.
      A June 2016 story in the Richmond News reported on a review of future flood scenarios by the Fraser Basin Council. It revealed that Richmond and municipalities upstream are extremely vulnerable to flooding as sea levels continue to rise, glacier runoff becomes more pronounced, and the potential for more extreme storms increases.
      Unless a comprehensive flood management plan is put in place, the council estimates a major flood would result in economic losses of $20-30 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.
      It is not just Richmond and the Fraser Valley that are susceptible to flooding. Rising sea levels could threaten many parts of Vancouver.
      As someone who lives on an island in the Fraser River, I often think about flooding. But since my house was designed and built well above the Flood Construction Level, I don’t expect it to be affected by rising sea levels in my lifetime.
      However, I do foresee a day when I may not be able to get off my island because neighbouring Southlands will be under water.
      Given what has been happening in Houston and Florida, this may be a good time for Vancouver residents to consider Benjamin Franklin’s axiom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
      A good place to start is the City of Vancouver’s website on how to minimize the dangers of flooding.
      While the danger of flooding is real, so are the consequences of an earthquake.
      I have never been in an earthquake, but in 2007 I experienced one in the Earthquake House exhibit at the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.
      This display simulates a 6.6-magnitude aftershock from an actual 1987 earthquake. It is frightfully realistic. While you are sitting in a house, it suddenly starts to shake. Pictures start crashing off the walls, furniture tips over, and the sound of breaking glass is deafening.
       When the shaking stops, an urgent news bulletin interrupts regular TV programming. New Zealand’s version of Peter Mansbridge appears on screen to report on what is happening. Live video reveals the devastation around the city, including collapsed buildings, bridges and a pending tsunami.
The exhibit offers visitors a compelling reminder to ‘quake-safe’ their homes. Indeed, when I returned to Vancouver, I removed heavy glass-framed pictures from above our beds and prepared an emergency kit.
      I would urge Vancouver officials to create a similar exhibit in the Vancouver museum or science centre.
      In 2015, a “Quake Cottage” earthquake simulator was set up in a parking lot at Vancouver city hall to mark Emergency Preparedness Week in Canada that year. The Insurance Bureau of Canada partnered with Vancouver and other municipalities to have a California company transport it to Metro Vancouver.
      Watching the recent flood and fire evacuations on TV, I am sure I was not the only one wondering how Vancouver would respond in the event of an emergency.
      Fortunately, Metro Vancouver has undertaken considerable planning in this regard. There is an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), a fortified bunker-like structure in Hastings-Sunrise. You can read about other emergency preparedness measures here.
      The City of Vancouver also has a website here.
It urges every household to prepare an emergency plan so each family member understands what to do if there is an earthquake or other disaster.
      Households should also have an emergency kit including food, water, and extra clothing, to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours following a major emergency since city services will be affected.
I would add: put some cash in your emergency kit since ATM machines will probably not be working, check insurance policies now, not later, keep slippers under your bed so you don’t have to step on broken glass, and get in the habit of not letting your gas tank get too empty.
      The recent spate of hurricanes and fires is not the result of climate change. But due to climate change, hurricanes and major floods are expected to increase in magnitude and frequency.  There is a role that community planners must play. But that’s another story for another day.

Opinion: Why housing in Vancouver is so expensive Vancouver Courier August 31, 2017

   Last Friday during a stag dinner at a Yaletown restaurant, a prominent lawyer named Grant asked me a question on the minds of many these days.
“Why is housing so expensive?”
      Since my sable fish in miso arrived just as I was about to answer, rather than let it get cold, I promised to respond in this week’s Courier column. So this is for Grant and everyone else wondering the same thing.
      There are many factors influencing the cost of housing. They include the impact of foreign buyers, taxation programs, lack of supply and inappropriately zoned land. However, it is useful to examine four other cost components: land, construction, soft costs and profit.
      Let’s start with land costs.
      Currently there are few undeveloped multi-family sites in Vancouver where more affordable forms of housing could be built. However, even if we could rezone single-family lots, the cost is going to remain high.
      Currently, a larger East Side single-family lot, on which we can build a house, laneway unit and basement suite, might be worth $1.5 million
      If we were to subdivide this lot in half to allow a duplex, assuming no increase in land value, the cost would be $750,000 for each unit. However, under current zoning, neither basement suites nor laneway houses would be permitted.
      If we were to rezone and subdivide the property to allow three townhouses, the land cost alone would be at least $500,000. When you add in the other costs, this townhouse is going to cost well over $1 million.
      Many years ago, we built small apartment buildings on 50-foot lots. However, even if we could put a 10-suite apartment building on this lot, the land cost for each apartment would be at least $150,000, and probably twice that on the West Side of Vancouver.
      The point is, starting with the value of a single-family lot, even if we can rezone and subdivide to create new housing choices, we cannot create truly affordable housing.
      Then there are construction costs, which have been escalating considerably. They include demolition, site remediation and oftentimes off-site costs, including infrastructure improvements. Construction costs vary by the form of development (e.g. single family, townhouse, apartment); whether the building is woodframe or concrete; the type of parking; the size of the units (the smaller the unit, the higher the cost per square foot); and the quality of finishes. Are there arborite or granite countertops, conventional or frameless shower stalls, etc.?
      Another major cost category is “soft costs.” To start with, there is the expense of consultants (architects, engineers, landscape architect, geotechnical, environmental, building envelope, heritage and code consultants and surveyors whose bills may relate to 6 to 8 per cent of the construction costs.
Other costs include legal, insurance, appraisal, Home Owner Protection, overhead and project management.
      Then there are the municipal fees including permits, development cost levies, community amenity contributions in the case of rezonings, engineering and hookup fees, administration and inspection, damage deposits and property taxes. These costs can vary considerably, but can be more than the consultant fees and other soft costs.
      Another major soft cost is marketing costs and commissions. If the homes are going to be sold through a pre-sale program, these costs can be 2 to 4 per cent of sales revenues. Commissions are another 3 per cent of revenues. When you add this up, it often equates to 15 per cent of the construction cost or more than twice all the consulting fees.
      On top of this there are financing fees and interest costs. Factors influencing these costs are the developer’s reputation, the amount of equity, interest rate, length of time for approvals and project costs.
      Finally, there’s the developer’s profit.
      Banks will generally not finance a project unless the financial proforma demonstrates at least 15 per cent profit on revenues or 17.5 per cent on costs. While some developers with excellent track records can proceed with lower profit margins, most cannot, or will not.
      Many in the development industry are calling upon government to reduce many of its costs. But this raises a key question. Even if costs go down, will prices necessarily go down?
      To my mind the answer is simple. Prices won’t go down unless there is sufficient competition in the marketplace. In other words, we also need to significantly increase supply.
      Grant, does this answer your question?