Think housing (a spontaneous rant)

I just had one of those sparks of clarity, in which something i was clumsily trying to elucidate during today’s (5-hour!) council meeting suddenly took shape in my head. Tofino’s planner was introducing first reading (effectively, first draft) of part of our zoning bylaw — the all-powerful bylaw that dictates what an owner can and can’t do on their land.

I was wondering about some provisions proposed in that bylaw, such as a minimum house size for a “small single family dwelling” (42 m2/450 ft2), and minimum allowable dwelling width (4.9 m/16 ft). I can see the point of maximum limits, having witnessed the neighbourhood impact of oversize McMansions in Vancouver. But what would it matter how small, or how wide, a dwelling is? Why should the district have its fingers in that pie?

It hit me just now that, residentially speaking, the whole bureaucratic process of zoning is based on a suburban model of living: land parcelled out into big lots where nuclear families, each in their private castle, live row on row with other private castles on big lots, and nobody rocks the boat by doing anything different.

That model sort-of worked in decades past (though savvy planners now decry the car-based sprawl, alienation, and lifeless city streets it creates). But the world has changed, economically and demographically. It has changed a lot, even in our tiny end-of-the-road slice. That suburban housing model assumes stable, two-parent families. It assumes breadwinners with well-paying jobs-for-life, who can get big mortgages. It relies on lots of available land, and on doing everything by car. Today all those assumptions are falling by the wayside, for a variety of reasons, good and bad. But the suburban zoning model lives on, unchallenged.

Like many, i often daydream of doing something really creative with housing in Tofino, something daring and innovative. And then i think of ZONING BYLAW NO. 770, 1997, all 138 pages of it, and i deflate. Co-operative housing? Co-housing? Tiny houses? Three families getting together to buy a lot and build three small dwellings? Someone with a large lot wanting to split it and sell half to a friend? All these seemingly simple things would probably take years, and tens of thousands of dollars, and dozens of meetings and reams of paperwork, just to wade through the zoning process. There’d be no guarantee of a positive result. And even if you were lucky, that would only get you to the starting line: from there, you’d still have to build the damn house.

Under the present system, the obstacles to housing innovation in Tofino — temporal, financial, and bureaucratic — are almost insurmountable. Given the modern world, with its modern challenges, our basic zoning model needs a serious rethink.

Moving up in the gene Poole

Another eccentricity of my privileged Tofino house-sit is that i must vacate it periodically, when the owners to return or, sometimes, their house-swap partners. As of today i am on one such hiatus. Sometimes i luck into a temporarily empty apartment, sometimes i leave town to visit friends. This time, though, i decided to scratch a longtime curiosity: I’m living for three weeks on Poole’s Land. Continue reading