Special to The Globe and Mail
PublishedFriday, Jun. 30, 2017 2:20PM EDT
Last updatedFriday, Jun. 30, 2017 2:20PM EDT
The lovingly restored character house at 3030 Victoria Drive had been in one family since the 1940s.
Dave Norris was raised in the house, along with his 10 siblings. He ultimately purchased the house from his parents and went on to remove the 1950s stucco and restore the old Craftsman’s exterior, including the original windows. The 1919 interior was mostly intact.
Mr. Norris, now 64, had lived in the house until a year and a half ago, when he decided to sell and leave Vancouver.
The house has remained empty ever since. It’s an all too familiar Vancouver scene: junk mail and newspapers are collecting on the front porch, the garden is overgrown. It is one of an estimated 25,000 empty homes in the city.
And it is owned by the City of Vancouver.
The city will demolish the house, which is zoned for two families. There is no plan to build. A demolition permit is not normally issued without a development permit, so the approval had to go before council, according to the city. It says the property is to be used as an extension to John Hendry Park across the lane. City staff confirmed that the decision to demolish the house was made at the same in-camera (not open to the public) meeting where a decision was made to purchase the house.
The director of real estate services, Jerry Evans, also confirmed that “this is the City’s usual practice for this type of purchase.”
The park board said no one was available for comment.
The house backs on to what is more popularly known as Trout Lake, one of the city’s biggest parks, at 27.3 hectares.
However, the house sits in the middle of a row of eight houses, separated by a laneway. If it is to join the park, it won’t be any time soon, because the other homeowners haven’t sold.
Once the house is demolished, the 32- by 122-foot lot will likely sit empty.
It raises questions. Why would the city leave a perfectly good house empty for a year and a half, only to tear it down to hold as a vacant lot - amid a housing crisis?
Outwardly, the city has taken on the fight to protect housing.
It recently released a report that said that more than 25,000 homes were either empty or under-used. It has introduced a one per cent tax on empty houses, which takes effect July 1. It’s proposing strict new rules to curb short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, aimed at alleviating the housing crisis.
As well, it’s in the process of drafting new zoning to help retain character homes. The Victoria Drive house was not on the heritage register, but is clearly a well-maintained and handsome character house.
The situation flies in the face of those policies. And that makes the former homeowner furious.
Mr. Norris deeply regrets selling his home to the city. He says the city’s real estate department was not upfront with him as to what they were intending to do with it. Initially, when he asked, he heard from his realtor that it would be for park expansion. But the next day, he was informed it would be rented out.
“I restored the whole outside and the inside, I redid the floors, it had these beautiful pocket doors. Mint shape. My dad kept it all perfect. I kind of figured they’d get a family in there, but nope,” says Mr. Norris. “[The city is] tearing these places down. What a waste. And yet they are telling people that they are really working on the housing crisis,” he says, laughing. “What a bunch of two-faced liars.”
Mr. Norris says his neighbours have voiced concerns that the city left his house empty although there’s a near zero vacancy rate. He also questions why they’d need to add on to such a large park as John Hendry.
Samantha Reynolds, who lives in a duplex in the same block as Mr. Norris’s house, says realtors also approached her and her husband.
“They said, ‘name your price,’ and I said, ‘No,’ because I don’t want to live anywhere else. We love our neighbourhood. We know our neighbours. Nobody is planning to sell.
“I don’t know what the city is planning to do, but I think it’s a heart breaking decision [to demolish], because that’s a beautiful house. It’s such a special house. And we would rather have a family move in – we want people on our street, not a vacant house or a vacant lot.
“There was a neighbourhood rumour that the city was going to make it housing for refugees. We thought that was a beautiful idea. We could get behind that, or just using it as rental accommodation, because of the housing crisis. So, the fact that it’s been vacant has been odd to all of us in the neighbourhood.”
Mr. Norris’s house was not listed on the multiple listing service, but he says the realtor held two open houses. The city paid close to $1.6 million in February 2016.
And there have been other houses bought up and left empty, then torn down by the city.
Last year, the city purchased a heritage property at 1011 E. 45th Avenue, which backed onto 13-hectare South Memorial Park. It was one of several old houses on E. 45th that had been purchased by the city and torn down. A 2012 city report that went to council, also not available to the public, explained that the purchases were part of an ongoing land assembly to complete the park. The goal was to acquire properties that abut the park in order to increase it by 1.12 acres.
And a double lot at 2605 Keith Drive, and an adjacent lot at 2615 Keith Drive, were purchased in 2014 by the city. At the time, three small bungalows stood on the properties. For at least a year, the lots have been vacant. On a recent visit, the grass had been mowed. The properties are across the street from China Creek Skateboard Park.
An explanation for the ongoing purchase of houses to extend city parks lies in a park land acquisition strategy that is more than a decade old. The strategy recommends a ratio of 1.1 hectares of park per new 1,000 residents. It cites Grandview-Woodland and Mount Pleasant as high priorities for park land acquisition. The Sunset community, where the E. 45th houses had been purchased, had only 0.7 hectares per 1,000 residents, so it fell short.
It’s a nice idea, growing park space. And it is true that properties will likely only become increasingly expensive, and further out of reach for future parks. But in a city where residents are being pushed out by high prices, perhaps the city needs to question a contradictory policy that removes housing stock.
Not one resident interviewed in the 3000-block of Victoria Drive understood the need to expand John Hendry Park. But they all expressed exasperation at the high prices of housing.
“People need houses to live in. If you sell, you can’t buy another one in Vancouver,” said a neighbour who did not want to give his name. The man stood in his backyard and waved an arm in the direction of Mr. Norris’s old house.
“That house is in the middle of the block - what are they going to do, put a concession stand there?”
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