For neighbours, the dividends of selling homes together as part of a larger plot can be huge
Haider-Moranis Bulletin: In land assembly, two plus two can equal more than four
Two plus two is four, but not necessarily in land assembly.
In the land-starved housing market in Vancouver, developers are incentivizing owners of contiguous homes to sell so that three or more lots can be assembled to build new condominiums. If sold individually, these homes would fetch much less. When sold together, they become more than the sum of their parts.
Plottage and plattage are essential to land development. When assembling contiguous parcels into a larger one carries more value, it’s called plottage. When there is value in splitting a larger parcel into smaller units, it’s called plattage.
Plattage is common in low-density greenfield developments where owners of large swaths of land sell smaller chunks for new development. In built-up areas where large empty lots are scarce, plottage is the name of the game — and Vancouver is the field where that’s being played.
A recent trip to Vancouver revealed that developers are aggressively pursuing plottage to increase housing density and supply. In choice neighbourhoods such as Dunbar-Southlands, where single-family homes are the dominant type, and empty lots are even harder to spot than rarely seen owls on nearby Jericho Beach, neighbours are deliberating on how to respond to the soft buy offers from developers.
Michelle Yu is a Vancouver-based realtor who specializes in land assembly sales. She has successfully sold 17 assembled lots. The task involves convincing owners of neighbouring lots to simultaneously put their properties up for sale. The For Sale sign hanging outside the properties prominently displays “Assembly Lots,” signalling to the developers the opportunity to buy the contiguous lots to redevelop as condos or townhouses.
For homeowners, the plottage dividends could be huge. In one instance, three homes built in 1979 near the Little Mountain social housing complex on Main Street were assessed for $1.4 million each. Once assembled, the three units sold for more than $10 million.
It’s not just developers instigating land assembly in Vancouver. In some places, such as East Broadway between Nanaimo and Rupert streets, homeowners got on with land assembly after realizing that their otherwise less glamorous 33-foot lots could fetch as high as $3.4 million in a land assembly sale.
For many homeowners, receiving an offer that is significantly more than the assessed value is an attractive proposition. Being offered a multiple of the assessed value would certainly be tempting. Still, the land assembly is not as common as the exorbitant buy offers would suggest. Several market and planning impediments make land assembly a tough sell.
Zoning bylaws are the obvious first hurdle. If densification is not on the cards and on the land-use maps, land assembly for high-density development will not be possible. While the tall residential towers near downtown Vancouver might give the impression of high-density living, the larger Vancouver area, as proxied by the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), is comprised essentially of low- to medium-density neighbourhoods.
Of the 480-odd census tracts (neighbourhoods) that make up the Vancouver CMA, fewer than one-fifth of the neighbourhoods boast a population density of 6,400 persons per square kilometre or higher. In fact, several choice neighbourhoods along commercial streets have residential population densities between 1,500 and 6,000 persons per sq. km.
These neighbourhoods can certainly use some density when older and less attractive units are replaced by modern-looking higher density developments that need not be high-rises. Some of the medium-density neighbourhoods in Vancouver have not seen an increase in population and are therefore stuck with a stagnant or shrinking property tax base. In fact, between 2011 and 2016, certain parts of neighbourhoods, such as Dunbar-Southlands and Arbutus Ridge, reported a population loss.
The other impediment is Vancouver’s high housing prices that could still be too high for some as they try to re-enter the housing market after selling their smaller house in a land assembly deal. And of course, the NIMBYs are always omnipresent trying to block any change on their block.
Despite claims by some academics, Vancouver, just like Toronto, has a housing supply problem. When prices escalate rapidly, it is mostly because not enough new housing of the right type, at the right location, at the right time is entering the market.
New residential developments of modest scale and density — when done by professional developers and not by homeowners masquerading as them — can help replace dilapidated housing stock with newer, attractive units that will bring new neighbours — and they will help expand the local property tax base.
Murtaza Haider is an associate professor at Ryerson University. Stephen Moranis is a real estate industry veteran. They can be reached at http://www.hmbulletin.com.