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To move or not to move: Developer says Tri-Cities perfectly positioned to save homes

Developer that specializes in relocating homes to remote communities says Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam have an abundance of homes that can be moved.
Glyn Lewis, of Renewal Home Development, says mid-century bungalows and ranchers in communities like Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam are perfect candidates to be moved rather than demolished as neighbourhoods densify.

Dealing with the housing crisis in Metro Vancouver could increase the housing supply in remote parts of the province, says the owner of a company that specializes in relocating homes.

And the Tri-Cities are perfectly positioned to lead the way in such an effort, says Glyn Lewis, the owner of Renewal Home Development that’s already completed two such projects including a house from the Blue Mountain area of Coquitlam that was moved to Upper Gibsons.

Lewis, who recently made a pitch to Coquitlam council and presented to Port Moody council last year, said those cities, as well as Port Coquitlam, have an abundance of aging mid-century single-family homes that are well built and cared for. They also have ready access to waterways like the Fraser River and Burrard Inlet that makes transport of complete homes to coastal regions elsewhere possible.

But as pressure builds to densify established neighbourhoods to create housing for more people, many of those homes stand in the way of redevelopment projects. Most will be torn down and the bulk of their building materials sent to landfills, said Lewis.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Relocating homes is cheaper

Lewis’ company identifies homes that could be relocated rather than demolished and matches them with communities with a need for cost-efficient housing, predominantly in remote areas of British Columbia’s coast and the Gulf Islands. He said moving a complete home by barge to such areas can be 30 to 70 per cent cheaper than building new homes from scratch. It can also be faster, bypassing supply chain and transport challenges that slow delivery of lumber and other construction materials.

“Why build new homes when we can rescue old ones?” Lewis said.

But as yet, he added, developers have been slow to embrace the idea. It’s cheaper and quicker just to bulldoze the old homes.

Increasing the cost of demolition and incentivizing relocation could swing the scale in the opposite direction, Lewis said.

“Demolition is the first option, but it should be the last option.”

‘We are fighting the system’

Jeremy Nickel has moved more than 12,000 homes since his company, Nickel Bros., was founded in 1956.

But, he said, the number of moves per year has been diminishing since the first part of the 2000s as bureaucracy and red tape required to facilitate a move have piled up.

“We are fighting the system and the red tape every day,” Nickel said.

Getting a move approved requires a team of experts to navigate the myriad of municipal and provincial departments, secure permits and obtain approvals from utility companies and emergency services.

The home must be in good condition to withstand the rigours of a move as well as present enough value to make the cost of moving it worthwhile.

Then, Nickel said, a route has to be designed that will get the home to its destination. Roadways have to be measured, potential obstacles like trees, bushes, utility poles and lines, medians and traffic signs need to be assessed. And for a home being barged to a new location, there has to be water access.

“That route check is really key to many homes being saved,” Nickel said.

Aside from some minor inconveniences as most homes are moved in the middle of the night, the impact on communities is negligible, said Nickel. By the time neighbours awaken in the morning, the only indication a massive home has been transported down the road is the empty foundation left behind.

“The golden rule is don’t get a load stuck on the road at 5 a.m.,” Nickel said. “You don’t want to be on the morning news for all the wrong reasons.”

Lewis said incentives like streamlining the permitting process to allow such moves to occur would increase their frequency as would boosting the cost for demolition. He said providing developers a density bonus tied to their efforts to relocate homes in the way of a prospective project would also be an incentive.

“It’s a carrot and stick approach,” Lewis said. “We have to make an economic case to developers.”

Port Moody stepping up

Port Moody Mayor Meghan Lahti said her city is working towards easing the process for moving homes.

It’s decoupled demolition and building permits and, in 2022, it increased the waste management fee required to demolish a home from $2,000 to $7,000 — refundable if 100 per cent of clean wood that is unpainted, unstained and untreated is recycled along with 85 per cent of other recyclable materials.

Lahti said the fee can be reviewed annually.

As well, staff has recommended the city waive its $425 permit fee for moving houses. And changes to the city’s density bonus policy could be coming once there’s more clarity from the provincial government on its new housing legislation.

Coquitlam reviewing its processes

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said new provincial mandates for increased density around mass transit stations make it imperative relocation of existing homes in the way of new development be given serious consideration.

“I absolutely embrace this idea that we ought to reuse homes.”

Andrew Merrill, the city’s general manager of planning, said its house moving processes are currently being reviewed, including the creation of a separate permit category for relocations.

Not happening fast enough

Lewis said while progress toward making the relocation of homes a more viable option is being made, he’s afraid it’s not happening fast enough to keep pace with development that’s occurring.

He explained requiring all homes in the way of new development be assessed for relocation and deconstruction before demolition is considered would put the moving option top of mind, as would the creation and prioritization of “early green removal permits” that would allow all homes to be relocated or deconstructed at any time before a building permit for new development is issued.

Lewis, whose interest in sustainable living was piqued when he studied environmental chemistry at Simon Fraser University, said the clock is ticking as each home that is torn down releases 25 tons of embodied carbons back into the environment, exacerbating climate change.

“When you see the scope of the problem, it only makes sense,” he said of relocating homes to where they’re needed. “This could be a breakthrough.”