Sun columnist Barbara Yaffe tackles a topic that’s gaining increasing traction as the civic election approaches: the loss of Vancouver’s pre-1940s stock of character homes:

… the wrecking ball these days takes out 70 a month …

These older homes, with their pitched roofs and leaded glass windows, French doors and narrow-slat oak floors, often are architecturally charming, part of the city’s history, a positive for tourism, deserving of refurbishment.

Of course, it’s personal too.

The beautifully appointed and lovingly tended 80-year old character home I once owned in Dunbar now awaits the wrecker’s ball.

Last December I moved to Kitsilano, only to find the diminutive house next to mine was headed for the dump; it got demolished this week. A big new duplex is taking its place.

Sun pics

And she’s not alone:

That’s certainly the view of Caroline Adderson (interviewed here) …   The writer, who lives in Mackenzie Heights, on Vancouver’s west side between Kerrisdale and Dunbar, says: “Delay action for a year, and we will be down another 850 (homes), by which time city staff may be hard pressed to find a concentration of character homes.”

Adderson launched her “Vancouver Vanishes” Facebook page in February, featuring photos of homes that once were, along with a petition urging the city to take fast action to stop the demolitions.

More than 2,500 signatures have been gathered and Adderson told me she aims to make her cause an election issue in November’s municipal vote.

DunbarThere’s also “Disappearing Dunbar” that maps the loss of character homes in just this one small part of the city.

Unfortunately, few address (other than to bemoan) the underlying issue: land values so high they cannot be realized without the demolition of the smaller, older house, combined with the cost, regulation and complications of upgrading a character home to contemporary standards.  Or the even more difficult issue of ‘offshore’ money (whether from Asia or Alberta) sustaining a real-estate market that does not or cannot incorporate intangible values.

So let’s blame the politicians.

Having been there, let me articulate the challenge:

Who is willing to take a loss on the sale of their property – if the City could indeed come up with a way to lower land values?

Who will take less than the market would pay by constraining a subsequent owner to ensure the preservation of the existing home?

Or to say it another way, who is willing to be taxed on the unearned increment (the difference between what they bought the property for and the escalation of value separate from improvements) – if, for instance, that could create a fund to purchase the character homes of the City ?

houseOr yet another way: Who is willing to have their property taxes raised sufficiently to allow the City to compensate the difference between what the character home is worth on the market and the value if it were designated and protected as a heritage property?  Which is what the law requires.

Or yet another way: Who is willing to rezone neighbourhoods or other parts of the city so drastically that it would flood the market with housing sufficient to make the character homes competitive?

Or, especially in Dunbar, who is willing to support the scale of density bonusing or infill required to make retention of the existing house sufficiently attractive?

Who, in fact, is willing to run for office on a platform of lowering property values or increasing taxes enough to protect homes almost a century old?  Or to put in place regulations so onerous it effectively prohibits demolition?  Or do anything that would negatively affect the current owners before they can cash out?

Ironically, Yaffe’s column is on the business pages, and yet is devoid of any hard-nosed analysis or alternatives.

If we can’t take on the big questions, we’ll only be left with small answers.


  1. Great viewpoints Gord. I still don’t understand why the new home shown in the photo cannot be built in the same style as the heritage homes around it. The rich person building the home can have the increased size and all the mod coms they are after but they have to fake it by building in a sympathetic architectural style. It works really well in Mount Pleasant, the new builds are hard to tell apart from a renovated house.

    1. Scott, there is no accounting for taste; in order to keep a neighbourhood looking in the same general “character,” the City would need to have design constraints, which I approve of, but many owners do not. For some, it is not about the aesthetic appeal outside; it is about the size and amenities inside. This is particularly true for owners who have not connection or interest in connecting with other members of the neighbourhood.

  2. Spot on.

    This is why I’m always so frustrated when groups protest developments in other parts of the city, maybe next to the skytrain, maybe even in Burnaby. The Rize Development is a perfect example.

    If you don’t provide housing there, housing will have to appear elsewhere in a less suitable place, maybe destroying heritage stock, or the pressure will be relieved through higher prices.

    Does no one get this? It’s like talking to children. “If you eat snacks now, you won’t be hungry for dinner!”

    1. This is false, a misleading and unfair characterization. Very few oppose density, but there are smart and there are counterproductive ways to go about this. Rize was not appropriate for the site, does not foster affordability or neighborhood character. Vision Vancouver is running a game of deception that to be “greenest city” we need the tallest towers possible, but these large towers are in fact not the densest form of development, only the most profitable.

      Long blocks of low rise mixed residential would provide greater density and a more livable environment, but not absurd profit margins primarily derived from the value of up-zoning a smaller piece of land (most of the value is in the land cost). The out of place towers that have popped up all over the east side require long and wasteful podiums, and ultimately reduce available density in that area.

      1. Jonathan, the development boom, densification and full-speed ahead pro-development mentality was fostered in Vancouver decades ago when off-shore investment took interest in our city, and our then Mayor Gordon Campbell (developer) for far too long got in bed with Royal Lepage Real Estate for his campaign contributions; development in the city spiralled out of control at all costs to satisfy extremely wealthy investors. Quality of design, quality of construction and attention to neighbourhood “character” went out the window.

    2. “Rize was not appropriate for the site, does not foster affordability or neighborhood character.”

      Can someone explain to me when a building is appropriate and when it’s not? Or why people find tallish buildings so ghastly? Or why “absurd” profit margins are a bad thing? Or how increasing the housing supply in the city is supposed to decrease housing affordability? Or why slight changes like a new condo tower is supposed to ruin a neighborhood?

      I really don’t belong in Vancouver. I don’t understand the basic axioms of the public debate or the outrage development generates. I fundamentally don’t understand.

      There’s all this popular wisdom floating around that runs contrary to econ 101. Like the idea that it’s the building of condominiums that makes vancouver an expensive city. Or that we could /ever/ find a developer who isn’t “greedy”. Or that the city should be dictating to people what the /right/ way to live is. People like dense, tall condos with views near transit. “Greedy developers” are desperate to provide that for them. But the public channels their outrage about aesthetics through the legislative apparatus of the government to stop these mutually beneficial (not to mention socially beneficial) transactions. We turn down millions in tax dollars, shrink our economy, hurt the environment, drive up housing prices, and deprive people and something that would improve their lives.

      It’s not just that I think you are wrong. Or that I think you are wrong about your basic underlying assumptions. It’s that I don’t *understand* you.

  3. Incredibly, way too little concern way too late. When the “monster houses” started to appear in Vancouver in the ’80’s, subsequent to tearing down the character homes and rental housing for seniors on fixed income, the international media was fascinated by Vancouver’s “tolerance” and “ho-hum” attitude. Guess thousands of them have to disappear before anyone takes notice locally. Unfortunately, this apathy means those beautiful, one-of-a-kind homes are long gone and irreplaceable. Shame on the apathetic.

  4. We renovated our little post-war bungalow 2 years ago. All our neighbours, every single one, could not understand why we would renovate rather than tear down and max out everything.

  5. My grandparents used to live in the Dunbar region, and I have fond memories of hanging out there when I was a kid. But our family couldn’t afford to live there, even in the smaller type houses that are being torn down. It’s become a much different place even though many of the houses from ~20-30 years ago still remain. Should I really care about what happens to those houses now? The essence of the neighbourhood has already changed completely. So what if bigger newer houses are replacing the smaller ones. It’s just reflecting the wholesale change in the socio-economic makeup of that area.

  6. Watching home renovation shows based in Toronto is such a mind blowing thing for someone living in “knock-it-downville”. I’ve seen houses where the plumbing is over 100 years old, the electrical hopelessly inadequate, the stairs unsafe, the layout inefficient, the rooms tiny and the basement floor nothing more than dirt and yet there’s never any hint that it shouldn’t be fixed up and used for another 100 years.
    Can anyone explain why entire neighbourhoods in Toronto still feature the original houses while anything over 40 years old in Vancouver is considered landfill? They have excessive land values and high rates of immigration just like we do.

    1. Bingo. Great point, I have wondered myself. My guess is their culture has been surrounded by large tracks of historic architecture for years (Toronto’s 1940 population was 3 times as large as Vancouver) and they appreciate it. Also price pressures haven’t really gone too crazy until the last decade?

    2. David, yes, I can explalin. Culturally, some newcomers to Vancouver will not buy a house unless it is brand new as the “ghosts” of the previous inhabitants are considered bad luck.

  7. We don’t need more zoning regulations protecting the existing housing stock. We need less regulation on new housing stock.

    Ultimately the value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it. We’ve skewed the market through restrictive zoning so that these character homes are more valuable in a landfill than as they are.

    There’s nothing wrong with people’s preferences for “monster houses”. What’s wrong is using the government to enforce your preferences for low rises on other people, which restricts the housing supply, and causes people to tear down heritage homes and build monster houses. People are responding to incentives – not enough housing, so build the biggest possible house on the lot that zoning will allow, then cram 10 people into the house.

    If we allowed higher, denser buildings along, say, Cambie street, the desire to bulldoze these character homes would be substantially diminished.

    1. The concern over the loss of heritage and character homes is found mostly on the west side and that’s where you’ll hear the term “monster house”. Such a dwelling is far more likely to be housing only 3 people than 10. The key features are high land value and, preferably, a brand new structure. Such buyers have no interest whatsoever in townhouses on Oak or condos on Cambie. Building another 20,000 units would do nothing to halt the destruction of character homes.

      Older homes where all the value is in the land are natural targets for local builders and speculators hoping to sell to wealthy foreign and domestic investors. I’ve watched older houses purchased, demolished and the vacant lots resold for 10-15% more. Why would anyone preserve a character property when it’s worth less than the land it sits on?

      Over on the east side things are different. Houses are built to the maximum there too and you may indeed find 10 people living under one roof. Most new houses have a single dwelling on the upper floor and two suites on the lower. But you’ll probably never hear the term “monster house” and the older housing stock already features clumsy additions and suite conversions. When I was looking to buy a house on the east side it was frightfully difficult to find anything more than 25 years old that hadn’t been subjected to shoddy renovation work. The contractor who toured houses with me vetoed nearly every one of them in the first five minutes. We eventually bought a house with a few honest mistakes and quirks that had been lovingly maintained by the original builder for 50 years. When we sold that house it was demolished to make way for a 21st century Vancouver Special.

      1. Partly because East Van homes were often more basic, smaller and utlitarian. Therefore less concern over preservation. In the areas where they were grander you find the same push for preservation.

        Now we are just binning the more architecturally interesting homes in favour of beasts like this:

        15 years ago the bungalow on this lot would have sold for around $400k, a nice starter home. Now its a $3.4 million lot filling eyesore designed for a prospective offshore buyer.

    2. I disagree Spank; I think there is a lot wrong with “monster houses”: firstly, they are usually ugly; secondly, they are often left vacant and unmaintained; thirdly, they are often not of good quality construction; fourthly, they occupy most if not all of the lot, so there is not yard to speak of; and finally, they do not suit the character of a neighbourhood as they often lack character and dwarf adjacent homes.

  8. It is ironic our supposedly green Council majority does not bat an eye as thousands of tonnes of demolition material is dumped in our own backyards, while making much ado about reducing vehicle emissions, where their efforts are less than a drop in a worldwide bucket.

    Nobody who bought before 2005 is going to take a loss on their home if some air is let out of this frothy market. What percentage of homeowners is that? As a former council member, do you think it is council’s job to ensure resident’s real estate holdings always increase in value, even if it is at the expense of the environment and liveability?

    And why is it so many posters automatically leap into attack mode on single family homes? Only a tiny percentage of these demolitions are about increasing density. The vast majority are about providing offshore owners a gaudy bauble.

  9. Good points. I would support such a candidate but I’m probably in the minority. But maybe there’s another creative solution, such as allowing heritage house owners to build a larger laneway house on the condition that they accept heritage designation on the older, main house.

    If nothing official, then we really need to start shaming people. It has to simply become culturally unacceptable to tear down an older house. There’s a lot we can do without regulations, but with good old fashioned peer pressure.

  10. I have to say, a lot of these complaints seem like privileged, baby-boomer nostalgia. I’m a young person who rents in Mt. Pleasant, and I like a lot of the new modernist houses in the neighbourhood. I don’t see any reason why we should prevent new styles from being introduced, and I actually prefer neighbourhoods with different styles of housing.

    Just because boomers grew up with the bungalow style doesn’t mean it is the only appropriate or interesting style.

    1. JD, nobody here is advocating only for the bungalow; like you, we have a reverence for different styles of houses, that is houses with character and one-of-a-kind, often hand-crafted styles. The problems with some new houses is that they are cookie-cutter, pre-fabricated, and lacking in original features, essentially squared-off on all floors to maximize floor space at the expense of character. Other new houses are problematic because they are so different that they do not fit into the style, flavour, of a neighbourhood, standing out like sore thumbs. And, many today are thrown up so fast that they are not of good quality. I assure you that the concern is not one of “privileged baby boomer nostalgia”; rather, taste is at issue, and that varies greatly. As a self-professed “young” person, you like “new” and “modernist” regardless of placement or degree in a neighbourhood. You may, however, being “young” know little about, or have little appreciation for, the quality and originality of older products, and the importance of aesthetics on a neighbourhood street. You might find that your taste changes as you mature.

  11. I would agree that any new house on an existing street ought to have a minimum yard size, minimum setbacks and pass a basic “uglyness” test say by a “heritage design panel” that has to review and approve new construction or major alterations.

    However, in an in-migration society like Canada one person’s view of “ugly” is different than another person’s view as people from India, China, Russia, UK, France or Iran might differ on their view or preference of house style.

    re housing on Cambie, the city ought to expropriate some houses and start preparing high-rise sites. It can’t be that bungalows are within 20 meters of subway stations. Alternatively y the property taxes could be raised 20 to 50 fold over its current single family house status. That would curb the value increase substantially and motivate a bungalow owner to sell for reasonable prices to allow for development. The city of course ought also not to approve high-rises on Granville or Arbutus, for example, until Cambie has reached a certain development state.

    An then there is high rises construction at UBC with 15,000 new residents with no subway in sight nor even a second subway stop near these highrises even in a planning document anywhere.

    Indeed much misguided urban planning in Vancouver and area that could be improved substantially.

      1. democracy to totalitarian state is a continuum as in essence only every 4 years voters have a say .. in between elections there is much room for exercising control over finances, land, laws, .. and every democratic government makes use of this right of control to some degree, some more, some less ..

  12. How about we stop allowing foreigners to come and buy up all the properties at an exorbitant rate which makes the average Canadian now unable to buy a home. I hope the bubble bursts and home values drop below $200,00.

    1. All Governments will not do a thing about this because, a.) they have backroom free trade agreements with the Chinese to allow them to buy up anything in BC to encourage them to buy our oil and natural resources. b.) Americans have owned property in Canada for years, shutting them out means that wealthy New Englanders that have been owning property in the Maritimes for years are now subject to policy due to events in Vancouver. Also just so you know, British Columbia is the only Province that does not restrict foreign ownership of farmland and guess who’s buying that in record numbers? Hint, it ain’t young farmers from here. We are screwed.

    2. Many a Dunbar or Point Grey retiree doesn’t mind selling their shack for $3.0M and retire in a condo at UBC, in the Okanagon or V Island. For every (foreign)buyer there is a seller who also benefits.

      We should rather monetize foreigners’ desire to invest/buy here; for example by raising land transfer and/or property taxes for all, and reduce income taxes in parallel. Vancouver has one of the lowest property taxes in the country per $100,000 assessed value and other countries, like UK, are now introducing higher land transfer taxes.

      1. I know plenty of young kids in East Van that have great start up ideas that have no access to capital. You want to invest in B.C. start here, community venture capitalism, actually do something to enrich this city instead of using it as your safety deposit box with no interest in being here. Shelter is a necessity not a means for rabid speculation. As for the people so called benefiting, that money will be quickly absorbed and depleted with kids and grandchildren that need to survive because of soaring tuition costs, no jobs due to automation/robotics and a horrible Vancouver job market, and raising healthcare costs due to the diabetes and obesity epidemic.

      2. Thomas, pick up the latest Vancouver magazine and there is a great article about Sprawl in Vancouver’s West side and a great quote from Michael Kluckner, “Here’s my scenario for the West Side in 2025: its all rooming houses.” he says. “These houses are purpose built to be converted into rooming houses, with big bedrooms, good ceiling heights, bathrooms every four feet. It will be like what happened in the West End 100 years ago, when houses were too big for families after the first World War: everything got converted into rooming houses, and then later redeveloped more formally into apartments. It seems to me this is what will happen, and its not necessarily a bad thing.”

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