Sociologist Nathanael Lauster discusses his book “The Life and Death of the Single-Family Home” in this interview with Jeremy Runnalls in Corporate Knights, the Magazine for Clean Capitalism.
I am intrigued by the historical connection Lauster makes between culture, class and zoning; and the way these ideas echo and influence even today. For example, it goes unchallenged when people naturally assume that dense housing should, of course, be built adjacent to arterial roadways. This despite ongoing evidence that such proximity has health hazards built-in.  So we assume it’s OK to relegate larger numbers of one class to these hazards, and reserve healthier locations for smaller numbers of another, a.k.a. “la crème de la crème”.

nathanaellausterSays Lauster:   You see covenants still written into old housing deeds, restrictions that are no longer legal but point to a previously racially-restrictive housing past. Anti-Asian mostly, although there was a historic black neighbourhood that was destroyed in an attempt to build a freeway, not to mention First Nations groups… So it’s intertwined with a lot of these zoning laws. Single-family zones, in particular, were meant to keep out the rabble, which included anyone who couldn’t afford a single-family house. This included the poor, as well as most immigrants and other groups that would be inclined to subdivide up houses into multiple apartments or take in boarders.. . .
What we haven’t seen as much attention paid to are the places zoned for single-family houses. We still have, effectively, about 80 per cent of our residential land base locked away for single-family houses owned by millionaires – despite the ongoing affordability crisis sweeping the city. Only 35 per cent of Vancouverites are able to live in these areas.
This is where the politics comes in. You can’t change this solely through neighbourhood consultations, because local residents are not going to let you. If you want your planning process to have democratic legitimacy, you need to make it a full city-wide process. Community groups should have a seat at the table, but they can’t be the sole deciders of how their neighbourhood is going to change. The very reason it hasn’t changed is because it was built to be exclusionary in the first place.

Lauster’s book has been reviewed many times, including this in the New York Journal of Books.


“I say, my dear, where are the Buicks?”

Many of us have been conditioned by our cultural norms to equate [“home”] with a separate structure under its own peaked roof, standing on an individual plot of land, with yards acting as moats buffering the residential unit from public intrusions. That is, home means the single-family detached house as might be signified by a child’s crude drawing of a square box with a door and windows topped by a triangle boasting a smoking chimney, bordered by a picket fence.
In our culture, becoming a successful adult as measured by a good job, a life partner, and starting a family, traditionally was the cue to buy a house of your own, probably in a leafy suburb like your parents and grandparents. But in this era of globalization, increasing migration and diversity, urban sprawl, and escalating property values, many urbanites are challenged to make themselves at home in the city without the familiar security blanket of the house. . . .
Lauster concludes: “Ultimately, it seems, Vancouver provides the cultural scaffolding for many people to reinterpret their lives as success stories even when they do not own houses.”
A number of his respondents reject the single-family house in favor of alternative visions of the good life. Townhouses, apartments, and the like not only are more affordable but require far less time and energy in maintenance. Furthermore, they turn out to be surprisingly good places to raise children.

Lauster is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, UBC.


  1. Thanks for the review, Ken. This sounds like an interesting read. I think I agree with the author for the need for a city-wide approach. There are valid reasons for not treating all neighbourhoods the same, but differentiation must be based on larger city-wide objectives to have acceptability and legitimacy. From what I can tell politicians in both Portland and Seattle lost site of this to their own detriment. Perhaps Vancouver may show some leadership in the same vein it has in the past.

  2. Part and parcel to this is the incredible disdain that so many homeowners have towards “Renters,” with a belief that anyone who Rents is low class, and probably a drug addict on welfare, if not a full patch member of a recognized biker gang.
    This is particularly pronounced in strata-land, where Owners will fight battles to prevent units being rented. The people in our strata surely know every unit that is rented, and look down their noses at the lesser beings who inhabit those townhouses. It’s assumed that mess in the recycling bins, “illegal” cars parked in visitor parking, and Christmas lights left up past February 1st are all caused by Renters.
    I’m truly baffled how, in a city where something like one third of families rent their homes, so many people can believe such awful things about people who choose not to invest in our overheated housing market.

  3. That restrictive covenant thing is definitely exists in North Vancouver. A friend of mine was horrified to find an anti-semitic one on a property he bought in the Edgemont Village area.

  4. WRT pollution, the higher property values – and the richer classes – have (since industrial times) been situated on the west sides of cities (in the northern hemisphere), because prevailing winds come from the west, so the city’s smoke and industrial pollution (think coal burning) would drift over the east end of the city.

  5. This is even more important now that researchers have identified living near high levels of traffic as increasing the probability of getting dementia. More and more evidence keeps piling up that we are doing rather terrible things to the health of our citizens with our current zoning and city planning procedures. It’s about time that was taken into account.

    1. So what do you suggest ? Only commercial besides busy streets ? No more cars ? Trucks illegal ? Noise barriers ? Higher gasoline taxes ?
      If you want cheaper and more housing you put it where land is cheaper and that is usually less desirable areas. No ? Or only ocean front rentals allowed ? Or on a park ? Or away from busy roads ?

  6. In Calgary, if you have a home and want to turn part of it to rent as a secondary suites, you must present your case publicly….to City Council. Mayor and several councillors have tried to change this…since the applicant must reveal their personal situation why they want to rent it out….
    There have been recent attempts to change bylaw for certain communities to allow secondary suites without this expensive, time-consuming process of allowing legal secondary suites.
    Now the Planning and development is attempting to fast track approved applicants to get them through the system..
    The snobbery of single family dwelling owners vs. renters is significant in certain Calgary neighbourhoods.
    What appears as a class war on rental housing vs. home ownerss: There are also games being played where some owners DON’T want to be subjected to required fire code and safety design meaures. most likely these people want to rent suites in a home illegally without attention to tenant safety and cost to upgrade their suite to safety.
    I would suggest strongly to look carefully underneath to any wide opposition to rental units even if they are regulated and safety measures: there are negligent landlords. This came to the forefront in Toronto in 1980’s where several people died in a rooming house fire….and resulted changing fire code regulations for Ontario ….with Toronto changing bylaw also. (I worked for Ontario provincial agency for the administering the fire code, where the engineers provided expert witness testimony to a coroners’ inquest.)

  7. There is a reason for zoning. There is a reason for SINGLE family housing (SFH) zoning. There are reasons why commercial, industrial or multi family is not allowed in certain zones. A city must allow zoning for all, in some instances together and in others apart.
    Who wants to buy a $5M single family house and have riff raff, an industrial lot or partying renters next door ? It is common sense to sensibly rezone some ( but not all ) SFH areas for multiple dwellings or even mixed use e.g. commercial or even light industrial on ground floor then office then residential above. It also makes total sense to me to keep some significant areas of the city single family.
    In addition, because you were lamenting negative impact of traffic it makes sense to allow higher density or commercial along busy streets i.e. lower land values make for more cost effective rental or multi family properties. Hastings, Terminal Ave, 76 Ave, Commercial, Main, 41st Ave, 16 Ave etc come to mind that are too SFH zoned and could be upzoned for more housing.

  8. Noise decreases with distance, and sites even one block off arterials are remarkably quieter. Unfortunately, fine particulate pollution is carried on the breeze, but still does generally decrease over distance.
    The key is to subdivide our expensive and wasteful standard and large lots into smaller lots, then build attached single-family homes (aka rowhouses) with mortgage helper suites, starting in RS1 zones. The allowable FAR could start at 1.5 and max out relative to desired height and number of units to maintain neighbourhood character. Design guidelines could be enacted.
    In this way I suggest one of the best ways to address affordability is to lower the purchase price by occupying less land while also increasing family income through a rental suite. New structures can achieve better sound proofing through design.
    Higher quality suites will generally have higher rents. But many live-in owners upstairs will likely exert both greater control over tenants than absentee owners, and exercise flexibility and leniency in order to keep good tenants. With attached rowhouses, many owners will live with tenants in direct adjacency, something that cannot be said for towers where half the units are investment properties owned by people who don’t live in the building, or under an in-house rental manager.
    Even so, not every owner and tenant is bad. Some tenants are quite wealthy and have downsized from the suburbs to waterfront towers downtown where they can walk to their yacht below the windows.

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