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”.
Says 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.
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.