One of the more remarkable aspects of the housing affordability crisis in Vancouver is the endless bloviating about community amenity policies and consultation processes, yet we are unwilling, or unable, to discuss actual root causes.

Stuart Smith is a director of advocacy group Abundant Housing Vancouver, and has done a lot of research on factors that have gotten us to where we are today, like exclusionary zoning. My notes from a meet-up over beer in early May include the names Sonia Trauss, Kim-Mai Cutler, and Stephanie Allen.

A few weeks ago, on the first of two days of public hearings in council chambers to debate the motion to amend RS-1 zoning across much of the city to allow for duplexes — an offshoot of the Making Room report (spoiler alert: it passed) — Stuart was one of the voices supporting this motion.

He was too short on time for an anecdote which would have served as an important educational moment — he shared it with me afterwards, along with the above map:

90 years ago, Harland Bartholomew drew this map. Its explicit goal was to constrain and separate apartments, and people who live in apartments, from detached homes, and the people who live in detached homes.

Many proponents of this map knew it would ghettoize apartments, and the racialized and marginalized people who were most likely to inhabit them at that time. They considered this a feature, not a bug.

This was a radical change to traditional ways of building a city. It’s been 90 years. The experiment has failed. It’s time to move on. It’s time to make room.

It’s possible this 90-year old zoning plan ultimately influenced the housing tempest we find ourselves in today.

If you buy into the idea that past is prologue — or, if you’re skeptical of Making Room and the duplex motion in general — watch and listen to the final 90 seconds of his Stuart’s actual presentation. It’s worth it:

The full text of Stuart’s five-minute presentation to Council follows.

Good afternoon Mayor and Council, thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak today and thanks to staff for doing the work to get us here.

My name is Stuart Smith, I’m a board member of Abundant Housing Vancouver, and I’m speaking in support of this item. It’s a very small step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Abundant Housing Vancouver believes housing is a human right and can be affordable for all. To accomplish that we must consider more than just buildings. We must consider land and where it’s located.

When affordable housing is illegal on most of our land, it should come as no surprise that our housing is not affordable.

When it’s illegal to house everyone who wishes to live in a given area of land, it should come as no surprise that housing on that land becomes a luxury good, available only to the most wealthy.

Who’s not here? It’s worth remembering that while this hearing is well attended by people who believe passionately one way or another, there are another 640,000 residents of Vancouver who did not feel strongly enough about duplexes to give up a Tuesday evening. We should be wary of assuming that they chose a movie or a night on the couch because they prefer to maintain the status quo. More likely, it never occurred them that duplexes where a big enough deal to even think about or end up before council. I look forward to the day when I can return to that level of engagement, but for the time being, here I am.

It’s also worth considering the people who left Vancouver but want to come back. These people are not in the room with us tonight.

Finally, across Canada there people from all walks of life who have heard about our amazing city and wish to join us. It would be a mistake to assume those voices prefer the status quo. It would be a mistake to assume that building a wall around our city to keep future friend and neighbours out, is the progressive choice.

Who can stay? I’ve lived in Vancouver for 30 years and I would prefer to stay. But whether I can or cannot stay is unfortunately not up to me. This is true of many people in Vancouver, many people here tonight, and even some of you on council.

Our decision today on whether to end the ban on duplexes across most of the city land is not just about the land upon which duplexes will or will not remained banned. It is also about all the other land in the city.

Allowing housing in one area takes pressure off other areas. Prohibiting housing in one area, increases pressure in other areas.

Our decision today will determine some of the choices available to thousands of families who want to stay in Vancouver. Choices both of housing type and most importantly, housing location.

The choices of location available to those families will ultimately decide if I can stay, if my friends can stay, and perhaps if you can stay. If we choose to allow RS to make room, this will take a bit of pressure off my neighbourhood, making redevelopment and eviction a bit less likely. If we choose to maintain the ban on duplexes and other forms of housing across most of the city, the pressure on my neighbourhood will go up and the redevelopment and eviction become a bit more likely.

Finally, who makes room? We, and all our housing, and all this land – which we should remember is not ours – are all connected. Every lot, every block, every neighbourhood is connected to every other lot block and neighbourhood. There is no way to have a land use policy in one lot, one block, or one neighbourhood, that does not also affect every other lot, every other block and every other neighbourhood.

The effects of low density zoning to not restrict themselves to the areas which are zoned for low density.

The single largest consumer of land available for housing are the RS low density zones.

What’s left after they have taken their pound of flesh from our city, are small slivers along noisy, polluted hell-scapes called “arterials”, and parts of the old city of Vancouver that have been told they have to “make room” since 1927.

In RS we banned the high rise condo/rental apartment.
In RS we banned the mid rise apartment.
In RS we banned the low rise apartment.
In RS we banned social housing.
In RS we banned public housing.
In RS we banned backyard cottages.
In RS we banned bungalow courts.
In RS we banned mobile homes.
In RS we banned sixplexes, fiveplexes, fourplexes, triplexes, and of course, duplexes.

In RS we even banned basement suites. Then the federal government told us we had to allow them during the war, then we banned them again in 1956, and then finally we legalized them one more time, but only by marketing them as “mortgage helpers” rather than “housing”

Banning so much housing in one part of the city has effects that ripple out to every other part of the city. Banning so much housing in most of the city has massive effects on the small parts of the city that remain.

Earlier there was a reference to “four quadrants” where information sessions were held in RS areas.

The people who most need consultation about changes to the largest consumer of land in Vancouver – single family zones – are NOT the people who live in those areas. They are the people who live in the west end, who live in Fairview, who live in Mount Pleasant, who will be required to leave or squeeze in tighter if RS remains off limits.

Downtown has been “making room” for 90 years.
The West End has been “making room” for 90 years.
Fairview has been “making room” for 90 years.
Mount Pleasant has been “making room for 90 years.

If it is not time for Point Grey, Shaughnessy and Dunbar to “make room” when will it be?

Comments

  1. Ah yes, the old “let’s demonize single family housing” trope. How convenient that Vision presided over the nearly unchecked destruction of older, smaller, affordable homes in favour of permitting the building of larger McMansions targeted to the offshore buyer. Indeed, Vision even increased the allowable size of these homes. And this allowed them to perpetuate the narrative that single family houses caused the affordability crisis, and the only answer was higher density in the form of condominiums built and marketed by Vision Vancouver backers. The real threat to affordability is the destruction of lower end multifamily in favour of glittering showpieces for global capital, like The Butterfly. It is no coincidence that after decades of near perfect balance, the West End is seeing huge increases in the demolition of housing stock once Vision opened the floodgates to redevelopment.

    Studies have shown Millenials are now increasingly headed to the suburbs to start families, just as their forerunners did. The Great Recession created the false illusion they were somehow different that previous generations, when in fact it was merely the economic setback that temporarily changed behaviours.

    1. Hi Bob, to clarify, the problem is not single family housing. If you have a single family home and like it, that’s great!

      The problem is single family zoning which forbids all other types of homes, and is applied across most of the land available for housing, severely limiting other people’s choices and the total amount of housing available in any given area. It also has the effect of shielding single family house buyers from competition for land from people who would be fine with apartments. This lowers land cost for single family buyers by making land for apartments more expensive. Finally, by putting so much land off limits for additional housing, it focuses regional demand on the small areas that are already much more dense, creating a cycle of displacement, demolition, and gentrification.

      McMansions are a symptom. Few sane buyers would choose to build a McMansion for one rich family if they had the option of bulding 10-30 apartments for 10-30 less rich families on the same amount of land. But the apartments are illegal, so a McMansion it is.

      Lower end multifamily is threatened precisely because the land it’s located on is the only land legal for multifamily. The best way to take pressure off lower end multifamily is to expand the land near the core where it’s legal to build multifamily on.

      The West End is seeing demolition precisely because most other neighbourhoods are forbidden by zoning to grow at all.

      The Butterfly is only possible because we have kept such a lid on land for multifamily for 90 years, raising land cost per unit of floorspace to incredible levels.. If you want fewer Butterfly’s we need thousands more walk-up wood frame apartments with no parking in Shaughnessy, West Point Grey, Kerrisdale, Dunbar, etc. to take the pressure off, just like we used to build before 1927.

      If the single family lifestyle requires not just your home to be single family, but every other building within sight to also be single family homes, then it’s asking the govt to control other people’s lives and housing choices. It’s hard to understand why that would be in the public’s best interests.

      Single family houses are fine.
      Duplexes are fine.
      Backyard cottages are fine.
      Trailer homes are fine.
      Bungalow courts are fine.
      Apartments are fine.

      I see no reason why we should want to limit people’s options across so much land.

      Take care

  2. If stagnation and failing to replace housing stock(1% to2% per year required) is a “perfect balance” I can see how a plethora of run-down housing would be our future. Old housing always was new housing and often “state of the art” expensive housing in it’s day. Ideally our buildings should last more than 50 to 100 years before replacement but the sad fact is that most of what was built in the last 50 years was substandard and energy hogging. I have my doubts that much is salvageable in terms of making them energy efficient even though I used to believe that mantra. Much has little architectural merit and, as such, gives little back to the community. Fortunately new buildings use far less energy and, by code, thermal performance is ramping up quickly. Passive houses requiring only 10 to 20% of current heating/cooling energy demand are challenging a core of our society’s waste. The building assemblies are more robust and will last far longer than the rotting mouldy places we’ve built for so long. They are increasingly the standard construction for rezoning. Should we stop doing that?

    For all of what Vision Vancouver is known, and chastised, for, the Greenest City Action Plan will be their greatest legacy – yet it’s rarely discussed. This is a challenge that requires vision in a world of easy status quo propaganda designed for the ridiculous profits of those who benefit from complacency. Ironically I hope we are not deemed the greenest city. I hope others will have done even better. But in this case, trying is not a failure.

    If people are fleeing the city it’s more likely from a lack of supply. Agreed, too many McMansions have been built but it seems as though you’d have been just as upset if the old bungalows were replaced with small apartment buildings. It may be difficult to temper rising costs with new buildings but it’s absolutely impossible without new buildings and higher density.

    I also question the “Millennials headed to the suburbs” meme. For one thing I see as many young people out and about enjoying the city as ever (with and without strollers). Meanwhile the suburbs are less and less the suburbs of our “forerunners”. Many younger people expect mixed-use walkable neighbourhoods, downtowns in their own right, and they seek and help create them out there. And what’s wrong with that? Vancouver need not be the centre of our universe. The whole plan from way back in the 70s was to create regional town centres so that people had choices other than a long commute into Vancouver. Too bad it took so long. Hopefully they’ll be at least as successful in getting more people out of their cars.

  3. Stuart Smith’s commentary is one of the best I’ve heard so far on this issue. Bravo!

    Ron’s commentary is insightful and makes sense. I would take issue, however, with demolishing those lovely and rare Craftsman Bungalows. Saving them and recycling the good stuff from existing housing of lesser design quality should be incentivized; demolition should be penalized. Incentives could include working with Planning to establish the flexibility to allow one or two additional housing units in return for saving character houses and / or recycling materials from existing structures.

    Bob’s commentary is off the wall and not backed by any independent study, analysis, evidence or the ability to see the plain, simple geometry of basic land planning. It is backed only by opinion, much of it based on class, and political jabs at one particular party which has ruled for only 7.5% of the time since Vancouver’s inception and 14% since the zoning bylaw was enacted that essentially froze millions of square metres of land, the largest chunk in a city where land has run out.

    1. I am also concerned about the loss of historic and character homes as they add to the richness of our public spaces. Though I’m sure some will fall within RS-1 and be threatened most are already outside of RS-1.

      In all cases the idea the we bulldoze and discard should be a thing of the past. Salvaging 95% of old houses is already being done and it should be the norm.

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