Kirk Jong and his wife, Elaine, are both engineers in their early 40s, making healthy salaries. They have two children – Kali, 9, and Kyle, almost 5. They sound like your average Canadian family, the kind typically found living in a big suburban house with a yard, a dog and a small, private transit system running everyone to jobs, schools, sports and the mall.
Instead, they’re living the anti-suburban life. The four Jongs (and a cat) live in what is essentially a large, open room – a 1,000-square-foot loft near Vancouver’s downtown and its rail-related industrial lands. They bought the condominium unit in 2003 for $269,900 (it’s now assessed at $481,000). Their three beds are within inches of each other on the upstairs half-floor. Kali’s play area has been carved out of space under the staircase. And a family’s worth of stuff is stacked tidily in cabinets, on shelving, and in plastic boxes as high as they’ll go along the walls.
“I get told a lot that I’m crazy, that we need to move,” says Kirk, who works at a high-tech business in nearby Richmond. Adds Elaine, while the two kids fence beside her with rubber swords: “My parents don’t understand why you’d live in an apartment.”
But the Jongs, who both grew up in bucolic southeast Vancouver, say they’re not willing to leave their central Mount Pleasant neighbourhood and they feel that buying anything house-like in the area they’ve come to love would mean too big a jump up the mortgage ladder. This week, the cheapest duplex on sale in the area is listed at $599,000; the cheapest house that isn’t a tear-down or on a major traffic street is $899,000. Their building, an artists’ live-work loft that was developed in the early nineties, gives them a spectacular view of the city. It’s just a few blocks from the comic-book store, the cafés and the other businesses they visit regularly on Main Street. They won’t even consider the suburbs.
The Jongs are part of a small but noticeable trend in both the United States and Canada – middle-class families who are so determined to hang on to the central-city urban life they got attracted to in their 20s that they’re refusing to follow the normal migratory flight to the land of the split-level and double garage.
Vancouver’s chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif, in a presentation on affordable housing to city council last week, reported that more than 11,000 families with children are living in studios or one-bedroom units in the city. The trend is so pronounced that it’s skewing school planning. A new school that is about to be built near Chinatown has had to have more space tacked on at the last minute. Planners never expected that so many children would appear in the areas nearby, because most of the units were small. It turned out they were wrong.
While many of the city’s crowded households are undoubtedly the traditional poorer families who’ve always packed into small spaces, some are not.
Instead, they’re middle– to higher-income families. A recent New York Times article on a similar trend noted that the number of white professionals with one or more children living in one-bedroom condo units in that city had jumped by almost a third between 2000 to 2006. Prof. Andrew Beveridge, from Queens College of the City University of New York, said the pattern was showing up in other expensive American cities. In Toronto, the 2011 National Household Survey showed there are about 72,000 families living in 71,500 units in buildings with five or more storeys – undoubtedly many of them the new, tiny condos proliferating there.
Vancouver has made an effort to attract families to its downtown and central areas, pushing developers to provide daycare spaces and parks and, not always successfully, three-bedroom condos. Developers have tended to prefer building smaller studios and one-bedrooms, which are snapped up by first-time buyers and investors. There’s been a boom in children downtown, but many couples in the past have only lasted a couple of years with an infant or a toddler in 600 square feet, before moving on.
What’s different now is the way the parents are hanging in past toddlerhood in the relatively small downtown condo units, people like the Jongs, several of their neighbours in the building, and a host of others.
It takes some strategic planning to live in that small a space, they acknowledge. Kirk and Elaine wear headphones to watch TV while their children tumble around the living area. When Kyle was a newborn and started crying, one parent would have to decamp to the bathroom and shut the door to try to keep the noise level bearable. Kali has never had school friends over because there’s just not enough room, although she loyally says that she copes. “I find it more comfortable. I have my brother here all the time.”
Kirk describes it as “kind of like living in a hotel room.” But he and Elaine also say it allows them to spend real family time together, not the kid-activity-oriented lives they see others embroiled in. The four spend a lot of time outside the condo, eating out and walking all over the city, rain or shine.
“On the weekend, we’ll leave here in the morning and we won’t come back till 9,” says Kirk. They walk to Stanley Park, Gastown, Chinatown, Science World. Since they’re so close to Main and Hastings, they frequently walk past the city’s most notorious drug corner. But the people hanging out there will call out, “Kids on the block,” and everyone is on their best behaviour while the Jongs pass.
That’s what they, and many other middle-class families, like – the sense that they’re living in a walkable place that’s almost like a village and where there’s a tolerance for all kinds of people. The Jongs’ children know most of the store-owners along Main and can call on them any time if they need help.
And what about adult alone time? Well, that too takes some strategy and planning but it all works, say the two diplomatically.
Like many other city families, Kirk and Elaine are always wondering how long they can hang on living in such a small space. They thought they’d move when the first baby was born. Then the second. “Even now, we keep saying we’ve got to move eventually,” says Kirk. But they also keep putting it off.
In Yaletown, on Vancouver’s downtown peninsula, Melanie Osmack says she and all the parents around her have gone through the same angst. Ms. Osmack, who runs a business targeted at the swelling population of middle-class families around her (pre- and postnatal fitness and yoga classes), said there’s been a sea change since she had her son 10 years ago. Her family and friends in Langley used to think it was just weird that she stayed living downtown with two kids (her daughter is 7) in a 700-square-foot condo unit. Even when she moved to her current abode, 1,100 square feet with – gasp – a second bedroom, it wasn’t seen as a huge improvement. But she’s stopped hearing the suggestions that she should move to a real house, after years of her enthusiastic descriptions of the close community she lives in and the many parks and activities she and her children have access to.
“I don’t get the pressure any more.” But she does wonder what she’ll do when her son is a teenager in not too many years and maybe not so eager to share a bedroom with his sister.