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Vancouver activists fight to bring housing back to middle class

Daniel Oleksiuk, an activist with Abundant Housing Vancouver, is photographed outside a early 1900-era building in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood in Vancouver, March 24, 2018.

Rafal Gerszak/Globe and Mail

“This building over here is my favourite,” says Daniel Oleksiuk. We’re standing before a 1907 four-storey apartment building in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, and there’s no question it is handsome. But Oleksiuk, a member of the activist group Abundant Housing Vancouver, doesn’t see its honey-coloured brick, dentils and quoining: He sees density. “It’s four storeys, no setbacks, no parking, with full lot coverage,” he says. “It is about six or seven times as dense as a single-family house.”

“And it would be impossible to build this now.”

That’s cause for concern to Oleksiuk, 33, and like-minded activists who call themselves YIMBYs, for “yes in my backyard.” Zoning regulations in much of the City of Vancouver are highly restrictive, and they’re preventing the development of new housing – housing that, the YIMBYs argue, the city desperately needs. YIMBYs take issue with the emphasis on “neighbourhood character” that is frequently invoked by opponents of development.

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In many respects, this critique – the dominance of single-family zoning, which effectively excludes anyone who’s not wealthy – applies far beyond Vancouver. It applies in Toronto, and in San Francisco and Seattle and Minneapolis–Saint Paul, a set of cities that already have their own young YIMBY movements. This is not merely about fine points of planning, and about restrictions that help drive up housing prices; it’s about a divide between haves and have-nots, enforced by century-old prejudices and outdated regulation.

This is why Oleksiuk, a labour lawyer, is spending his free time showing me century-old multifamily housing. He and Abundant Housing Vancouver (AHV) have given this tour before, showcasing the “missing middle” – the scale of dense, though not tall, housing that was commonly built a century ago before it was outlawed. The last time Oleksiuk led a public tour, in February, 90 people showed up.

Why? The brutal realities of Vancouver real estate are leading many young locals to think about these issues in a systemic way. And their central argument is powerful, once you understand it: That zoning, a form of municipal policy, protects expensive houses and forbids apartments that middle-class people can afford. This should be the seed for a national conversation about how our cities are growing, and for whom.

VANCOUVER ZONING MAP (JULY, 2017)

Historic area

Commercial

Comprehensive

development

Limited agricultural

1

Industrial

2

First Shaughnessy

Family dwelling

Vancouver

1. Includes light industrial zones.

2. Includes one, two and multiple family dwellings.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

MOUNTAINMATH SOFTWARE

VANCOUVER ZONING MAP (JULY, 2017)

Historic area

Commercial

Comprehensive

development

Limited agricultural

1

Industrial

2

First Shaughnessy

Family dwelling

Vancouver

1. Includes light industrial zones.

2. Includes one, two and multiple family dwellings.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

MOUNTAINMATH SOFTWARE

VANCOUVER ZONING MAP

(JULY, 2017)

Historic area

Commercial

Comprehensive

development

Limited agricultural

1

Industrial

2

First Shaughnessy

Family dwelling

Vancouver

Richmond

1. Includes light industrial zones.

2. Includes one, two and multiple family dwellings.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: MOUNTAINMATH SOFTWARE

How zoning is creating ‘a city for the rich’

The very phrase YIMBY is a response to the pejorative NIMBY, “Not in My Backyard.” A NIMBY is often a homeowner of a certain age who opposes nearby development, worried about shadows, privacy and parking spaces. The YIMBYs are young adults, largely renters, who see a systemic problem: Governments and neighbours who, by saying no to housing, are saying no to them. When I asked Oleksiuk what motivates his activism, he said, “Because I want to stay here. And if I stay here, I don’t want it to be only a city for the rich.”

That is what Vancouver is becoming.

While the city has an international reputation for “Vancouverism,” the apartment-heavy intensification of downtown from the 1990s on, most of the city – and especially the larger region – is made up of houses. And nearly all detached homes in Vancouver are now assessed at $1-million or more, often much more. Yet the city’s zoning, the policies that shape where growth can occur, calls mostly for single-family homes. AHV member Jens von Bergmann, a mathematician turned housing analyst, argues that 76 per cent of Vancouver’s residential land is restricted to single-family . And city policy – despite some recent incremental changes – largely locks that in place: An array of policies restricts multifamily housing.

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The YIMBY solution: loosen up zoning, particularly in single-family house neighbourhoods. Allow for the kinds of apartment buildings that were constructed a century ago and other forms of housing, preferably rental, that allow more people to move into these areas. As Oleksiuk puts it, citing a common YIMBY slogan, “We want to legalize housing.”

New market housing will not make Vancouver a cheap place to live, as every YIMBY I spoke to in Vancouver agreed. Social housing, co-ops and other forms of tenure will still be necessary. But AHV, like many YIMBY groups elsewhere, supports all of the above.

They argue that new market housing will help with affordability on the margins. As Oleksiuk puts it, if you replace a $2-million house with six $1-million condos, you increase population density, allow more people to have homes “and give those neighbourhoods new life.” And those six buyers, the argument goes, will not be competing for other, older housing. In this way, the benefit of more units spreads across the region, progressively freeing up other housing.

Abundant Housing Vancouver has borrowed this argument, among others, from a set of YIMBY groups that have appeared over the past few years, most prominently in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. There are now organized YIMBY groups in a dozen U.S. cities and in London.

They are ideologically diverse; some American YIMBYs advocate radical libertarian positions, arguing to strike down heritage restrictions and gut city planning. Others are much more progressive. In Vancouver, Oleksiuk is an NDP member. “We are a non-partisan group,” he said of AHV. “Arguing for more housing is something that seems to cross party lines.”

The prejudiced history of city planning

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One thing YIMBY groups tend to have in common is a skepticism about some aspects of city planning. And this is valuable, because “town planning” in North America was born in era of racial and class segregation, and was shaped by those practices.

Zoning – or the specific regulation of building forms and uses – came into wide use after 1910. In the United States, it was often explicitly linked to racial segregation. The historian Richard Rothstein, in his 2017 book The Color of Law, chronicles the spread of racialized zoning in the 1910s, characterizing these rules as “government policies to isolate white families in all-white urban neighbourhoods.”

A 1917 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down such explicit racism. And yet zoning regulations that limited housing types were, in many cases, serving the same agenda under a pretext. The prominent planner Harland Bartholomew authored a plan for the city of St. Louis in 1919; one of its goals, he wrote, was to prevent movement into “finer residential districts … by colored people.”

Things were different in Canada, but not as different as we might like to believe. Bartholomew worked in Vancouver, too, designing the first large-scale plan for the city in 1928 and a series of further documents into the 1940s.

“There were attempts to do zoning by race in Vancouver, though they were shot down by the courts,” said Nathanael Lauster, a sociologist at UBC whose book The Death And Life of The Single-Family House traces the history of housing in the city. “Instead you got these other models that tried to do the same things, via a different route.”

Economic zoning went ahead: By-laws in 1927 and 1928 limited apartment buildings and other forms of multifamily housing in Vancouver. And the basic principles of Vancouver’s official plan that protect much of the city, particularly what Lauster calls “the Mansion District” of the West Side, are not very different in their impact to the rules of 90 years ago.

YIMBYs understand this, and they see exclusionary zoning from the perspective of those who are excluded, as they themselves are – middle-class, but young and without much capital. “If you look at the history of zoning in Vancouver, the original intention was to keep poor people, renters and people of colour out of the quote-unquote finer residential districts,” Oleksiuk said.

All of this is baked into our current cultural understanding of housing. In The Death and Life, Lauster unpacks just what we mean by a “house” – it’s more complicated than it might seem – and how we came to see it as “the standard habitat for North American humanity.”

He also argues that Vancouver, which has made a radical shift toward apartment living in downtown since the 1970s, has become a leader in defining the posthouse city. “We just need to go much farther,” he said. “We’ve had a historic agreement to leave the single-family neighbourhoods alone, and that agreement is falling apart now because there’s nowhere else to go.”

The advocates and enemies of YIMBY

The YIMBY response to the current affordability crisis is not friendly to progressive pieties.

Progressive urbanists have argued for 40 years that home developers and builders are agents of gentrification and displacement. That dates back to 1960s and 70s battles around urban renewal – efforts by government and big business to remake urban centres in the name of commerce and automotive progress. Think of Jane Jacobs and her allies among the reform movement in Toronto, and kindred spirits of TEAM in Vancouver of the same era. They were worried about the destruction of the historic cityscape, and the displacement of poor and working-class communities. The sensibility of the era was bottom-up and small-is-good. The real estate industry was assumed to be evil.

YIMBYs feel otherwise. Build more housing, and the cost of housing will come down – or at least not rise as quickly. The central argument is basic macroeconomics: supply and demand.

This has more truth than most people believe. To see why, you need to remember that development in cities is highly restricted. There are in fact many constraints on what, and where, and how developers and builders can work. Just because there is a lot of housing being built by historical standards, that doesn’t mean there is as much as people would like to buy.

Second, housing markets are complex. Some people who might like to form households and live on their own may be forced to remain living with their parents or leave the region altogether. Economists call this “latent demand.” Its effects are not simple, but they are also underrepresented in media reports.

This is where a YIMBY analysis is useful, and it comes from AHV member Jens von Bergmann, who is trained as a mathematician and is an avid analyst of census data and the housing market. He points out that Vancouver’s number of 25-39-year-olds living at home is unusually high by Canadian standards – and it’s rising. The share of unusually crowded housing is also going up. “It’s a really complex issue,” he said, “but the data does imply that we have a shortage.” So too, he argues, does the vacancy rate in the region, which is around 1 per cent.

In fact there is a reasonably strong consensus among professional real estate analysts that Vancouver has a shortage of housing units. “Without significant changes to land and rental policies alongside a dramatic change to housing preference among buyers, [Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area] will become even less affordable,” CIBC economist Benjamin Tal wrote in a November report.

Of course, the development industry enthusiastically agrees.

Yet this idea is often seen as spin by the population at large. Many longtime Vancouverites view the city as being under siege. A polarized local debate has evolved, with “demand-side” measures, restricting the purchase of real estate on one side, and “supply-side” measures on the other.

In Vancouver, of course, this conversation is complicated by the presence of foreign – which is to say Chinese – money in the real estate market. For many observers, it seems obvious that however many condos you build, those foreigners will buy them up at any price, and no locals will benefit. There’s an intense local debate about the validity of this argument, and the degree to which it’s merely xenophobia. The assumption that real estate is connected to tax evasion and the practice of money laundering, which The Globe has documented within Vancouver real estate, add fuel to the fire.

In this context, to be an individual arguing for more housing supply requires a certain amount of contrarianism. Several of Vancouver’s most vocal YIMBYs are newcomers without much concern for local pieties.

Von Bergmann, an affable and intense man, is vocal about his love for Vancouver and enjoys getting around by bike with his family. But he’s his own person; he grew up in Germany, is self-employed and has designed software used to manage daycares in Taiwan. He is, in short, an outsider with a passion for data. He sees the current debates about affordability and development through a sympathetic but skeptical lens. “A lot of people are hurting in Vancouver,” he says, “and people want answers, they want solutions. But their tolerance for complexity … it’s not very high.”

Another is the UBC economist Tom Davidoff, who grew up in Brooklyn; he knows a thing or two about living in apartments, and about gentrification and ethnic tension. Davidoff proposed the tax measure that became the NDP provincial government’s so-called speculation tax, and supports many demand-side measures to address affordability. But he’s also a YIMBY sympathizer, and an outspoken critic of locals who oppose development at all costs. “I don’t think supply is the only question,” he says at a café near his Kitsilano home. “But the demand is real and it’s huge, and … I don’t see that ever slowing down.

“We absolutely have to change the zoning, especially on the west side,” he adds. “You can’t talk about housing prices, and then have land that’s worth $40-million an acre and require single-family homes. Dictating that you build something unaffordable that sucks up so much land – that’s insane.”

What, then, is the alternative?

The alternative

The idea of upzoning, or increasing the allowable densities on residential land, has entered planning policy in various ways. The city’s EcoDensity policy, starting in 2006, introduced measures to allow laneway housing: Homeowners in some single-family districts can build a residential unit facing the laneway, where a garage would stand. And secondary units have been broadly legalized. This is progress.

But clearly not enough to affect affordability. Mayor Gregor Robertson is not seeking re-election, weakened by his party Vision Vancouver’s perceived failure on this file. And with housing affordability as the No. 1 issue, YIMBY-style critiques are entering into the city’s politics. The recently elected councillor and upstart mayoral candidate Hector Bremner has citywide upzoning as one of his main campaign planks.

Scott de Lange Boom is one of two AHV members running for city council; he is seeking the Non-Partisan Association nomination, and advocates large-scale upzoning. He frames this as a generational issue. “Right now in most of the City of Vancouver,” he says, “you have to be able to buy a million-dollar plot of land before you even put up a building for one family. I’d like to see restrictions changed, and new forms that allow more people to live in one area.”

The specific form of more density – of a kind that will be politically acceptable – is a challenge for governments and planners. To address this, the local non-profit Urbanarium recently hosted an open design competition for the Missing Middle – intensification at middling density, which could be more politically palatable.

“There are ways for us to add a lot of density without it having a lot of impact on the neighbourhood character,” says an organizer, Scot Hein, UBC professor and a former City of Vancouver urban designer. The competition looks at the entire region. The winning proposals would scramble the legal structures that govern single-family houses without necessarily changing their form much. One winner, from a team of designers dubbed “the Happy Middle,” addresses a site in Port Coquitlam; it imagines a “Playbook” of deal-making and legal devices; a community land trust would facilitate small-scale development, going up to townhouses and low-rise eight-unit strata buildings, that would allow existing residents to trade on their properties for income and a diverse set of housing options.

The architect Bruce Haden, who managed the competition, sees hope for change. “Touching single-family house zones was until recently the third rail of municipal politics,” he told me in an e-mail. “I believe that those who are fearful of those neighbourhoods changing are now outnumbered by residents who are fearful of those neighbourhoods not changing, as they realized they may have to drive three hours to see their grandkids.

“Maybe people have figured out that being rich, old and alone on an empty street is not the most fun way to live.”

That change, if slow and sporadic, is bound to come. And the city of the future may end up looking a lot like the past. As I completed my walk with Oleksiuk, we passed a string of – now illegal – clapboard buildings that housed two, three, even eight apartments. Without Oleksiuk’s help, I told him, I wouldn’t have been able to spot these hidden households in this beautiful, pleasantly busy neighbourhood. “Exactly,” he said. “So we’re wondering, why are they against the rules?”

Put a bit differently, this is the question that YIMBYism poses for our cities: Why would we greet the presence of more housing and more people with a presumptive “no”? Why not get to “yes”?

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