Charles Montgomery is the author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
My neighbour, Roger, was loitering in the foyer of St. James Square, a community hall on Vancouver’s bucolic West Side, when he spotted a flyer on the wall that kind of ruined his day.
HELP SAVE OUR NEIGHBOURHOOD, read the all-caps call to action.
The flyer, produced by the Upper Kitsilano Residents Association, warned the city was planning to hand over control of the neighbourhood to large corporations and real estate investment trusts. Developers would soon be cutting down trees and replacing character homes with oversized boxes that would be rented out for huge profits.
It was a frightening warning, one that has been sounded in scuffles about the pace of change in cities across the continent. But Roger was perplexed by the image that the flyer used to illustrate its dystopian future. It was a photo of an apartment building, which happened to be Roger’s own home – and mine, too.
Roger and I are part of a group of urban idealists who poured our life savings into a co-housing village on Vancouver’s East Side. After six years of work, we moved into our new apartments in March, 2021. We were proud to have created a building that was as rich with social spaces and coziness as it was in features that shrunk our carbon footprint. We also thought our six-storey building was downright handsome.
How did our beloved urban village become someone else’s image of a capitalist hell?
The question cuts to the heart of Canada’s housing crisis. Home prices and rents have skyrocketed across the country. Young professionals can’t afford to buy. People at the bottom end of the income spectrum can’t afford to rent near work or school. Thousands of people are being pushed onto the streets. Meanwhile, Canada, which depends on immigration to drive the economy and support aging boomers, plans to welcome more than 430,000 new immigrants this year alone, all of whom will need homes.
We desperately need more housing to catch up with demand. Where should those homes be built and what should they look like?
I’ve spent the past 15 years trying to figure out how urban design influences human well-being (a journey I partly document in my book, Happy City). My research has led me to believe that solutions to the housing crisis need to address not just the cost of housing but the effect that various approaches have on people’s health and happiness.
What kind of housing would we enable if we were interested both in affordability and well-being? Some pundits insist what we really need is more urban sprawl. If we just paved over more farmland, they argue, thousands of people could find the bungalows of their dreams. This argument seems to make sense on the surface, but kick the tires and the wheels fall off.
First of all, the sprawl solution fails to account for the cost of getting around. Families forced out to car-dependent neighbourhoods at the metropolitan fringe often have no choice but to own two or more cars, and to drive thousands of kilometres every year just to meet their basic needs. That can mean spending an extra $10,000 a year on transportation, according to Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. “Every dollar that someone saves on a cheaper house by moving to a sprawled location is more than lost in the extra money they will be spending on transportation,” Mr. Litman said. Once you add up both the costs of housing and transportation, people who live on the urban fringe end up paying more than people who live in central neighbourhoods.
But sprawl’s corrosive effect on well-being goes beyond the cost of living. As I document in Happy City, people in sprawl neighbourhoods report more stress and thinner social connections than people living in mixed-use, walkable places, in part because they have to spend so much time on the road. That’s also why people in unwalkable neighbourhoods are 50 per cent more likely to be obese, and why they die three to five years sooner than people who live in walkable places.
Some Canadian cities are veering to the other extreme to solve their housing shortage. Forests of residential towers up to 50 stories are sprouting from Scarborough to Surrey. Many of these supertall buildings do offer housing close to shops, services and jobs. And some people love tower living. But in an increasingly lonely world, these environments often fail as social machines.
It’s a problem of scale. The evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar found most people have a limited capacity to recognize faces and determine who we can trust on a day-to-day basis. When we are forced to share semi-private spaces with hundreds of neighbours, we tend to retreat from one another.
Surveys show people living in tall towers report knowing fewer neighbours and doing fewer favours for each other than people who live closer to the ground. Their children tend to be more anxious and less healthy. Tower residents are actually the most likely to report feeling both lonely and crowded at the very same time.
The sweet spot
If the extremes – more sprawl or supertall towers – aren’t ideal, how and where can we create housing that combines both affordability and social connectedness?
That was the challenge faced by members of our co-housing group. There was no way that most of us could afford to live in detached homes in Vancouver, where the average house price has shot past $1.9-million. We didn’t want to move to a condo tower where we would share elevators with hundreds of neighbours. Nor did we want to leave our beloved city.
Our solution? We bought three detached homes in East Vancouver and made our own vertical village. Since land was so expensive, we had to build a six-story building with 25 apartments to make it affordable for our members. We designed small apartments so we could also infuse the building with shared amenities such as a dining hall, a music room, a guest room, and two shared gardens.
It’s been almost a year since we moved in. Little Mountain Cohousing really does feel like a village. Dr. Dunbar would approve of the scale of our community: I know the names of all 50 of my co-housers. We dine together two or three times a week. We drop off meals for sick neighbours. Volunteers provide after-school care for other people’s children, saving families hundreds of dollars a month. We are good neighbours, too: A few months after settling in, our members brought the rest of the street together for the street’s first outdoor Halloween party.
That’s why Roger and I were so puzzled to see our building featured in that anti-development flyer from the Upper Kitsilano Residents Association. I managed to track down one of the association’s directors (and the flyer’s co-author) to tell her about the project behind their photo. Evelyn Jacob explained she lived in a detached character home in Kitsilano that she had inherited from her mother. She was all for more affordable housing – in fact she rented the ground floor of her house to three university students at a discount. But she was dead certain a building like ours would be unwelcome on her street.
“It would not be acceptable from a design perspective,” she said. “If there was an apartment next door to me, we’d all be looking into each other’s windows. And what would it do to my privacy in my garden?”
Ms. Jacob’s concern went beyond aesthetics. She argued new housing tends to be so expensive that it only worsens the affordability crisis.
That’s a common concern in discussions about new development. Apartments in new buildings are almost always more expensive. But economists who study the issue say we should be looking beyond the walls of any single building to the systemic, citywide effect of new housing.
A flurry of recent studies have shown new supply – even market-rate housing – reduces the cost of housing in general. Take our co-housing building as an example. We made room for 50 people on land that previously housed fewer than 10. (Detached homes in our neighbourhood are selling for between $2.5-million and $3.5-million. A two-bedroom apartment in our building cost about $655,000 – which may not be cheap, but it’s well below market rates in Vancouver.) But here’s the real power of our building: Most of us had moved from rental homes to our new apartments. Then, in a phenomenon known as filtering, other people found housing in our vacated rental units, leaving their own units available for yet other people, and so on, resulting in a knock-on effect that often involves as many as six household moves.
This musical-chairs-like process incrementally lowers rental rates, provided a) cities have strong protections for current renters, and b) we don’t knock down affordable rental apartments to replace them with new luxury apartments.
Which brings us to one of the greatest barriers to affordable housing in North America.
A ban on affordability
Most cities are bound by decades-old exclusionary-zoning rules originally designed to keep poor people out of favoured districts. It’s still illegal to build multifamily housing in most urban neighbourhoods in Canada. In Toronto, two-thirds of residential land is reserved for detached homes. In Vancouver, apartments like my new home are outlawed on more than 80 per cent of residential land.
The result? Old homes in so-called “single-family” districts near urban amenities get replaced by multimillion-dollar executive homes, while more affordable apartments get pushed onto noisy, polluted arterial roads. Two-thirds of Vancouver’s households now squeeze into just a fifth of the city’s residential land.
This lopsided dynamic leaves non-profit housing advocates deeply frustrated.
“Look at the zoning maps of most municipalities. Renters are being pushed onto large arterial roads because that’s the only place we are allowed to build new purpose-built rental,” said Jill Atkey, chief executive officer of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association.
Ms. Atkey points out that senior levels of government have underfunded social housing for a generation. BC alone is short more than 100,000 social housing units. Ms. Atkey’s first priority is to get that social housing funded and built. But the exclusionary zoning that protects single-family neighbourhoods has put her non-profits in a perverse position: In order to build more affordable rental, they have to tear down existing affordable rental in scarce apartment zones.
“Opening up our single-family zoning for four- to six-storey apartment buildings – both non-profit and market housing – would ease the pressure on the affordable areas in the city,” she said. “It’s just a fundamental question of equity. When more and more people are being pushed out of home ownership, there should be more options for renters all over the city.”
Ms. Jacob and Ms. Atkey agree on one thing: When cities rezone single parcels or small areas of land to allow taller buildings, property owners end up selling their land for windfall profits and the resulting housing is really expensive.
A new report from the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies suggests the solution is not to slow down rezoning. It is to expand it, to permit medium-dense housing from townhouses up to six-storey apartments, almost everywhere. “When cities only upzone land on a spot basis, they just enrich existing property owners,” report author Shane Phillips told me.
“If developable land was no longer scarce, property owners would no longer hold all the cards. They would not be able to demand more from developers than they would from typical homebuyers.”
Some governments have begun to take baby steps in this direction. This month, the Ontario government’s Housing Affordability Task Force recommended the province force cities to allow buildings with up to four units, everywhere. And Vancouver recently allowed rental apartment buildings of up to four stories within 200 metres of shopping streets.
These measures are a long way from the systemic change Mr. Phillips advocates. Up-zoning entire cities to permit medium-dense housing would bring down land costs for anyone providing new housing. It would allow mom-and-pop entrepreneurs to compete with the global developers now shaping urban life. It would slow the pace of sprawl. And it would give more people the ability to live in healthy, connected neighbourhoods.
Ironically, it would also reduce the need for the taller apartment towers that neighbourhood groups hate so much. Had Vancouver allowed medium-dense housing everywhere, Mr. Phillips insists my co-housing group wouldn’t have had to pay so much for our land. Our apartments would have been cheaper. Alternatively, we could have taken advantage of that cheaper land and constructed a lower building that may have been less of a bother to people worried about neighbourhood character.
That way, our home would not have become the poster child for other people’s fears about the future.
Canada’s housing markets: More from The Globe and Mail
On this episode of the Stress Test podcast, hosts Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw take a trip to Belleville, Ont., for the real story about how a hot market has made housing less affordable in small-town Canada.