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Graham and Sarah Plant in their basement rental suite in Vancouver. With a baby on the way, they are trying to figure out if they can buy anything bigger than 900 square feet in their preferred area for under half a million dollars.

Graham and Sarah Plant in their basement rental suite in Vancouver. With a baby on the way, they are trying to figure out if they can buy anything bigger than 900 square feet for around half a million dollars without going outside the city.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Development

Making room for families in the city

Graham Plant does not want to copy his father's housing choices: move to a suburb, live in a big place, commute an hour a day to a job downtown.

Mr. Plant and his wife, who are expecting their first baby next year and live in a large basement suite near Cambie Street, want to stay in a central Vancouver neighbourhood near their jobs. He works as a real estate consultant for groups building subsidized housing. She is a counsellor at a support recovery house.

They are willing to forgo the kind of space their suburban ancestors saw as a necessity for family living. They also accept that they will pay more in spite of that sacrifice.

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But, even with help from the parents of both and reasonable household income (in the $100,000 ballpark) for their age group (29 and 27), they face unpalatable choices.

Single-family houses are out of the question. The dominant family-sized offerings in Vancouver are the townhouses for $850,000 and up being built around Oak or Cambie, or the rare three-bedroom condo elsewhere.

"That's what my parents would be interested in buying. It's not even being built to suit young families," says Mr. Plant, whose father, former attorney-general and lawyer Geoff Plant, eventually upgraded to a house on the west side of Vancouver.

Mr. Plant the younger does not imagine ever being able to afford to live on the west side.

To get something large enough and in the $500,000 to $600,000 range they think they can manage, the Plants have a choice between the optimistically labelled two-bedroom-and-dens of East Vancouver or small townhouses in Richmond or Burnaby.

"We don't want to give up living in the city," Mr. Plant said. "But there's such limited stock in the places we want to live."

In the more urban parts of the region, that is increasingly the situation facing service, clerical and factory workers, as well as young professional couples such as the Plants.

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Graham and Sarah Plant are photographed in their basement rental suite in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, July 27, 2015. With a baby on the way they are trying to figure out if they can buy anything bigger than 900 square feet for a half million dollars.

“We don’t want to give up living in the city,” Mr. Plant said. “But there’s such limited stock in the places we want to live.”

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Some want larger places to buy. Some want to rent. But very little is available for either group.

Statistics put out by the city indicate the 55,000 rentals in Vancouver include only 500 three-bedroom apartments. No statistics were provided for condos and townhouses, but a long-standing concern in Vancouver is that condo developers have defaulted overwhelmingly to bachelor and one-bedroom apartments because those sell more quickly to investors.

Cities such as Vancouver and New Westminster are trying to fix this housing mismatch by requiring developers to include more "family-size" housing in their projects.

Vancouver said in May it will require 35 per cent of units in all new developments to have two or three bedrooms. Rentals built under an incentive program will need to make 5 per cent of the units three bedrooms.

It is also promising to create new developments with donated city land and non-profit builders in which a large proportion of units are family-sized, with some at below-market rents.

As of January, New Westminster will require that 20 per cent of all units be two-bedroom and 10 per cent three-bedroom for condo or townhouse developments. (Rentals will have to meet a 5-per-cent target for three-bedroom units.)

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"All of our growth here is going to be in multifamily," says New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote, who lives in a townhouse with his young family. "We want to make sure there's housing options for everyone."

The city was prompted to act when it got a proposal from a rental-apartment developer for a large project that was entirely studio and one-bedroom units.

The story is similar in Vancouver.

"Developers have four to five thousand new starts a year. They do provide the greatest supply of new housing in the city," said Mukhtar Latif, Vancouver's chief housing officer.

But creating housing for young families is more complicated than just telling builders to put in more three-bedroom units.

Developers say they have actually been building more two- and even three-bedroom units lately. Binning House at UBC, for example, was redesigned to create more large units.

Jon Stovell, who is co-developing Burrard Place with the Pattison Group, said 35 per cent of the units in that project will have two bedrooms or more.

But those units are for older families, not younger ones, including downsizing boomers who want the space (and have the money) to accommodate furniture from their houses and perhaps a temporary boomerang child living with them.

The large units for that demographic are in the $800,000- to million-plus-range and are often in buildings' prime spots, such as higher floors and corners.

To create larger but cheaper units, developers say they have limited options: Put them on lower floors, build them in areas where land costs less or make them smaller.

On top of that, the archetypal slim Vancouver condo tower makes it particularly difficult to build three-bedroom units with a window for each room, except on corners. And there are not enough of those to go around.

For developers, the solution in towers is for third bedrooms to use "borrowed" light via a transom or an opening into another part of the unit – which means they do not have a window.

Mr. Latif and Mr. Stovell, who is also vice-chair of the Urban Development Institute, acknowledged the city and development industry are at odds over that strategy. The city is saying no to both. Builders are saying it is the only feasible solution.

"We've said to the city, 'You tell us how to do it in a tower,'" Mr. Stovell said. "I support and respect their objective of opening the door to families, but for this to be meaningful, the city is going to have to ease up."

Mr. Cote said New Westminster had to adopt rules to ensure that "the third bedroom isn't just a closet" and all of them are livable.

But neither city has any kind of minimum square footage for the two- and three-bedroom units.

In contrast, BC Housing, the province's social-housing agency, spells out the minimum sizes for family-sized apartments and townhouses. Two-bedroom apartments must be at least 795 square feet; townhouses 969. Three-bedroom apartments cannot go below 1,000 square feet; townhouses 1,195.

Alexis Hinde, a film-industry worker who lives in a 950-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment near Stanley Park with her husband and son, says she could not imagine trying to function in something smaller.

The kinds of amenities that families say make living in smaller spaces possible are not mandatory.

Neil Salmond, who lives in a 750-square-foot rental apartment in the west end with his wife and son, says being in a small space works if other areas are available.

His building has storage rooms in the basement, a rooftop garden for all tenants, and a big lobby where people can take off wet coats or drop their groceries for a minute.

Mark and Gillian Hollett managed to get all of that in the three-bedroom condo they bought for $350,000 two years ago in New Westminster.

Their fifth-floor apartment has three bedrooms, a den, two sundecks and two full bathrooms. The building has a pool, a full gym and a library, and it sits on top of a SkyTrain station, which makes life with their three children, 7, 6 and 2, much easier.

They would rather be in Vancouver. This was their next best choice. But even this was hard to find.

"We looked at everything on this side of the river," Ms. Hollett says. Mr. Hollett adds: "It was a challenge finding something this size that was affordable."

Other young families say they will wait to see if cities can make a difference.

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