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Sean Reilly sits in front of the Vancouver house he is about to demolish in order to build a duplex.

Melissa Renwick

Sean Reilly looked ahead to his four children’s real-estate future in Vancouver and it wasn’t a promising sight.

Even though prices have gone down slightly from the city’s crazytime peak of early 2018, it’s still impossible to find a condo for less than $400,000 or a reasonable house for less than $1-million.

Mr. Reilly, a 51-year-old engineering consultant, was looking for a solution, but he never wanted to settle for adding a small laneway house or a basement suite to his always-needing-some-kind-of-fix 80-year-old house – something Vancouver has allowed for the past decade. So, when Vancouver’s city council voted a little more than a year ago to permit duplexes in all residential neighbourhoods, part of an emerging urban movement in North America to bring more housing choices such as duplexes, triplexes and quadriplexes into the single-family housing zones that dominate most cities, Mr. Reilly was on it.

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He saw the move as the solution, not just for his family, but families everywhere.

“If you want families to survive in the city, if you want middle-class kids here, if you want sustainable cities, this is the kind of thing that has to happen,” Mr. Reilly said.

But, as it turns out, the duplex/triplex/quad housing revolution is a little less revolutionary that it’s often portrayed. That’s because city planners everywhere, hyper-wary of doing anything too dramatic that will get the high-voting, activist, single-family homeowners upset, are limiting the sizes of the new forms they’re allowing so that they will fit in. That, in turn, means that the new duplexes or triplexes end up being on the small side. Too small for some, as Mr. Reilly has discovered.

He has a relatively large lot for Vancouver, 33 feet by 155 feet, which equates to 5,115 total square feet on the lot. (The standard in east side Vancouver, where he lives, is 33 feet by 122 feet.)

That means that he is allowed to build a new duplex as long as it doesn’t exceed 70 per cent of the square footage of the lot. In other words, not bigger than 3,580 square feet for the four units the new zoning allows on larger lots: two main units and two secondary suites.

Mr. Reilly said construction costs will be $1.3-million and he hopes to eventually get $6,000 a month in rent.

If he were simply building a huge new house with a basement suite and a laneway home in the back, he would be allowed almost 4,150 square feet (81 per cent or .81 floor-space ratio, as it’s called in the planner world) – a significant difference that would make each of the four units far more livable.

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Mr. Reilly is hoping to get a variance to add 300 square feet to 400 square feet to the project, something he says would mean an extra four feet on the back, with no extra height.

“[My builder] has done an amazing job, but it’s still quite constrained,” said Mr. Reilly, whose current plan is to have one large unit for himself and then three smaller two-bedroom units for his children. “A lot of the spaces are not as big as we’d like them to be.”

Mr. Reilly with his wife, Sherrie, and three of their four children, (from left to right) Van, 14, Emika, 9 and Julia, 7, outside their Vancouver home.

Melissa Renwick

He’s getting a little bit of relaxation because his builder, Bryn Davidson, co-owner of Lanefab Design/Build, is doing a passive house. But not much.

That’s something Mr. Davidson sees as a fundamental flaw in the new zoning that needs to be fixed.

“There’s so much demand and there’s so much more we could be getting out of our properties than just McMansions, so it’s just a baby step here.”

He said that he got a lot of calls when the duplex zoning was initially approved, but many owners didn’t follow through because they get penalized for building duplexes by getting significantly less allowable building room.

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Other architects and builders report the same.

“When they changed the rules, I was getting phone calls I don’t know how many times a day,” said Nick Bray, who runs his own architecture firm. “Many people were intrigued.”

But not one person ended up going forward with a development.

A report going to the city soon says that only 72 applications for duplexes have come in to the city in the year the new zoning has been in place. That’s at the same time that 420 applications for single-family homes were received and applications to build laneways hit more than 700 in 2018.

Mr. Davidson noted with dismay that the current policies still favour those who have the money to buy the whole property, build a giant house for themselves and then have some smaller spaces (the basement, the laneway) for renters, he said.

“The suites are owner-helpers. It’s not a coherent rental-housing policy.”

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The prime benefit of allowing duplexes, many say, is that it allows people to buy for less in a traditional single-family area. That doesn’t make it affordable to everyone, but it does lower the household-income threshold for getting a foothold in a neighbourhood.

Renderings of a new home in Vancouver designed by Lanefab Design/Build for Mr. Reilly.

Lanefab Design/Build

The same kind of constraints apply in Minneapolis, the American city whose move towards allowing duplexes and triplexes in every single-family zone has generated multiple national headlines in laudatory articles from The New York Times to Atlantic magazine to Reuters news service.

With headlines such as “Minneapolis, Tackling Housing Crisis and Inequality, Votes to End Single-Family Zoning,” (New York Times, December, 2018) and “How Minneapolis Defeated NIMBYism” (Atlantic, October, 2019), the Midwest city is seen as the Shangri-La of housing reform.

But, similar to Vancouver, Minneapolis has limited the size of the duplexes and triplexes so as ensure they look more or less the same as the single-family houses next door.

One triplex that sits at the corner of 35th and Grand in the city’s leafy Lyndale neighbourhood, waiting to be legalized after Minneapolis city council officially passed its new zoning policy last week, looks identical to the house next door. The only giveaway is the three mailboxes on the porch, instead of one. (The city encourages having only one door on the street in the new model.)

The grand triplex is limited to 2,500 square feet, the 50 per cent of lot size that Minneapolis enforces in its single-family zones where a 5,000-square-foot lot is the norm. The wiggle room that makes a triplex at all workable is that the basement area isn’t counted in the total.

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“There was a strong feeling that it was important to maintain the same scale as the other houses,” said Jason Wittenberg, the code director for the City of Minneapolis.

That’s in spite of the fact that, two doors to the north, there’s a small apartment building with four roomy 800-square-foot units sitting comfortably in between single-family homes. Built in 1915, it’s the legacy of an earlier era when housing wasn’t so rigidly segregated.

As in Vancouver, Minneapolis got a lot of pushback initially from residents who worried that allowing duplexes and triplexes might wreck the look of the neighbourhoods and create negative environmental impacts because of the increased amount of land covered by buildings.

The city originally considered allowing quadriplexes as well, but eliminated that, in part because of resident opposition, in part because builders said they would be unworkable, given the size limits.

(In Vancouver, the opposition was so intense that a new council elected last October considered whether to reverse the duplex policy brought in during the last days of the Vision Vancouver council. In the end, council voted to allow it to continue, but to monitor to ensure that it wasn’t resulting in a lot of teardowns.)

“It really was about neighbourhood character and whether density should be downtown or along corridors instead,” Mr. Wittenberg said.

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One difference in this American city was that there was also concern about investors buying owner-occupied housing and converting it to rentals. The trend of big corporations buying up housing and then renting it out has been reported by many U.S. media outlets.

Minneapolis is planning to track what happens with the new policy, as Vancouver is.

In both cities, it is unclear whether there is going to be significant change under the new zoning. Policies on previous changes, such as laneway houses, show mixed signals.

Minneapolis started allowed laneway houses, called accessory dwelling units in American plannerese, in 2014. It has received only 180 applications since then.

In Vancouver, the take-up of laneway houses was much more pronounced. They went from 18 applications in 2009, the first year of permitting, to 191 the next year, rising to 500 by 2018. In 2018, there were 709 applications. Numbers are slightly down so far for 2019, with only 364 applications as of the end of September, for a total of about 4,000 altogether in the last 10 years.

Vancouver senior city planner Paula Huber said the low number of duplex applications in the past year is actually what the city was aiming for.

“We didn’t want it to be so effective that we distorted the character-house-incentive program,” she said. That’s the program that allows more buildable square feet for people preserving a pre-1940s house.

But, she acknowledged, there is likely more change on the horizon.

A recent survey the city did of 3,380 residents showed there is massive support for allowing duplexes – 88 per cent approval. That’s a sharp contrast to the high numbers of people who came out to public hearings to oppose them.

And builders such as Mr. Davidson are telling the city that the size restrictions are problematic.

Ms. Huber said eventually things will shift, especially as the Vancouver spends the new two years consulting on and drafting the big new city-wide plan for future housing.

“I think many existing regulations have been about ‘fit in and match.’ As part of the city plan, we’ll have to start talking about how limiting that is. Are we going to continue to say that everything has to look like a house?”

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