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The downtown Vancouver skyline is seen at sunset, as houses line a hillside in Burnaby, B.C., on April 17, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Last month a room the size of a closet in downtown Vancouver was listed for rent on Craigslist for $750 a month. The posting, which has since been flagged and removed, advertised a windowless space within a two-bedroom apartment big enough to hold a twin size bed and a side table. The average prison cell is more spacious.

These closet listings come up routinely in Vancouver, usually the result of roommates attempting to rent out the nook that is marketed as a den in most condos.

Around the same time that the listing caught the media’s attention, developer and planner Michael Geller tweeted: “One of the greatest fallacies in Vancouver is that increasing density results in greater affordability. It doesn’t. As higher and higher densities are approved, land values on a square foot basis increase.”

If we look at the case of Vancouver’s West End, where the community plan introduced significantly higher densities along the arterials, price per square foot is now as high as $2,400. If you’re wealthy enough to afford a spacious condo with a good view at that price, life is good. But for apartment dwellers impacted by upward pressure on housing, it’s a case of shrinkflation – paying more for less space.

Rohana Rezel, a citizen housing researcher who posts his findings on OpenHousing.ca, found that the two-bedroom unit size has decreased 10 per cent over the last two decades. Mr. Rezel went through all the real estate listings on the Multiple Listings Service and searched for year built and square footage. He found that the units had “shrunk considerably” over 20 years.

Mr. Rezel, who is a senior software architect, found that the median square footage of a two-bedroom apartment in Metro Vancouver declined from 980 square feet in 2002 to 880 square feet in 2018 and has stayed flat since then. However, prices for smaller units did not drop. The benchmark price of a one-bedroom attached unit in Metro Vancouver went up 242 per cent from 2002 to 2022, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. Rents for one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms increased by 25 per cent from 2014 to 2018, according to the Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book.

Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, found parallel results in the Canadian Housing and Statistics Program data. He said that the data show an inverse relationship over the years between the detached house size and the condo or apartment unit size.

“In terms of size, the multi-family unit has decreased over the decades while the detached house has significantly grown. It’s a tale of two cities in Vancouver where new detached homes in particular neighbourhoods get bigger and less dense and new condominium apartments get smaller and sacrifice livability under the guise of affordability. The net effect is another reflection of inequality in the city.”

In the study area for the Broadway Plan, from 1st Avenue to West 16th Avenue, between Clark Drive and Vine Street, there are many old apartment buildings with spacious one and two bedroom units designed for people to raise families. Less than one per cent of the Broadway Plan study area is made up of detached houses, according to Mr. Yan. If those apartment buildings are redeveloped due to rezoning, the City is offering displaced tenants the opportunity to return three to five years later at their previous rent (or lower), when the new rental tower is completed. However, if they do return after such an interval, it will be to a smaller unit.

Smaller living spaces allow for more density, which in turn allows for shared amenities and infrastructure, and less outward sprawl. But they do not necessarily translate into affordability.

Small apartments are actually more expensive to build per square foot, says retired Vancouver and Toronto developer Arny Wise, who’s been critical of the City of Vancouver for not requiring more affordable housing in mega housing projects, such as Oakridge Park. That’s because the major costs aren’t in extra space, but in “the guts,” such as excavation, foundation, and the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems.

“Density does not equal affordability. In a macro sense, if you have enough supply to satisfy demand, then the prices will fall in the long term. But in this market, when you have investor demand driving demand, that drives up prices, because you can never have enough supply. You just can’t. And secondly, the supply is limited, by approval times at the City, by supply issues of getting materials … and labour shortages. Logistically, you can’t build enough to supply the demand.”

According to the City’s Secured Rental Policy, a rezoning application for a 100-per-cent rental housing project is eligible for a reduced studio unit size of 320 square feet (down from the required minimum of 398 square feet), if the unit meets livability criteria. According to a city staff memo, many developers have requested the relaxation of studio size allowed by the policy.

There is also a maximum size, something Mr. Rezel was surprised to discover. The City has put a maximum unit size on units where the developer receives a waiver on the development cost levy. DCLs, which pay for things like parks and utilities, are charged on new developments. However, projects that create new rental supply are eligible for a waiver.

The waiver requires that the maximum unit size for a one-bedroom rental is 600 square feet, and 830 sq. ft. for a two-bedroom unit. The idea is that a smaller unit is more affordable, according to the City memo.

“It irks me to see senior City bureaucrats mandating smaller apartment units in the name of affordability even while many live in spacious single family homes,” Mr. Rezel said. “It just goes to show just how out of touch the leaders at city hall are with the needs of young families, who are leaving the city in droves in search of bigger spaces.”

Matthew Soules is associate professor at the University of B.C.’s school of architecture and landscape architecture. He is also the author of Icebergs, Zombies and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, which looks at the financialization of housing and how it relates to architecture.

Mr. Soules is in Venice, preparing for the Biennale of Architecture 2023 exhibit on affordable housing in Canada. He’s part of a new group called Architects Against Housing Alienation (AAHA), which includes architects and academics that are concerned about housing inequity. Shrinking unit sizes in relation to growing prices is part of a larger global phenomenon, playing out in cities such as Toronto, New York and London, and is part of the speculative nature of housing in general, he says.

But the smaller unit does not lower prices in the long run because the market will only adjust prices to that smaller space.

“It’s an illusion to think that achieving affordability by shrinking unit size is anything that ultimately solves the problem,” Mr. Soules says. “A small step toward a momentary affordability vis-a-vis smaller unit size produces in the long run a longer leap toward unaffordability across the whole spectrum.”

It isn’t a case of blaming the development community, says architecture historian Sara Stevens, who is part of AAHA. Developers are simply responding to the market in a way that reduces risk.

“We think it’s a guaranteed profit here in Vancouver, but it is a business that takes on risk in exchange to provide what they provide. They aren’t going to say, ‘Oh, the world wants missing middle housing? Let’s drop everything and start developing missing middle housing.’ Their apparatus isn’t set up to do that, and the financial picture too, is a piece of that.

“They are able to continue doing what they are doing because it keeps selling.”

For these reasons, affordable housing needs to be delivered outside the marketplace, through the creation of policies that do not merely increase density and drive prices upward, said Mr. Soules. Instead, we need to look at alternatives, such as co-op housing and more social housing, such as the Vienna model.

“It doesn’t seem like these incremental small scale steps within the dominant status quo are significant enough to change anything in any meaningful way because these larger forces are so big and so complex and so global.”

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