Fifty three per cent of Vancouver residents rent their homes and it would be easy to assume that those renters are living in dense, central and mid-rise neighbourhoods such as the West End. You might also assume that the so-called "single family home" areas are pretty much exclusive to homeowners.
But new data shows that renters are distributed around the city at levels that go against stereotypes. West Point Grey, with its big, expensive detached houses, is 38 per cent renter households. Kerrisdale is 36.8 per cent renters. Shaughnessy, with its stock of old and new mansions, is made up of 30 per cent renters.
Urban planner Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University's City Program, analyzed the new 2016 census data and charted his findings.
"Before I did this, I would have guessed 10 per cent tops, in some of these neighbourhoods, because you do have these clusters of rentals scattered around. I wouldn't have guessed the minimum is 22 per cent, never mind way more than that in West Point Grey."
The data serve to remind us that residential zoning doesn't necessarily reflect the way people are living in those neighbourhoods, Mr. Yan says. For example, he says 24 per cent of all renter households are living in the so-called "single family home" areas that provide an "invisible affordability often ignored by development pundits."
That means that in terms of planning, we should be sensitive to how people are actually using housing types, he says. Zoning changes can be the ruin of an established community. It's not enough to rezone without examining how that housing is being used, and by whom – not if the goal is to create affordable housing while keeping people within the community.
"There's the city on a zoning schedule and there's the city that is lived by people," Mr. Yan says. "Do you really know your city, or do you base your opinions on stereotypes instead of what is happening on the ground, and who is actually living there?"
No matter where people stand on Vancouver's housing crisis, everyone agrees we need a lot more purpose-built rental housing.
However, Mr. Yan argues that simply aiming to increase density of market housing could cause more harm than good in vulnerable neighbourhoods and there's evidence that it already has.
"We need to get over our zoning and form fetishes and go back to creating communities for people," Mr. Yan says. "You just can't spray density around and pray that affordability will follow. For me, a lot of these neighbourhoods are where you see these great social connections, these bonds. We know that the West End, Strathcona and Grandview-Woodland have great social bonds. If I do have a message for my fellow planners, it's to check yourselves, because ultimately, we are dealing with people's lives here."
Not surprisingly, the biggest renter populations are east of Main Street, but not necessarily in areas known for residential towers. Historic Strathcona, with its gentle density, multifamily RT-zoned housing, is 80 per cent renters – the same as the West End. Grandview-Woodland comprises 62.3 per cent renters. Not surprisingly, Marpole, with its significant apartment building stock, is 61.6 per cent renter households. And Fairview, with its multi-family stock, is 61 per cent. Kitsilano, a neighbourhood with a mix of low density housing types, is 54.3 per cent.
The zoning may say it's "single family," but in reality, many of those houses are being used as rental and they might be housing extended families, or multiple families. For that reason, there's a strong argument that the term "single-family neighbourhoods" should be phased out entirely. The term better belongs to an era of Vancouver when "family" meant nuclear family.
"I've been saying for years that we should abolish the term," says former city planning director Brent Toderian. "In the Vancouver context, it's not accurate. The minimum density in Vancouver is three homes," he says, referring to the allowance of a secondary suite and laneway house on a lot.
"And the concept of a family has evolved," he adds. "We don't regulate people and we don't regulate families. We regulate structures. So I use 'single detached home,' which is a stand-alone structure that can have a secondary suite in it."
Mr. Toderian, who oversaw the city's laneway-house program, believes that the allowance of secondary suites and laneway houses led to increased rental households in west side neighbourhoods. But he says there's a desperate need for purpose-built rental because it's far more secure housing than secondary rental units. A renter in a building designed exclusively for rentals isn't at the mercy of a fickle homeowner.
And certain housing types are more conducive to secondary rental than others. Duplexes are more of an ownership model, for example. For that reason, he is opposed to the idea of stratifying laneway houses, and making them available for ownership.
"You're taking a unit that's inherently rentable and replacing it with an ownership unit that may or may not be rented out."
David Hutniak, chief executive officer of Landlord BC, represents a lot of west side landlords with secondary suites. Secondary rental units – ones that are not purpose built – make up about 54 per cent of the rental market, Mr. Hutniak says.
"The rental housing industry in B.C. is disproportionately represented by the secondary market. That's why we are active proponents of purpose-built rental to be developed."
Mr. Hutniak would like to see more diverse rental options too, not just high-density buildings.
"Vancouver has a very incestuous development community, but they are coming around …it's a little higher risk upfront, and the returns are less than preselling and flipping a condo, but as a long-term investment, you're building a legacy for your grandchildren. So these guys made easy money on the condos and now we are getting some good traction with these guys recognizing this is something they should do. There's recognition the community needs it too, so we'll see.
"It's a historical problem. After 40 years of no purpose built rental construction, and a lot of condos, there is a prevalence of the secondary market for rental housing. Thank God we have it, but in terms of security of tenure it's never been to the same degree as purpose-built rentals."
There's also a cultural divide when it comes to the detached house and the potential it represents. Melody Ma is an outspoken Chinatown advocate and tech worker who grew up with several family members under one roof, and close ties to her Chinese-Canadian community. Ms. Ma wrote a recent online article called, Please stop using the term 'single-family home,' in which she defends the detached house against the current backlash. With house prices as out of whack as they are, many are blaming the detached house for taking up too much space. For some, it symbolizes selfishness and greed, particularly when they see liveable houses getting demolished for massive houses left empty.
But not every detached house in Vancouver is an empty repository of wealth. Ms. Ma says that for a lot of low-income immigrant households, the detached house, particularly the so-called "Vancouver Special," has served as a highly efficient, multifamily, multigenerational home. Ms. Ma argues in her post that the living arrangement harkens back to ancient China, when family members would care for each other in courtyard compounds called Siheyuans.
"I know of some cases where you have 10 or 15 people in a two-storey Vancouver Special situation," she says.
"My lived experience as a Chinese-Canadian from an immigrant family, socializing with mostly other Chinese-Canadian or ethnic families, we grew up in what you call 'single family' or detached homes. Most people had a family renting downstairs or their own family renting downstairs. So what I find is that most of Vancouver is zoned for this form of housing, but it's not how all people are actually living in these structures.
"Lower to middle-income class, working families have had to make do with what they are given, and this is what they were offered. It creates an environment where seniors like grandma and grandpa can help with childcare. The adult kids can help with senior care, and help [minimize] senior loneliness.
"All these social interactions and collisions happen within a single detached home. But if you are to separate them into two individual units, you limit that interaction.
"So when I see the narrative of 'these single-family homeowners and occupiers are selfish,' I find it dehumanizes the way that people actually live."