Skip to main content

In the City of Vancouver, only 15 per cent of dwellings are considered “single-detached houses,” according to new 2016 census data released this week.Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

If you have a house all to yourself in Vancouver, you are in the minority. The single-family house – by some held as a cherished goal, by others perceived as an outmoded housing type and bastion of the wealthy few – is not so single family after all.

In the City of Vancouver, only 15 per cent of dwellings are considered "single-detached houses," according to new 2016 census data released this week. Vancouver has one of the lowest percentages of single-detached houses in Metro Vancouver, says Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University.

The data show that residents are living in denser types of dwellings than commonly believed, turning single-family homes into multiple units, rooming houses or shared collective housing, or adding secondary suites. Those suites could be legal or illegal.

It is the city's "hidden density" Mr. Yan says.

"This is a view of how people actually live – not a zoning fixation, but their actual usage," he says. "In large parts of the city, what looks like a single-family home can have two or more households in it."

His analysis also shows that the old-fashioned one-family, one-house lifestyle in Vancouver began to wane way back in the 1970s. It dropped from 50 per cent down to the 15 per cent we are seeing now.

New Westminster also has an ultra low rate of single-family living, at 15 per cent. Delta is as high as 59 per cent. Metro Vancouver has an average of 29 per cent.

Today, in Vancouver, 24 per cent of dwellings are either a duplex, townhouse, rowhouse, or any other attached ground-oriented home; 29 per cent live in apartment buildings higher than five stories and 32 per cent live in small buildings, fewer than five stories.

Developer Michael Geller says the statistic is an alarming indicator that hidden density needs to be better recognized by policy makers.

"It does change a bit the conversation about future Vancouver single-family neighbourhoods, because what this is suggesting is that, while many of us are arguing for more housing choices within these neighbourhoods, in many instances they already are happening."

Instead of obsessing on a particular housing type as an imagined enemy, perhaps we should be focusing on how people live, Mr. Yan says. Many residents want ground-oriented homes with direct access to the outdoors and they want modest density.

"We need to focus on who we are trying to house and what's actually on the ground, as opposed to a blind, dogma-driven assault on an imagined zoning type," he says. "Meeting real estate market demands does not necessarily reflect or fulfill fundamental human needs for a home and community.

"The fact is, we have been stepping away from the single-detached house for a long time, and we were actually already moving into other types of denser housing when nobody was looking."

The debate about adding density to single-family zoned areas of the city is a hot and divisive one. Some argue, especially those in the development industry, that increasing density will create affordable housing. Others argue that older housing stock is affordable and new housing displaces people from their communities.

"My line was always building affordable housing is an oxymoron," says history writer and artist Michael Kluckner. For about 20 years, he's lived next door to a bungalow that is home to three generations of family members.

"You retain affordable housing. You can see that by all these so-called single-family houses – if they were to go on the market, they sell at lot value. That means the house is free. In terms of the builders' market, it has no value. But in terms of human needs, people can live there in just about any way they choose."

Rezonings lead to land assemblies, such as what is happening throughout Grandview-Woodland, says Wendy Pedersen, founding member of the Downtown Vancouver Tenants Union. Around the city, residents are being displaced, or live in fear of displacement, which can be devastating. She knows families who are at risk of having their children apprehended because they don't have proper housing.

Her group lobbies for subsidized housing and rent control, and to protect renters against evictions. Ms. Pedersen says she knows many people who live in small rental houses and she worries about renters who may be displaced from their homes in the Grandview-Woodland area.

"There are probably so many renters tucked in there, and it will get wiped out. [The government] will put in some token bits of social housing as if that's going to make up for the losses.

"It's a huge Trojan horse, this redevelopment of wider arterials as a way to start to chip into the single-family-home neighbourhoods. I don't believe that affordability can come with increased supply. Affordability has to be mandated and subsidized, and if that's not part of the picture, then it's just a big Trojan horse. Whatever rental housing that gets built along there will be too unaffordable and families won't be able to afford it.

"You don't need to know anything else, other than the developers want Vancouver. And they have been looking for a way to rezone the single-family neighbourhoods for a long time, and this is it. And the supply doesn't work."

But the fact that so many people are living under the radar in single-family housing proves the need for more diverse housing, says Sauder School of Business associate professor Tom Davidoff, at the University of British Columbia.

"That information reinforces my stance that single-family-house zones should be rezoned for multifamily housing," Dr. Davidoff says. "Get working households out of the basement and into more suitable townhomes and family-sized apartments."

UBC architecture professor Joe Dahmen says land is simply too valuable for a single-family house, and the addition of a laneway house and secondary suite, which are currently allowed in single-family zones, is not enough to address the housing problem.

"Vancouver has gone through tremendous changes in the last couple of decades and zoning has yet to catch up with where we are as a city, and we reconsider zoning as one of the mechanisms to address affordability, sustainability and heritage.

"Demanding that a single-family house is replaced with another single-family house clearly is not ameliorating the situation."

Mr. Geller says instead of another big house on a 50-foot lot he wants to see side-by-side duplexes with basement suites under each side and a laneway house, which would create five units. While not "extremely affordable," each unit would be "more affordable" than a single-family dwelling.

However, the new data should also have an impact on city policies.

"The city can first of all recognize that these houses are not truly single family, and then the next thing, should the city be going through a process that somehow legitimizes these housing arrangements, and that safety standards can be met?"

He also thinks that the city should legitimize suites that are illegal but are safe and well maintained, to ease the fears of landlords and renters that the city could force the suite to be shut down.

"If one further investigates Andy Yan's findings, we will be opening a can of worms, but it is one worth paying attention to."

Want to interact with other informed Canadians and Globe journalists? Join our exclusive Globe and Mail subscribers Facebook group

Bob and Roz Holden are part of a growing number of Canadians who are opting for a condo lifestyle over a house in the suburbs, according to Wednesday’s census figures.

The Canadian Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe