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Time to Let Go of Single-Family Home Dream, Academic Tells Housing Summit

Joannah Connolly
October 28, 2016

The vast swathes of single-family-zoned areas are a major part of the housing affordability problem in Vancouver, and they need a radical rethink, according to the closing keynote address by UBC professor Nathan Lauster to the City of Vancouver’s re:address housing summit.

Likening single-family zoning in Vancouver to the Agricultural Land Reserve, Lauster said that what he calls the “Great House Reserve” is “keeping out everyone who isn’t a millionaire” and “preserving land for the very wealthy.”

Lauster, author ofThe Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City of the Future, said that Vancouver has made great strides in moving away from single-family-based housing, and is “in many ways a success story." However, he said that more needed to be done, and added that single-family zoning in Vancouver has barely been erroded since the 1930s (see second image, above).

Lauster identified four major problems with having a high proportion of single-family housing.

1) Affordability – Single-family homes take up more land and don’t share walls or building materials with neighbouring properties, so they are inevitably less affordable than attached or multifamily housing.

2) Sustainability –Detached homes use more materials and energy, and neighbourhoods are inevitably larger and usually require car use to get around. Also, land being used by single-family homes is taken away from potential use as a supportive eco-system, such as agricultural land or green space. “This is a real issue for cities that are trying to be green – like Vancouver,” added Lauster.

3) Urban vitality – Single-family homes privatize land at the expense of public space, where people could interact with each other. “We lose the places to go, places to meet our neighbours, to meet people who are different from ourselves,” said Lauster. “We lose a lot about figuring out how to make a multicultural democracy work.”

4) Health, both physical and mental – Detached home neighbourhoods generally detract from walkability and public transit use, which is an important part of public health. Lauster added that, according to research that he carried out in Sweden, the more single-family homes are built in a neighbourhood, the more his research team found couples were splitting up.

“It is striking that it seems that single-family homes don’t even seem to be good for our families,” he said. “It’s really amazing, all the problems that we can associate with the single-family house once we start to examine them as something we should reconsider.”

Lauster acknowledged that detached home ownership was still the dream for many, and that those living in single-family neighbourhoods are generally reluctant to see dramatic change. However, in his studies he has found that an equal number of people seem to be adaptable to living in closer quarters with their neighbours. He cited the success story of the West End, once a single-family neighbourhood but just as well-loved today as a mixed-density area.

Lauster recommended that the city consider:

Halting the “protection of the wealth of millionaires” that is preserved by single-family zoning;

Accessing the “Great House Reserve” with widespread rezoning to increase density and affordability;

Ensuring that community groups and the most marginalized are given a seat at the table;

Consulting on and defining minimum housing standards (in terms of both size of home – eg microsuites – and quality) and then making those minimum housing standards the right of every household;

Rejecting the notion of market housing ownership and market rental as the two main forms, and embrace many other forms of housing, such as co-operatives, shared-equity ownership, rent to own, and so on.

Joannah Connolly
Joannah Connolly is editorial director of Glacier Real Estate, Glacier Media's real estate division. Joannah writes and curates real estate news for Glacier Media's local newspaper websites, including the Vancouver Courier, North Shore News, Burnaby Now, Tri-City News and others. She also oversees editorial content in Real Estate Weekly Homes, West Coast Condo, Western Investor and Glacier's special real estate publications. A dual Canadian-British citizen, Joannah has 22 years of journalism and editing experience in Vancouver and London, with a background in construction, architecture, healthcare and business media. Joannah has appeared on major local TV outlets as a real estate commentator, has moderated and spoken on various industry panels, and spent two years hosting the Real Estate Therapist radio show on Roundhouse Radio.