How to raise a family in 600 Sq Ft
Can you really raise kids in a one-bedroom condo? Some Vancouver parents are trying—and guess what? It’s not all bad, and it could get better
September 14, 2016
Three years ago, Alison Mazurek and her husband, Trevor, were awaiting the birth of their first child. Living in a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom condo in Mount Pleasant, the pair weighed the option of moving to a bigger condo or a townhouse in order to get more space. Back then, upgrading to a two-bedroom condo was going to increase their mortgage by at least $200,000. “We started getting a bit overwhelmed by the thought of adding that much to our mortgage,” she says.
Plus, the Mazureks loved their ground-floor condo with its patio and 15-foot ceilings. They loved their walkable neighbourhood and their access to parks, groceries and good coffee. Alison’s office, where she works as a project manager for a restaurant group, is a quick 15-minute walk from their place. The pair, both in their 30s, have deep roots in B.C. Alison grew up in Delta and Trevor came to Vancouver from Prince Rupert to attend UBC. Trevor works in Richmond as an occupational therapist, but the couple knew that life in the suburbs just wasn’t a fit for them. So they stayed. “If it didn’t work, we told ourselves that at least we would have tried,” Alison says. “But it did work.”
Their son, Theo, now an impish three-year-old, took over the bedroom when he was six months old. A wall bed turned the living room into a place for the parents to sleep at night, while the family became meticulous about stemming the flow of things that found a permanent home in the condo. It’s a challenge Alison has come to enjoy. She chronicles the experience of living small on her blog, 600sqftandababy, explaining how they make her son’s room functional (maximize vertical wall space) and where they hang laundry to dry (in the bathtub). Alison carefully chooses furniture and decor for the apartment that fits her clean and modern aesthetic. “It’s all about editing your things,” she says. “You have to be ruthless.” But the family of three recently became a family of four. Alison had her second child, a girl, in July. And they won’t be moving this time, either.
The Mazureks are but one urban family making small living work in the face of rising real estate prices. The benchmark price for a detached home in Metro Vancouver was $1.5 million in May, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, while townhouses reached $632,000. As home prices continue to soar in Vancouver, parents who want to stay in the city—but can’t afford larger homes—are squeezing their families into condos and basement suites. Babies sleep in closets and parents bunk down in living rooms. Families who make the choice to stick around say they do it for the walkability, urban experience and shorter commutes. Now the challenge is making small living a more viable way of life for more people.
The feedback Alison receives on her blog is mostly positive, although some readers react with disbelief that the family is actually happy in such tight quarters. “My husband and I work full-time, so the precious time we all get together—we’re grateful for that. I want to be around my kids as much as possible,” she says. She also hears from parents in Europe who live in small spaces, although those readers point out that small living is already the norm in their locales.
The family copes with cabin fever by visiting the library or community centre, or grabbing coffee at one of Main Street’s many cafés. A smaller mortgage, meanwhile, means more money for extras like travel and high-end appliances. In addition to their car, they own a 1982 Volkswagen Westfalia they take camping in Tofino. Because Alison sleeps one foot from the dishwasher—and has two nap schedules to contend with—she replaced their functional but noisy appliance with a Bosch model that’s nearly silent.
“We check in with one another every couple of months and ask, are we still happy?” she says. “You need to listen to your kids. If [Theo is] six or seven and he starts complaining about not having personal space, then we would re-evaluate.” Alison admits they haven’t made a plan for what the family will do when the kids are teenagers and don’t want to be near Mom and Dad all the time. “We’re not thinking that far ahead. Right now we’re thinking about elementary school.”
She doesn’t dwell on rising real estate prices, either, as she feels those are out of their control. “But we need to get creative about how we live in the city. We need more shared spaces,” she says, adding that families could also share big, rarely used items like lawn mowers or vacuums. She does express concern that their peers will move away if something doesn’t change soon. “I don’t want young and creative people just leaving the city.”
Without an influx of creative and affordable housing, families squeezed into small spaces could get fed up, says Penny Gurstein, director of the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Centre for Human Settlements at UBC. She says many families have already fled and that part of the problem is that Vancouver lacks a variety of housing types. “If you want to have a complete community, you need to have a full spectrum of people from all incomes.”
But much of the available housing in Vancouver isn’t suitable for families, Gurstein says. “I think people are making do with living in 600-square-foot spaces, but as children age, they want privacy. There’s a lot more activity,” she says. And while Gurstein understands that families are busy raising children and working to pay their mortgage or rent, she feels they need to be voicing their anger about housing more. “I think there needs to be a lot more pressure by citizens on all levels of government to address the housing issue,” she says. “It needs to be organized anger. You need to actually mobilize and try to address this as a political issue.”
James Chamberlain may have one solution. He hopes that Our Urban Village, a project based on the co-housing model, could be a creative answer to Vancouver’s housing woes. Co-housing is based on an intentional community of homes, attached or unattached, built around shared amenities. Units are individually owned, but residents willingly congregate in common areas like playrooms, gardens and a dining area.
Chamberlain, a vice-principal at an inner-city school, is part of a group of 11 households hoping to buy a block of condos together. The families, who all know each other, will purchase their individual units at market rates and share flexible common spaces for cooking meals together, playing and putting up out-of-town guests. The point? To create community in an urban setting, share experiences and resources, and avoid paying for space they don’t use.
“The families in our group have kids under the age of three,” he says. “They all live close to the downtown core, and they all want to stay in the city. They don’t want to spend their lives in cars.
They want to spend quality time with their kids, and they want to do it in
a sustainable way.”
Chamberlain says they call OUV “co-housing lite” because the traditional approach would mean starting from scratch: finding three adjacent lots; purchasing land; navigating zoning laws; hiring an architect, developer and lawyer; and finally building the structures. “The typical approach to co-housing can be quite time-consuming and daunting in terms of risk for families,” he says. Instead, OUV is hunting for a “developer with a conscience” who has a project already in the planning phase. Ideally, they’d like to create their community on two or three floors in a condo tower or in an entire low-rise building in the city.
The parents in the group who are feeling cramped in their units will benefit from a communal flex space that can be turned into a playroom for energetic kids, Chamberlain says. Visiting grandparents from out of town could stay in a shared guest suite.
He points out that a multi-generational co-housing community gives owners the opportunity to swap child care, one of the most expensive parts of raising children other than rent or a mortgage. Retirees could watch children after school, before their parents return home from work.
OUV’s conversations with developers have been promising and Chamberlain is optimistic the project will succeed. “Some developers are attracted to it because of the social aspect,” he says. “We have no issue with the developer branding it and making it their own. And developers are looking for niche markets, right?”