The Death of the Single-Family House in Vancouver

Author and UBC professor Nathanael Lauster discusses Vancouver's changing urban landscape—from a city of cottages to a city of condos and duplexes—and why other cities should be following our lead.

October 24, 2016

By Amy O'Brian

nathanael-lauster-ubcWhen it comes to aspirational items, the single-family home sits at the top of the pile for many people. But as Vancouver’s real estate market has reached unexpected highs over the past few years, the goal of one day owning a house has slipped out of reach for most Vancouverites.

For Nathanael Lauster, an associate professor of sociology at UBC, this is no bad thing. In his new book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House, Lauster discusses the problems with cities built to accommodate so many two-car garages and wide green lawns. Instead of lamenting the decline of this long-standing way of life, Lauster celebrates the move toward higher density and congratulates Vancouver on being leader of the pack.

Lauster recently spoke to Vancouver Magazine from his 1970s townhouse.

Why do you think the single-family home has had such cultural capital for so many years? 

I think that cultural capital is coming from a couple of places. One, it’s just the way we’ve built our cities for the last 80 years. So people see those kinds of houses and they see wealthier people living in single family houses and so, as a result, you get this broader association of success with living in a single family house. We also, of course, have a history of promoting the idea that it’s the proper place for families to be, particularly if there are children.  So there are a lot of people who grew up in single-family houses who keep thinking that’s what you need to have in order to raise a family and do it right. So I think those are the reasons we see it having attained real power as a symbol of success and as a symbol for how to do parenting right.

Do you see cities starting to make a conscious shift away from single family houses?

Absolutely, I think Vancouver is a key case for that because Vancouver, at one point in time, certainly going into the 1960s, had at least as many single-family houses as any other city in North America of that size. It really was dominated by single-family houses. It used to be known as a city of cottages. And then we have drastically moved away from that in terms of, we have moved farther and faster away from the single-family house than any metropolis across North America since that time. So we’ve really seen a dramatic transformation in Vancouver and obviously, not everybody likes it. But a lot of people really do, and that’s the striking thing. There are a lot of people that really have come to reconsider the role of the single-family house in terms of their own stories of success and in terms of their own ideas of how to raise a family and they’re quite happy to live in the alternatives that we’ve made very livable for them, in terms of townhouses, low-rises, high-rises. So we have a lot of people out there who are trying out different ways of living in Vancouver and I find that quite exciting.

When you say that Vancouver has moved away from the single home faster than any other city in North America, is that because of our physical geography? Because there is nowhere to sprawl?

It’s often portrayed as that’s the story, end of story. But in fact, before you get to any of the physical barriers—long before you get to the mountains or the U.S. border—we actually have regulations that are already in place to protect that land from further development. So the reason we have a straight line, effectively, where the development extends up the mountainside has to do with clearing regulations, but also of course it backs up against park land that’s protected. And obviously we also have the Agricultural Land Reserve, which is the other big thing that really prevents us from sprawling into the agricultural areas around Vancouver and also pretty much stops us from going all the way up to the U.S. border. You’ve got a lot of these regulations that are protecting land around Vancouver and that’s one big reason that we haven’t seen the same outward sprawl in Vancouver that we’ve seen in a lot of other major metropolises around North America.

Could you give an example of one or two cities that you think are really clinging to the idea of the single-family home? 

I think that the obvious big examples would be places like Phoenix, Arizona, which I think if you try to drive through the city it’s just non-stop sprawl coming in and out of the city. But I actually think a lot of western cities in North America are actually moving away from the single-family house, they are starting to provide denser alternatives to the single-family house. On the other hand, a lot of the cities up and down the East Coast, including Canadian cities, are actually moving toward further and further sprawl. That is, they’re sprawling further and further outward. So we almost see a convergence of sorts in terms of this way of understanding urban form insofar as a lot of the old cities have actually had a lot of capacity in terms of housing alternatives: high-rises, low-rises, before we saw these zoning laws passed that preserve so much land for single-family houses. A lot of these old cities have nevertheless started to sprawl further and further outward and a lot of the newer cities are now [reconsidering] their own housing policies around providing denser alternatives. Vancouver has done it faster and farther than these other western cities.

So it sounds like we’re doing some things right, but what could planners be doing better or differently in Vancouver?

I think in terms of diversifying our housing stock we’re doing that mostly right. We’ve still got a way to go. We still have a lot of land reserved for single-family houses. There’s a huge chunk of our land base that’s reserved for RS zoning, which is single-family residential zoning. Of course, they’ve also made it possible in the City of Vancouver to allow laneway houses and secondary suites on those lots so you can have at least three possible units on those lots instead of just one. But we could do a lot more in terms of allowing townhouses, allowing low-rises to spread through a lot more of the Lower Mainland in such a way that we could really have a lot more people in a more affordable fashion. That issue of affordability that obviously Vancouver wrestles with the most: How do we keep affordable housing options across the Lower Mainland? It’s a hard one to figure out, but definitely one of the impediments for doing that is reserving so much land for only single-family houses, which are beyond the capacity of anyone except millionaires. What are we doing reserving all this land for millionaires? That’s not what we should be doing with our policies.

Do you think we’ll see that RS (single-family) zoning change in the next 10 to 20 years? 

It’s held on for a long time. So it really does have this resilience in terms of this thing that was created as policy in the 1920s/1930s and has stuck around forever. But I do think there’s also a real move to try and open that up a bit.

What would you like to see Vancouver looking like in 25 years?

I’d like to see a lot more diversity in terms of a lot more townhouses, what’s often described as the missing middle, townhouses, low-rises, nice options with enough space for a lot of different people to feel like they can raise a family there. But also enough density to allow more people to live in Vancouver who are currently excluded. I think we can do that much better by opening up some of these old zoning codes.

What do you think it all means for Vancouverites who still do own single-family homes? 

Well, Vancouverites who own single family homes have hit the jackpot already. I mean they are effectively millionaires. I feel for them in terms of anybody who confronts the possibility of neighbourhood change, it’s scary. You don’t want something going up next door that’s going to shade your garden or cause a lot of noise the next few years. So I understand where the frustration and concerns of a lot of people who live in single-family houses are coming from. But I really think that in our planning decisions we need to move beyond catering to the demands of very local and very vocal set of people who don’t want more density—to take into account the needs of the entire population of Vancouver, including a lot of people who are currently marginalized from those discussions, who aren’t able to take part in terms of directing the shape of the city and who don’t have any good housing options available for them. And also those people who aren’t even born yet who are going to be moving here sometime in the future that are going to need a place to live. So that’s a much more complex endeavour in terms of thinking about how to do that in an inclusive and democratic fashion.

We’ve talked about the single-family house being a socially outdated form of housing, but you say that it’s also an un-environmental way to live. How so? 

It’s not especially sustainable in multiple ways. One, is if we use single-family houses as the primary way to house people, of course that just pushes development further out into the land surrounding the city, taking away not just agricultural land but also a lot of ecologically sensitive land. And then, more broadly, single-family houses, because they’re spaced so far apart and usually separated from all the places people want to go, they really encourage people to drive to get around. They make it really hard to run transit out to them because it’s not economical or efficient to get transit to the places where there are all these single-family houses. And, of course, when we drive we produce greenhouse gases and that’s a real problem more broadly for ecosystems around the world and the same thing is true even in the way houses use energy. Single family houses are much more intense consumers of energy in terms of heating and cooling all of that space than what you get in most alternatives.

You’ve lived in Vancouver for 11 years. What’s been the most significant change in that time?

When I first moved here, the single-family house right next door was going for $800,000 over on the West Side of Vancouver. I thought that was so ridiculous (laughs). All these neighbourhoods with single-family houses are being redeveloped anyway. We’re seeing all these mansions go up, effectively, tearing down these old cottages and that’s one of the things that just gets me. Why are we not allowing alternatives in these places? In terms of townhouses in terms of low-rises, that many more people could afford. Instead we’re reserving all these lots for these mansions that only millionaires and multi-millionaires can afford.

What about places like Shaughnessy, where you have these giant houses with maybe two, four, six people living in them? Do you see any shift toward dividing those houses up into separate suites to allow for more density?

I absolutely do. And it has appealed in the past in those neighbourhoods. That’s one of the interesting things. Shaughnessy was one of the first neighbourhoods that was protected, not just by municipal policies, but also by provincial policies. There was an act that set aside Shaughnessy in particular for single-family houses although interestingly enough, that allowed you to have servants quarters. During World War II and leading up to World War II, there were a lot of people who did try to subdivide a lot of those houses and rent them out. Eventually, at the end of World War II, you saw a lot more enforcement against those subdivisions. So definitely, when we enable people to do this, people do it. You don’t have to give up some of our historical character and some of our beautiful buildings in order to densify. We can subdivide a lot of these old mansions. We can also do some infill around these old mansions in Shaughnessy and we can get a lot more people living there who we really want to encourage in this city—a lot of people who aren’t the global elite, but are middle class families who need a place to live and want to live in Vancouver. I think we should be doing that.

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