Sprawl’s Well That Ends Well
September 1, 2014
When it comes to new Vancouver houses, we are living in the era of big. The bigger the better. The newer the better. Double sinks in the bathrooms. Double car garages. Double kitchens. The kids’ bathrooms come with extra-big tubs, showers, heated floors, televisions set into vanity mirrors. A galley kitchen? That’s so ’90s. It’s not a kitchen if it hasn’t got an island the size of a Volkswagen, an industrial stove that would do a restaurant proud, granite countertops from India, a mother-of-pearl backsplash, and of course the ever-present discreet flatscreen. Who knew how hard it is to cook without watching Game of Thrones?
I’ve toured a new super-home in Kerrisdale that had a gold-plated toilet in the guest bathroom. I’ve also walked through a top-to-bottom reno at 606 West 17th, in the heart of desirable Douglas Park, that is now 3,100 square feet of newness, including a soaker tub, an oversized shower, and a balcony for the kid’s bedroom. It used to be a one-bedroom bungalow with basement, about 800 square feet. The massive structure that now surrounds this three-person home is considered a renovation because a couple of the original walls were incorporated into the plan.
Once we made do with a shared bathroom and bunk beds, but families these days need to spread out in style. Spacious living has always been the hallmark of the rich, but in this age of the high-net-worth individual and transient global richness, new houses have ascended into the stratosphere. The high end of the market is living bigger than ever — and it’s not necessarily for living. Many are torn down and rebuilt to amp up profits. Why own a $2 million house when you can redevelop and double its worth? Houses are no longer houses but vehicles for investing.
“There seems to be this idea that I should build as big as possible because then I am maximizing the value of my property — it speaks to the commodification of housing,” says Jake Fry, the builder and small-house advocate who successfully lobbied the city for laneway housing.
More than 1,000 “dwelling units” are demolished each year in order to build new ones. Most of them are houses on the city’s West Side, where the lots are bigger than the standard 25- and 33-foot-width lots found elsewhere in Vancouver. According to heritage expert Donald Luxton, the West Side’s arts-and-crafts-style houses are vulnerable because they were largely underbuilt back in the day. “The West Side is much more threatened with rebuilding than Kits, Mount Pleasant, or the East Side,” he says. “In the ’20s and ’30s, the houses there were smaller because they had less to build with, so they never built that big. If you look back to the Edwardian era, they built them big because they had more kids, lots more money, and they didn’t yet pay income tax.” That would explain why, of all the demolitions in the last four years, 63 percent of them were houses built in the ’20s through ’40s. If the city’s mandate remains greenest city in the world by 2020, it’s fighting an uphill battle with this new trend for living large.
We only have to look at the numbers, and thanks to Rudy Nielsen and the wealth of data that Landcor — his real-estate analysis company — obtains, we have them. Nielsen is a down-to-earth logger turned land baron with a penchant for cattle ranches. He’s been developing land and buying and selling properties all his life, so it was natural that he’d start up an analysis company to complement his real-estate holdings. When an old house gets mowed down, what goes up? Nielsen and his team looked at new houses built in the last five years versus those that were built more than 40 years ago.
Overall, the average square footage of a house on the West Side increased by a whopping 77 percent. In the Cambie area, there has been a 78 percent increase in the average square footage of a house. In Dunbar, Marpole, Shaughnessy, and Oakridge, a 70 percent increase. In Kerrisdale, the size went up 85 percent. Point Grey saw a 65 percent increase. In Kitsilano, houses only saw a 57 percent boost in size, probably because lot sizes are smaller. The biggest cases of bloated house syndrome are in South Granville (94 percent), Southlands (91), and Arbutus/Mackenzie Heights (91).
The other issue is these massive new houses aren’t housing more people, if density is the goal. In fact, they’re reportedly housing fewer bodies. “You are decreasing the density when you put in these big homes,” says Fry. “When you look at the numbers — and I have — it looks like households are down to two or three people per household.”
So how could it be that in this age of reduce, reuse, recycle, we’re witnessing a phenomenon of expand, buy new, and chuck? For starters, Godzilla-size housing is the byproduct of this small group of wealthy people searching the globe to park their money in real estate. The “land bank” hotbeds are London, New York, Hong Kong, Sydney, San Francisco, and of course, Vancouver. Unlike those other cities, however, Vancouver doesn’t have jobs. In terms of median household income we’re down there with Peoria and Renton, according to StatsCan data, pulling in about $68,000 a year.
Never before in Vancouver has there been such an imbalance between the top and bottom ends of the housing market, in terms of space and affordability. It’s made for an increasingly unequal city. At the high end, on streets like Belmont Avenue, palaces are rising. Belmont is a short street in Point Grey with a killer view where two of the five biggest houses in the city are located. (A third is around the corner on Drummond Drive.) The palatial residence at 4707 is the city’s biggest: more than 25,000 square feet, it sits on 1.7 acres, includes a 4,700-square-foot squash court, and is valued at $46 million. It was purchased in 2005 for $8.7 million and then redeveloped.
At the other extreme end of the market is the Burns Block in the Downtown Eastside, which is 30 units of “microloft” living, with architect Bruce Carscadden’s brilliantly designed but oh-so-tiny 226- to 291-square-foot units. Considering that 226 square feet is about three times the size of a prison cell, is it cool to live that small, or simply oppressive? “It goes right back to that income gap — the money at the top gets the 4,000-square-foot house and the poor bugger at the other end gets the microloft,” says William Rees, the ecological economist who coined the term “ecological footprint.” Rees says our misguided belief that growth is necessary at all costs is going to have continuing devastating effects. “If the economy grows at two percent a year and you are ordinary with wages increasing at a rate that is the same as the economy — like teachers — you can’t compete against owners of capital who expect a 10 percent increase.”
Patrick Condon, chair of the UBC Urban Design program, says the disparity is fuelled by both local and global wealth, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. “When you look at it through that lens, seeing the celebration of the 220-square-foot apartment as a sustainable model is nice, but on the other hand, there is a sector of the population that doesn’t seem to be playing the same game. The average family income in our region has not changed in 20 years, but the cost per square foot of new built space has at least tripled.”
UBC geographer David Ley studies house prices in the cities targeted by high-net-worth individuals. He likens our situation to the Great Gatsby era of the 1930s. “Inequality peaked in the 1930s and then dropped off during the war, and remained low until about 1985. And then it went up again,” he says. “Now it’s even higher than the Gatsby era. It’s that sort of society that we are going back to in terms of extremes between the rich and poor.”
Heritage-minded Vancouver author Michael Kluckner has a back-to-the-future vision of how this grossly lopsided game of Monopoly will play out once the last dice have been rolled.
“Here’s my scenario for the West Side in 2025: it’s all rooming houses,” he says. “These houses are purpose-built to be converted into rooming houses, with big bedrooms, good ceiling heights, bathrooms every four feet. It will be like what happened in the West End 100 years ago, when houses were too big for families after the First World War: everything got converted to rooming houses, and then later redeveloped more formally into apartments. It
seems to me this is what will happen, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
And with that kind of elbow-to-elbow density, we might just become the greenest city after all.