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In Vancouver, the reign of the single family house must end: Author

Single family homes aren’t good for communities, the environment or families, says a UBC sociology professor

Single family heritage houses preserved in Vancouver's West End. A building boom in the 1960s and 70s replaced most of the single family homes in the neighbourhood with apartment buildings.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Single family heritage houses preserved in Vancouver's West End. A building boom in the 1960s and 70s replaced most of the single family homes in the neighbourhood with apartment buildings.

To many, houses bordered by white picket fences on a quiet, tree-lined street are the very definition of a family-friendly neighbourhood.

But a University of British Columbia sociology professor argues that detached homes are very overrated.

“At one point in Vancouver, the middle class could clearly afford to buy into the single family house,” said Nathanael Lauster, author of the The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, to be published in October.

“Now it’s no longer the case. It’s become increasingly glaring. What are we doing reserving so much land for millionaires?”

About 80 per cent of Vancouver’s land base is devoted to single family homes, a percentage Lauster called “just enormous.” Vancouver-based data analyst Jens von Bergmann recently estimated that around 35 per cent of Vancouver’s residents live on the 80 per cent of the land zoned for detached and duplex houses, while the remaining 65 per cent of residents live on the 19 per cent of the land base devoted to multi-family housing.

A vacant home in Vancouver's Dunbar neighbourhood awaits redevelopment. The City of Vancouver is planning to tax empty homes in an effort to slow down rampant real estate speculation

Jen St. Denis/Metro

A vacant home in Vancouver's Dunbar neighbourhood awaits redevelopment. The City of Vancouver is planning to tax empty homes in an effort to slow down rampant real estate speculation

At the same time, Vancouver has moved away from the single family house faster than any other North American city, Lauster said. It’s a trend Lauster thinks should continue, despite ongoing opposition to denser development from many of Vancouver’s single-family neighbourhoods.

Single-family homes are heavily protected through city zoning laws that prohibit denser housing to be built on much of Vancouver’s land base, regulations that Lauster traced back to the 1920s and 30s. Keeping the wrong kind of people out was very much part of the rationale for the zoning restrictions, Lauster said.

“A lot of people really like the control it gives them in terms of zoning because it dictates, effectively, who their neighbours are going to be,” Lauster said.

“But that’s a problem for making a more inclusive city…it’s a problem for privileging a certain already privileged set of people in terms of determining what our city looks like, and marginalizing the voices of all those people who can’t get into those positions in the first place.”

Lauster argues that single family home neighbourhoods are bad for the environment (they use more energy and encourage more driving and less walking), urban vitality (they lock away land that could be used for public space) and even families.

“Some of the research suggests that as you see greater development of single family houses, you see greater destabilization of couples,” Lauster said. The reason is still not known, but one theory is that single-family housing is more isolating for women.

Lauster found that some Vancouverites still think that being a good parent and successful adult means being able to provide a single-family home for their families. But many others now think it’s fine to raise a family in other types of housing.

A recent City of Vancouver survey found that 60 per cent of Vancouver families are planning to leave the city, with many of the respondents saying they had been unable to find any family-sized three bedroom units in apartments or condo buildings.

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