March 25, 2021

The End of the Single-Family House is Underway (Updated)

The city-wide Vancouver plan discussion seems to be coming down to one thing: the end of RS-1 (or single-family zoning – the white part on the map*):

Critiques of zoning in the City of Vancouver typically begin with this:

Single-family zoning is why it’s illegal to build multi-family buildings, like apartments or social housing, on over 70 per cent of the land in Vancouver.

That was Adrian Crook in 2019. “Put an end to single-family zoning to end housing crisis.

As PT readers will be quick to point out, RS-1 is no longer about a single family.  That kind of zoning technically doesn’t exist, given that secondary suites, lane cottages, duplexes, etc. are pretty much buildable anywhere.  But the land-use consequences are the same: the buildings must be stand-alone, and the sites cannot be used for ‘missing middle’ alternatives.  The maintenance of single-family scale is still the determinant.**

But while zoning to maintain single-family scale may not be coming to an end anytime soon, actual stand-alone homes are diminishing, especially in contrast to the growth of apartments.  ‘Changing Vancouver’ writer Andy Coupland provides some data:


There are fewer single-family homes every year. Those that get built almost always replace existing houses. With plans in several parts of the city that allow redevelopment to denser forms, (Marpole Plan, Cambie Plan, Grandview Woodland Plan for example) some are demolished and replaced with apartments every year.

The census data shows this. Between 2011 and 2016 there were 6,100 fewer single family homes in the City of Vancouver, and 7,100 more up-and-down duplexes.

In other words there were 3,550 more homes with a suite in 2016 than in 2011. There were also an additional 480 side-by-side duplexes. So that’s a net loss of over 2,000 ground-oriented detached or semi-detached dwellings.

In the same period there were 805 more rowhouses, 3,955 more low-rise apartments (4 stories or less) and 12,980 units in buildings five storeys or more.

In summary; 2,000+ fewer detached homes in the city over five years, a modest number of townhouses added, and nearly 17,000 more apartments (nearly a quarter in low-rise buildings).


Andy provides some updates.  Here’s a land-use map of the City from 2001 that shows the extent of single-family housing in off-white:

This is a comparative chart for Metro Vancouver to see how different the change in house types was at that level of geography. “Not very different, really, although the number of ground oriented (mainly houses with a suite) does go up over time.”

For Stats nerds, here’s an interesting insight into the importance of how data is collected, and what a small change can make:

If anybody picks up on the fact that the number of apartments less than 4 storeys went down a bit in the City of Vancouver in the 2000s, it’s because Statistics Canada reallocated a lot of SROs and some care homes from apartment to ‘collective dwelling’ (which they don’t include in the census count of dwellings). That way they don’t have to try to get any long-form census data out of the residents – it only goes to ‘census households’.

Almost all the reclassified buildings were in Vancouver, so it only really impacted the City of Vancouver data. The population who live in the SROs is counted, and their basic characteristics collected (age, gender etc) but not all the additional information.


*This map is from 2001 – the latest I could find.  There’s not an obvious source for the current zoning map on the City’s web site.

In the future, it’s likely that no part of a zoning map will be coloured white.  Since racialization is an accepted frame of thinking today, it’s not surprising that planning issues are often about ethnicity.  The past is being recast in different colours, literally and in interpretation.  (‘Harland Bartholomew was a white supremacist.’ ‘Zoning is racist.’  ‘The Planning Director must be BIPOC.’)

**The scale of RS-1-style zoning (front, side and backyards; peaked roofs, single front entrances, etc) is often what people mean by neighbourhood character.  For them, it’s about design and architecture.  Others maintain it’s really about race and class.  They talk past each other.


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  1. The bar graph shows that rezonings have worked as intended. The only problem has been that there have been too few areas rezoned. It’ll be interesting to see how the city walks the very-invested 70% single family zoners into the inevitable.

  2. The survey plan for the city of Vancouver was established during the Garden City movement of the previous century. The intent of the planning movement was quite noble: a peaceful path to real reform, a plan to replace the crowded tenements of the industrial city with affordable single family homes in which people live harmoniously together with nature. Hence the house on the lot surrounded by space and nature. Ebenezer Howard would be very pleased indeed to see how this utopian dream became the beautiful city of Vancouver as it is today, the most livable city on the planet as it is sometimes claimed. Those single family homes are in high demand even at exorbitant prices because they are safe refuge in a time of pandemic.
    Times of course have changed or have they? We no longer seek a relationship with nature as we once did. We actually don’t care about nature. We are content to live in a unit not in a house, a unit of course does not exist in nature, it is located somewhere in a building with hundreds of other units.

  3. This is what will make Vancouver increasingly uncompetitive in attracting talent going forward. Why would any doctor or researcher with a family choose Vancouver for the “privilege” of squeezing themselves into a moldy, two bed, wood-frame condo, when they could get a single family home and land in scores of American cities? Vancouver tries to get by on “But the mountains!”, while ignoring we have less to offer culturally than Pittsburgh.

    1. So cultural cache is contingent upon a city’s capacity for sprawl in your mind? Your definition of “cool” is unique.

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