March 30, 2021

Michael Gordon: Towards the ‘Missing Middle’

By Michael Gordon

The City of Vancouver’s housing stock stands out as having the lowest proportion of single-detached dwellings (one house/one household) of its housing stock of major cities in Canada*.  In the City of Vancouver, according to the 2016 Census, single-detached dwellings with only one household living in it make up 19 percent of the dwelling units in the City’s housing stock.(For Metro Vancouver CMA: 29 percent.)

The trend in Vancouver has been downward, with single-detached dwellings emerging as a more modest part of the housing stock since 1981.  Most dwelling starts now in the City and Region are in multiple dwellings or townhouse developments.

Many of the houses in the City have two dwellings and are counted as duplexes by Statistics Canada.  Houses with more than two dwellings could be counted as an apartment or a flat in a duplex.

I’ve seen the data from BC Assessment which would appear to indicate most floor space built in the City of Vancouver is for ‘single-family’ houses. My choice in looking at this is from the perspective of choices in homes, noticing that increasingly apartments in multiple dwellings are the largest part of our housing stock.

In any case, in our housing stock we have lots of houses but there has been an increase in the number of separate households with their own kitchen in them.

Referring to our RS zones as single-family zones is a misnomer, given the prevalence of so many houses with two or more dwellings (two or more households living within them) and now with infill houses on the lane. From a built form perspective, they really are ‘house’ districts.

Our so-called ‘single-family’ districts have been less so since 1987 when secondary suites were permitted in almost all RS districts if occupied by a family member.  Rental suites started to be permitted in some RS districts and then finally in most RS districts in 2004. With the introduction of laneway houses, the zoning permits three dwellings on each RS zoned lot. Maybe we should call them ‘Three-Family Districts.’

Wealth and class is an important subtext in discussions of housing policy. When you stroll or ride your bike through Vancouver’s west-side neighbourhoods (for example, Kerrisdale) dominated by houses, one finds a lot of wealth.  For many living there now, it’s reasonable to assume that many will prefer to live in a single-detached one-household house. We can contemplate building the ‘missing middle’ there – but given very high land values, home ownership will likely only be affordable by wealthy or two-income professional households. For those with moderate incomes or extended family members, a laneway infill dwelling, a rental secondary suite or a rental in a 6- or 8-plex will hopefully be more accessible.

The housing markets are driven by money, income, class, race, personal preferences and opportunities or lack thereof, as well as zoning and public policy.  One can anticipate that wealthier people looking for a house will consider Vancouver’s west side over other areas in the region, and this will put continued upward pressure on house prices.

Modest West Side House – Assessed Value: $5.5 million – Lot is 12,500 sq.ft.

 

West Side House – $3.6 million – Lot is 6,600 sq. ft.

 

For comparison, I recommend having a stroll around the residential side streets of Norquay to observe the addition of ‘missing middle’ housing.

Norquay Village Centre

The mid-90’s CityPlan championed by Ann McAfee envisioned Neighbourhood Centres offering a broader choice in homes – and that is what is being developed there.

Norquay ‘Missing Middle’ Homes for Sale – Multiple – Six Dwellings – Assessed Value – $5.35 million – Lot is 4,450 sq. ft.

The homes in Norquay were priced between $700 to $800 a square foot, competitive with some new apartments being built in Port Moody and near Lower Lonsdale.

It looks like you could build anywhere from 10 or more ‘missing middle’ homes on each of the ‘West-Side’ single-detached house sites in the above photo depending on lot size. (I wonder what the price per square foot of a condo in a four-storey ‘missing middle’ home would be on one of the single-family detached sites given current home values? Regrettably, many households in Vancouver could not afford to buy these condos.) Noticing that some houses are gems for their times of design and detailing, retaining them should be considered and in some cases, required.

The City of Vancouver as a place to live has its competitors. With more people being offered future flexibility in working at home, places like Port Moody and Lower Lonsdale become even more attractive. They offer livability and access to transit, shopping, restaurants, public spaces, waterfront and parks. Thirtysomething couples will also be looking for two bedrooms where they can both work at home, not be on top of each other and have a bedroom for a child.  (More about this in a future post.)

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Michael Gordon RPP has worked as a planner for 44 years, including as a Senior Planner for downtown Vancouver (1992 – 2018), has taught a course in Community Planning and Housing Policy for the past two decades at UBC, is Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Heritage Commission and several years ago was President of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

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*Percent of single-detached dwellings in other CMAs: Calgary (63%), Edmonton (60%), Toronto (43%) and Ottawa (48%).

 

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