Housing crisis: Vancouver falls short of being family-friendly

Needed: 7,000 new family-friendly homes to keep parents and children in Vancouver

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When five-year-old Serge Lechasseur is done playing with his Hot Wheels cars at his new townhouse in Kelowna, he won’t need to disassemble the track and put it away — because his new home will be twice the size of the small two-bedroom apartment his family has been renting in Strathcona.

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“He’ll have a den for a playroom where he can leave his toys set up,” said Serge’s father, Codi Lechasseur, a web designer, who will also have a home office rather than working from a desk in the master bedroom.

After looking unsuccessfully for years for something they could afford to buy in Vancouver, Lechasseur and his partner Jillian Povarchook just purchased a $699,000, three-bedroom townhouse in Kelowna, which they will move into this summer.

“If we were to try to find something larger (to rent in Vancouver), we would be paying upwards of $3,000 a month. But in moving to Kelowna, we can purchase something where our mortgage is less than that. And I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I just can’t justify that any more,” said Povarchook.

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Their family is part of a growing trend of young couples with children leaving expensive Vancouver for more affordable places, according to two city hall reports released this week on the current and future states of housing in the city.

The reports conclude that, despite city hall approving a record number of purpose-built rental housing in 2021, a combination of a growing population, high real estate prices, and rising rent and declining rental vacancies “is contributing to an ongoing crisis in housing affordability and availability.”

One report estimates the city needs 86,000 new units of housing right now for people who live in places that are inappropriate, for a variety of reasons. In addition, it needs 50,000 more condos, townhouses and rentals over the next 10 years for the people anticipated to move here. Vancouver also needs 20,000 more units for people with “unmet needs.”

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Included in the “unmet needs” group is housing for 7,000 families with children, since that is the number that moved out of Vancouver between 2011 and 2016. Of course, new families moved into the city from other domestic and international locations, but only about half as many as those who left, based on the 2016 Census.

The city says it will update these numbers after the 2021 Census data is released.

Statistics Canada is expected to release some of that data next week. While the findings are not yet public, Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said it is unlikely the situation for families in Vancouver has improved since 2016, since real estate and rental rates have only gone up during that time.

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“The reputation that the city of Vancouver is getting for young people is that it’s a city where you can come, but you won’t necessarily be able to stay,” Yan said.

Codi Lechasseur and Jillian Povarchook, and their five-year-old son Serge.
Codi Lechasseur and Jillian Povarchook, and their five-year-old son Serge. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Difficult choice to leave Vancouver

Leaving Vancouver was not an easy decision for Lechasseur and Povarchook. They will miss Strathcona, where they have rented for seven years, and the nearby amenities. They will miss the diversity of their neighbourhood. Povarchook will miss her job as a museum curator.

But they needed more space, and couldn’t figure out how to afford that in Vancouver. When asked how city hall could keep families like hers from moving, Povarchook said there was no easy solution.

“I don’t envy the city trying to convince people to stay. Because, yes, Vancouver is beautiful and, yes, it’s an amazingly diverse city. But you have a conversation with somebody on the street and invariably it turns to real estate and how you can’t afford to live here. So I don’t think it’s a problem that the city can solve on its own. It needs provincial and federal assistance as well,” she said.

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Families need more square footage than a single person or a couple, which is a “real challenge” when the cost of real estate is so high, said Dan Garrison, Vancouver’s assistant director of housing policy and regulation.

“Those households in those age ranges of 35 to 44 (are) the households that are having trouble finding what they’re looking for in the city, there’s just not the options there for them. And so we’re seeing those households maybe looking elsewhere for housing,” he said.

“We’re seeing the millennial generation hit the point where they’re forming families, they’re having kids, and that’s going to drive a lot of demand for family housing over the next decade. And so that’s something that we’re very aware of, and we know we need to figure out more options in terms of families in the city.”

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Garrison said the city is trying to address this by expanding the neighbourhoods where townhouses and coach houses can be built, investigating more co-op housing, and requiring a certain number of “family units” (defined as two bedrooms or more) in all new developments.

Buildings that sell or rent at market rates have done a good job of including units with at least two bedrooms, but this has been more of a challenge with affordable rentals and social housing, and the solution to that depends on financial assistance from the federal and provincial governments, he said.

“It’s going to require a concerted effort in order to secure affordable places for families in the city, but we think it’s possible and we’re certainly committed to doing that,” Garrison added.

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Children on the playground at Lord Nelson Elementary School in Vancouver.
Children on the playground at Lord Nelson Elementary School in Vancouver. Photo by Mike Bell /PNG

Not enough three-bedrooms

The first document released this week is a progress report on the city’s 10-year plan, passed in 2017, to approve 72,000 new condos, townhouses, rentals and social housing units. The plan does not include single-family homes or duplexes, just multi-unit developments.

Five years into the plan, the city has approved the building of roughly half of those new homes, although it was behind on townhouse approvals, which is a key form of family housing.

It has so far also failed to meet its target of making half of all new units affordable to households that make less than $80,000 a year — only one third of units met this benchmark. That’s a problem because while Vancouver homeowners had a median household income of $88,000, for renters it was just $50,000.

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The city has exceeded its goal for “family friendly” units that have at least two bedrooms, as nearly half of all new approvals over the last five years fall into this category.

However, less than 10 per cent have three or more bedrooms, and that number must climb to at least 18 per cent to provide sufficient housing for families in the future, says the second document, a “housing needs” report all cities were required to provide to the provincial government.

“We’ve been doing what we can to add to that stock of three-bedroom units. And that’s something that, when we do the future work on family housing, we’ll relook at again in terms of the targets,” said Edna Cho, a senior city hall housing planner.

The housing needs report also calls for a “significant scaling up” of “missing middle” ground-oriented options, such as townhouses and low-rise buildings.

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Trade-offs to stay in Vancouver

Holly Clarke, her partner, their two-year-old son and their cat outgrew their one-bedroom rental, which they had loved for its sunny exposure and balcony overlooking a quiet street. They found a way to get more living space and stay in their beloved east Vancouver neighbourhood, but had to make sacrifices: In September they bought a narrow, 800-square-foot, two-bedroom condo on a busy road, which gets little sun and street noise makes the balcony unusable.

It was a trade-off they were willing to make, though, to remain in the city where they can bike to work, play in nearby parks, and be near family.

The condo “is little but it does well for us, the way we’ve organized it. We’ve tried to maximize storage in each spot,” said Clarke, a teacher. “We have a Murphy bed in our bedroom as well that we can put up and it just maximizes our space as well.”

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She would like more options for families, such as row houses, in neighbourhoods with quieter roads that already have schools, community centres and sports fields. Right now, those areas are mainly dominated by high-end single-family homes, and are therefore “inaccessible to a population that would most benefit” from those amenities.

The housing needs report estimates 86,000 Vancouverites require new places to live now for three main reasons: they spend too much of their income on rent or mortgages, live in a space too small for their household, or rent a home that is in serious need of repair.

Urban planner Brent Toderian outside Crosstown Elementary School.
Urban planner Brent Toderian outside Crosstown Elementary School. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s chief planner from 2006 to 2012, now runs an urban design consulting firm. He jokes that he walks the walk when it comes to promoting density: He, his wife, and their two young boys live in an apartment in downtown Vancouver.

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Toderian has witnessed couples with children move out of downtown Vancouver during the pandemic, potentially because isolating in an apartment, with no backyard or basement, wasn’t ideal for a family.

He has a theory, though, that a roughly equal number of families has replaced those who left, and he is keenly awaiting the 2021 Census results to see if that is true.

His anecdotal evidence includes his observation that the waiting lists for the over-prescribed downtown schools, such as Crosstown where his son attends, appear to have grown, not shrunk.

Vancouver has for years been “a success story,” Toderian said, for taking steps to make downtown living attractive to families. City hall has required new developments to include a specified number of units with two or more bedrooms, child care centres have been built with money developers pay for extra density, and planners ensured there are many parks in the urban core.

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He would argue that Vancouver is a victim of its own success, as there are families who clearly want to live here who are fighting for a finite number of child care spaces, elementary school spots, and affordable housing.

There is also more that could be done, though, to help families stay here: The provincial Education Ministry could be far more proactive about constructing schools in urban areas with long kindergarten waiting lists and the city needs to be even more aggressive about approving different housing options, such as fee-simple townhouses in which the buyer owns both the unit and the land it sits on, Toderian said.

“We need a lot more of what I call gentle density, what other cities call missing-middle housing. It shouldn’t just be apartments,” he said.

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“And we should continue to make sure that when apartments get built, they have a reasonable number of two- and three- bedroom units. But we should also keep a close eye on the size of bedrooms, because we’ve let our bedrooms get unusually small.”

The trade-off, of course, is that smaller spaces are more affordable. “So that’s the tension that’s always there.”

For now, life in the Toderian family’s three-bedroom condo is working well, as the boys are four and seven years old. But he acknowledges things may get a bit squishy as they grow up. “We expect that if they end up being really big boys, then we will feel the strain and stress of that,” he said.

For families to find the balance that works for them, he added, they must weigh the pros and cons of what he calls the “urban bargain”: Living in the suburbs often gets you more bedrooms, more living space and a yard, although often a reliance on cars. Urban living generally gets you walking distance to work, schools, shopping and playgrounds.

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Simon Fraser University City Program director Andy Yan in Coal Harbour.
Simon Fraser University City Program director Andy Yan in Coal Harbour. Photo by Mark van Manen /PNG

How to keep 30-year-olds here?

Attracting young adults has never been a challenge for the beautiful city of Vancouver, with its bountiful outdoor sports, post-secondary education options, and job opportunities, said Yan, an urban studies professor at both SFU and the University of B.C.

“(But) the population begins to decline rather quickly after the mid-30s, which we all know is your prime household formation age — not only the first kid but the second kid,” he added.

So, how to keep those young people from leaving the city? There are other factors to be considered beyond affordability, such as reliability — since half of Vancouverites rent rather than own, are they safe from the risk of eviction? And then, of course, there is the continuing question of city hall approving the right size and style of units for growing families.

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“There’s the type of housing the market is capable of building, and then the needs of the people who live here. Those aren’t necessarily the same thing,” Yan said.

It is more lucrative for developers to build studios and one-bedroom condos. The cost of adding the second or third bedroom makes family units far less profitable.

“A lot of the density models that we have here in the city of Vancouver are actually concentrated on singles and couples. We haven’t necessarily dealt with density for families, particularly density for families with children. And it’s not impossible,” Yan argued.

Vancouver has neighbourhoods with the amenities already built that families need — schools, parks, community centres, libraries — so the solution is finding ways to add options such as townhouses and other types of ground-oriented developments, Yan said. Cities like Surrey and Langley, for example, have done a better job than Vancouver in producing this type of dense, affordable housing for families, although it may also be easier for them because they have more land available.

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Despite Vancouver’s goal for thousands of new housing units a year, it is behind its own targets for the creation of townhouses and laneway houses: Half way into its 10-year plan, city hall has approved just one-third of its target for this style of family-friendly homes.

“Where are you going to see these townhomes be developed? Because the city doesn’t have the large amount of green fields that it once had decades ago,” Yan said.

And he isn’t one to advocate the widespread displacement of detached homes for new developments because some of these houses provide good-sized and decent-priced rental options for working-class families, while new developments could replace those with smaller and more expensive units.

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Construction of a laneway house in Vancouver in March.
Construction of a laneway house in Vancouver in March. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

Solving this will fall to the planners at city hall, such as Cho and Garrison, who say innovative options are being explored, including four-storey residential buildings in single-family neighbourhoods and some “affordable home ownership” programs, which may require participation from other levels of government.

But at the end of the day, more density means the neighbourhoods dominated by single-family homes will see significant changes in the future, Garrison said.

“Densification of those neighbourhoods can happen gradually in an evolutionary way, where we can start seeing options being created in that missing-middle townhouse form. There’s a lot of work underway right now about multiplexes on what are currently detached properties. And we will see how far we can push those gentle density forms to create more affordable options, particularly for families.”

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