Legalizing the village
We built a home to solve some of the greatest challenges of our times. Our home is illegal almost everywhere in Vancouver — and in your city, too.
This essay expands on a column that appeared in the Vancouver Sun.
Vancouver is famous for its beauty and its sky-high housing prices. It’s also gaining a reputation among social scientists for the deep anxiety and disconnection felt by many of its residents. Too many people feel lonely. Too many feel that they can’t keep up. Too many people are already being pushed out of the city as housing prices race ever-higher. Meanwhile, too many of us live in ways that contribute to the climate crisis that will deepen our hardship in the future.
A few years ago, a few dozen of us came together to launch an experiment that we hoped would tackle middle class housing affordability, social disconnection and climate change all in one go. We set out to create our own village in the heart of the city, a place designed to nurture friendship and care among neighbours while shrinking both our cost of living and greenhouse gas emissions.
We knew this was a wildly ambitious dream. To bring it to life, we had to become real estate developers. We poured our life savings — and more than six years of hard work — into designing and building a cluster of homes that would be as efficient at reducing our carbon footprint as it was at generating strong social connections. To do that, we would use passive house construction. We would infuse our building with social nooks and shared amenities such as a kid’s room, workshop and roof garden, as well as a common kitchen and dining room. Of course, to make the homes affordable for our group, we would need to build as tall as the City would let us — six stories.
We moved into our new community, Little Mountain Cohousing, in the spring of 2021. Our social experiment is now in full flight: I arrived home one day last week to find half a dozen kids building a fort out of couch cushions. Two neighbours were sharing a glass of wine in our common dining room. The fragrant scent of stew wafted out of our common kitchen, where other neighbours were preparing a meal for three dozen of us. I took it all in, then rode the elevator up to my own apartment, where I paused to wonder at my incredible good fortune at finding a village in the middle of the city.
Our housing experiment really is working: We enjoy our own small apartments but dine together a couple of times a week. We help each other out. Adults volunteer to provide after-school care for other people’s children, saving them hundreds of dollars a month. We are developing a culture of neighbourly kindness and care. And, because we share walls in a super-efficient building, our carbon emissions have plummeted by more than three quarters compared to folks who live in detached homes.
As a private venture, our building doesn’t claim to solve the homelessness crisis, and it doesn’t provide housing for people on very low incomes. But it does make room for 50 people on land that previously housed fewer than 10, and at a fraction of the cost. And it does relieve the demand for other apartments and lower-cost housing in the city. Economists agree that buildings like ours are a key part of the affordability solution, especially if they replace more expensive housing in walkable neighbourhoods.
The bad news
As happy as we are in our vertical village, I suspect that most of us would never attempt a project like this again. Not in this city. And almost nobody else is following in our footsteps in Vancouver.
Why? Our journey was a harrowing mashup of bureaucratic delays and surprise costs. Moreover, it’s pretty much illegal to build our village in most parts of Vancouver. Like many cities, Vancouver is bound by arcane land zoning and design rules that favour the development of inefficient, single detached homes, alienating condo towers and apartments on super-busy arterial roads. Vancouver also makes property development so arduous that typically only big, rich developers — or folks converting old houses into mansions — can afford to play. Even though politicians and planners universally claimed to love our project, it still took two and a half years to get the City’s permission to build it. These delays added nearly a million dollars to our costs, or $40,000 per apartment, pushing our prices beyond reach of many people in this city.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our experiment is just one of many healthy, medium-dense alternatives to Vancouver’s buffet of multi-million dollar homes, dark basement suites and isolating tower apartments. But to unlock the potential for more homes like ours, the city needs to learn from our experiment in citizen development.
Here are two lessons from our journey.
Lesson one: We need to legalize more affordable, attainable housing, everywhere.
Lesson two: We need to fast-track housing projects that provide social good, such as co-ops, cohousing and, especially, subsidized, affordable housing.
Let me dig into these two themes…
Lesson one: Legalize affordable, attainable housing everywhere
It happens to be illegal to build a cohousing building like ours in most of Vancouver. Nearly three quarters of land in the city has been reserved for low-density housing that protects “single-family residential character.” (This so-called RS zoning has recently been tweaked to allow homeowners to add up to two accessory suites to their detached home, or replace it with a duplex. But it absolutely bans the kinds of apartment buildings that might make a dent in our housing crisis.)
The result? Researcher Jens von Bergmann has noted that some Vancouver neighbourhoods, such as Shaughnessy, actually lost population over the last few decades, while thousands of apartment-seekers have been driven to the suburbs. (Rental vacancies have been stuck way below the “healthy” rate of 3% for decades, even during the pandemic.)
What happens when we up-zone low-density land for apartments? The simple answer is that we get more affordable housing than what was there before.
Here are some rough numbers from our cohousing project: We purchased three homes worth just under $2 million each. We replaced these homes with 25 strata apartments, ranging from studios all the way up to four-bedrooms units. Our apartments cost more than some, because our building included lots of shared amenity spaces. But because we built for ourselves, we didn’t have to pay a premium for developer’s profit. We still ended up spending about $950 per square foot, which meant that a two-bedroom, 700 square-foot apartment cost about $655,000 by purchase time.
That’s not cheap. But what would happen to those single-family properties if they were in Vancouver’s traditional RS zone? Well, the closest RS-zoned property I could find for sale near our building in Riley Park today is a Romanesque detached house on 39th Avenue. This marbled mansion replaced an older home in 2019. It’s listed for…wait for it…$4,999,999.
We should all be troubled that our zoning laws make it much easier to replace old homes with mansions than to build apartments.
So we need to make it easier to build apartments. But most strata apartments, including my own cohousing unit, are out of reach for people who live, or want to live, in Vancouver. If Vancouver is to provide homes for the people who work and study here, we need rental housing, and plenty of it. I did a search for one- or two-bedroom apartments for rent in our Riley Park neighbourhood today. How many rentals did I find? Just three, in a neighbourhood with the population of a small town (22,000). No wonder the cheapest option is a dingy one-bedroom basement, listed at $1650/month.
Governments around the world are opening the doors to more housing. New Zealand’s national government has passed a bill legalizing townhouses everywhere in all big cities, and six-story apartments near transit hubs and job centres. In a modest move, California ended single-family-only zoning to allow for duplexes, and streamlined the process for cities to zone for multi-family housing.
Vancouver is working on a new long-term City Plan, which may include measures to legalize apartments in RS zones — if enough people demand the change. That plan could take years. But as I write this, the City is passing a policy that will allow rental apartment buildings of up to four stories within 200 metres of shopping streets. It’s a timid move that I don’t expect to result in a flood of new construction. After all, my co-housing neighbours and I had to build six stories to keep our own unit costs within reach. If we are really concerned about housing non-millionaires in Vancouver, we should be rezoning the entire city to legalize rental apartment buildings up to six stories.
Some pundits argue that upzoning for more rentals alone will not solve our housing crisis. They are partly right. The most vulnerable and marginalized people in society will always require subsidized housing, and we need massive government investment to make it a reality. The good news is that rezoning single family neighbourhoods for apartments will make room for social housing by making use of the airspace above what are now private houses, lawns and garages. That’s part of the reason why non-profit housing associations in BC are the strongest advocates for upzoning these single-family areas.
Evidence from studies in Europe and North America suggest that, on a city-wide scale, building any new rental housing, including market-rate rental housing, helps low-income renters, because new apartments relieve the pressure on older, less expensive rental apartments elsewhere. In a phenomenon known as filtering, people move from less expensive housing to new housing, then other people find housing in those vacated units, leaving their own units available for yet other people and so-on, resulting in a knock-on effect involving as many as six households choosing to move.
This musical chairs-like process works, provided that a: we don’t knock down affordable rental apartments to replace them with new luxury apartments, and b: we have strong protections for current renters. So where is the right place to build more rental apartments if we want a more inclusive city?
It’s all around us.
Our vast, single-family zones are our greatest resource for equitable housing. Ending the ban on apartments in these low-density neighbourhoods doesn’t force detached home-owners to build apartments. But it does give some of them the chance to be part of the solution, along with market and non-market builders.
Lesson two: We need to fast-track housing projects that provide social good, such as coops, cohousing and, especially, subsidized, affordable housing. And by fast, I mean really fast.
When we first planned our cohousing community, we were sure that our homes would cost us much less than the for-profit condos we saw popping up around the city. After all, nobody was going to make a profit off of our building. We had no marketing costs. And we weren’t outfitting our apartments with fancy features such as marble countertops and the home spas that you see in real estate ads. What’s more, we were convinced that we could get our village built quickly, because city councillors, city planners and everyone else who heard about our project said they loved it.
None of that seemed to temper the brutal lethargy of the City of Vancouver’s processes. Even though we built in a district that was designated for new apartments, it still took us two and a half years to complete the rezoning and development permitting process. Here’s how those delays inflated our apartment costs:
Each month, we were paying about $35,000 in interest and other costs for the land we purchased. Our various consultant fees ran about $20,000/month. That means every month of delay cost us an extra $55,000.
What’s a reasonable amount of time to get an exemplary housing project approved? Should it take the same amount of time that it takes to build a mansion? In 2019, after the City created a project to fast-track single-family permits, wait times for many single-family builds or renovations fell to just three months. But let’s not reach for the stars. Let’s say a year of hoop-jumping is acceptable. In that case, the extra 18 months we endured added nearly $1 million to the cost of our project. That’s about $40,000 extra per unit in our building, not including the $900,000 we paid the city in various fees.
It sucked for our group of mostly middle-income earners to pay these costs. But it is outrageous that non-profit housing providers end up facing the same extra costs. The City of Vancouver has launched a program to reduce permit wait times for what it calls its priority projects, including social housing and secured market rental housing. But once again, it would be even more effective to legalize coops, cohousing and social housing projects that meet clear social and design objectives, thereby eliminate lengthy hearings and design reviews.
If we don’t require them for mansions, why put this burden on housing for non-millionaires?
Vancouver’s operating system is very good at producing mansions, towers and apartments on noisy, polluted arterial roads.
I dream of a future where more people are welcomed and included, where all the folks who have been pushed out can find a place again.
I dream of a city where more people can afford to live near work and school, where more families can live without being stuck in their cars all the time.
I dream of a city of interconnected villages, a city that is good for our souls and for the planet. We can have that city, but only if we legalize it.
I welcome your thoughts, comments, and corrections at email@example.com or on Twitter.
Thanks to Ronaye Matthew of Cohousing Development Consulting, Jens von Bergmann at MountainMath and Monte Paulsen for background information.