“Single-family homes”, Vancouver Specials // By Jason V from Vancouver, Canada (2005–09–07) via Wikimedia Commons

Please stop using the term “Single-Family Home”

“Single-family homes” are not always single-family homes in Vancouver

Media, politicians, planners, activists and housing critics like to throw around the adjective “single-family homes” (SFH) when describing detached houses and neighbourhoods zoned for detached houses. As housing prices become out-of-reach of the common person, critics slam “single-family homes” saying that zoning for them should be abolished in favour of denser multi-family housing forms. Whatever your opinion is on “single-family homes”, please stop using that term.

“Single-family homes” are not always “single-family homes”, especially if you grew up in lower to middle-class immigrant ethno-enclaves in the Lower Mainland. By using the term “single-family home”, one dehumanizes the way of how people actually live in detached houses in favour of a broad-stroke narrative that vilifies working-class families as “greedy homeowners” unwilling to densify their property.

From the mid 60’s onwards to the beginning of the millenium, the detached Vancouver Special was a prevalent form of housing for working-class families. Yes, it looks like a box and it is cheaply built, but it was accessible, affordable and efficient. With its secondary suites and efficient floorplans, it was and still is a housing form that a multigenerational family and its brood can grow into.

As a Chinese-Canadian kid growing up visiting other Chinese-Canadian households, we would go to birthday parties only to be reminded to keep quiet to avoid disturbing the neighbours downstairs. The entrance to the locked off secondary suite was always shrouded in enigma. As we grew older, the door to the secondary suite was unlocked to make room for teenage and later adult children to have their personal space away from parents and grandparents. For some families, the significant other of the son or daughter may even move into the secondary suite to eventually start their own new family. Families with larger lots may subdivide their lot into a duplex, so that grandparents and parents can live on one side, while the sons’ or daughters’ young family lived on the other side, connected by a shared laundry room in between. If sons and daughters decide to move out, then the secondary suite can be re-rented again.

This type of multigenerational multi-family collective living isn’t new, and very typical of immigrant working-class Chinese-Canadian families. It stems from traditions of the Chinese culture that promotes familial piety, which encourages multigenerational living. Similar to the Vancouver Special arrangement described above, a family in ancient China (and even today in historic areas or rural China) would live in courtyard compounds called Siheyuans (四合院), a type of housing pattern that allows families to live with and take care of each other. The sons would live in the family compounds for life becoming breadwinners and caretakers of elders. Unmarried daughters were mandated to live with her family in specific quarters secluded from the public until she was married. The courtyard in the middle was where children played, generations socialized, gardens nurtured, and rain water collected. Common areas such as the kitchen, dining area and washing areas were shared. These compounds are still seen throughout China from the imperial palaces to rural homes. I even have extended family in rural China that lives in one on a mountain today.

Siheyuan housing form of ancient China // By Pubuhan (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Although Siheyuans are now a historic housing form, remnants of the Chinese traditional style of multigenerational multi-family living is still practiced and has been transported to Vancouver by the working-class Chinese diaspora. The Vancouver Special and similar types of detached housing are the Siheyuans of China’s past. The primary and secondary or duplex suites are the separate units of a courtyard compound. The front and backyards are the ancient courtyards. When unmarried Chinese-Canadian women ask each other “Do you still live at home?”, we know that those who say yes live at home not because they are boomerang adult-kids short on rent money, but because it is a continuation of Chinese tradition that is still commonly practiced today. Multi-family collective living isn’t limited to the working-class Chinese diaspora. I have also witnessed multi-family living arrangements in detached homes among Indian immigrant families in Surrey. Even though this type of collective living has been prevalent in working-class immigrant families in Vancouver, other Vancourites have also founded similar collective cohousing arrangements in underused mansions as a way to combat housing unaffordability.

From my lived experience, “single-family homes” are not just for single families. These so-called “single-family homes” are densely populated homes that encourages multiple generations to support each other within close quarters. It is an affordable way of living and arguably even a model way of living for the future. Think about it: In the multigenerational living arrangement I have described, retired grandparents can help with childcare for young working parents, while younger family members can provide care for sick and elderly members. Common living areas allows for social interaction between generations promoting livability and social connectivity. With the rising need for affordable childcare for families with working parents, the need for culturally-appropriate senior care allowing seniors to age in place, and the desire for livable living quarters, a Vancouver Special-type “single-family home” provides the ideal living conditions that fulfils family and societal needs.

Kerry Gold, a journalist from the Globe and Mail, wrote an article titled Vancouver’s myth of the ‘single family’ house. In it, Andy Yan, Director of the SFU City Program states his Census findings that:

“[t]he data show that residents are living in denser types of dwellings than commonly believed, turning single-family homes into multiple units, rooming houses or shared collective housing, or adding secondary suites…[The] analysis also shows that the old-fashioned one-family, one-house lifestyle [Single Detached House] in Vancouver began to wane way back in the 1970s. It dropped from 50 per cent down to the 15 per cent we are seeing now.”
“Single-detached house” does not include “single-family homes” that have primary and secondary or duplex suites common in co-living arrangements
Decline of single-detached and semi-detached housing share in Vancouver. “Single-detached” and “semi detached” houses does not include “single-family homes” that have primary and secondary or duplex suites common in co-living arrangements

Yan calls it “hidden density”. Other critics points to the statistics and say that that is even more of a reason to promote denser forms of multi-family housing forms on the current “single-family lots” so that the hidden density can be legalized and formalized. What the critics don’t realize is that conventional forms of multi-family living in Vancouver’s planning realm, such as urban development critic Michael Geller’s suggested “side-by-side duplexes with basement suites under each side and a laneway house” or economic professor Tom Davidoff’s suggested “more suitable townhomes and family-sized apartments,” do not all recreate the type of multigenerational multi-family collective living that a housing form like the Vancouver Special provides. Their proposals will separate the living quarters by generation making it inconvenient to families to share common spaces and will limit serendipitous encounters between family members. Amenities that are typically shared in collective living arrangements, such as cooking, dining, living, and washing areas will be unnecessary duplicated across each unit.

As Yan says:

“We need to focus on who we are trying to house and what’s actually on the ground, as opposed to a blind, dogma-driven assault on an imagined zoning type…Meeting real estate market demands does not necessarily reflect or fulfill fundamental human needs for a home and community.”

So please stop using the adjective “single-family” to describe homes or zoning, because they are not all truly single-family. It is a harmful description that demonizes the ethnic working-class who live in multigenerational multi-family collective-living arrangements that grew out of necessity and cultural tradition, but got caught up in the whirlwind housing market of today. The “single-family home” description is a Euro-centric middle to upper-class homogenous view of living that ignores the living arrangements of other cultures and working-class people.

Instead of making sweeping claims that “single-family zoning” is exclusionary and that all “SFH neighbourhoods” regardless of demographics should be abolished to rid Vancouver of “selfish home-owners”, we need to rethink how we talk about detached homes in Vancouver. We need to use a more humanistic lens to understand how people in a population as diverse as Vancouver’s are actually living on the ground. Perhaps how working ethnic families have made do with detached houses to date should instead serve as inspiration for how we should design livable and affordable housing types in Vancouver going forward.

Post-note — Interesting tweets in response to the piece:

Gil Kelly is Vancouver’s Director of Planning. Elizabeth Ball is a City Councillor.