Jennifer Bradshaw and Albert Huang: Dumping the duplex? Cognitive dissonance at Vancouver City Hall

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      By Jennifer Bradshaw and Albert Huang

      The new mayor and council at Vancouver City Hall have tabled their first motions. All were elected on the promise of more affordable homes in Vancouver, yet one of those very first motions takes us further from affordability.

      A new NPA councillor has moved to reinstate the ban on duplexes. Duplexes were the first step city staff recommended under the last council toward increasing “missing middle” multifamily homes in the city, as part of an affordable housing plan. Before this, all multifamily homes, including duplexes, rowhouses, social and co-op homes, were banned on 75 percent of Vancouver land, and only the most expensive type of home, single-detached houses (historically known as “single-family houses”) were allowed.

      The new councillor's move to reinstate the ban on duplexes is the polar opposite of the direction Vancouver should be going for three major reasons.

      1. Banning multifamily homes means more of the most expensive homes—single-detached houses.

      Duplexes, multiplexes, and apartments are not as expensive as the single-detached house. Single-detached houses are now consistently above a million dollars in the city of Vancouver, even on the East Side, primarily due to the land cost.

      Because the land cost is not shared by multiple families, single-detached houses are by far the least affordable option—yet it is the most common structure, and due to city zoning bylaws, all cheaper multifamily options are banned on 75 percent of Vancouver’s residential land.

      “Enabling duplexes offered a baby step forward to a more inclusive, vibrant, and sustainable Vancouver, allowing stagnant neighbourhoods affordable only to millionaires to move closer to the options available in places like Kitsilano,” points out Nathan Lauster, UBC sociologist and author of The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver.

      Allowing duplexes on this land was the first of many necessary steps toward allowing more affordable multifamily homes—yet the NPA councillor's motion promises to reverse even this baby step.

      2. Protecting single-detached-home exclusivity by banning duplexes promotes displacement in places like the West End.

      Single-detached homeowners’ adult children, while usually relatively well-off, can rarely afford the luxury of a single-detached home themselves. Duplexes are a viable option for these families—both for the downsizing needs of the elderly homeowners, and for the new family needs of their adult offspring.

      With this option banned however, these relatively well-off folks have no choice but to move out to more affordable areas like the West End and East Van, displacing lower-income residents and driving gentrification.

      3. Banning multi-family homes is horrible for the environment because suburban sprawl encourages high energy and resource consumption per capita.

      Multifamily homes share walls and ceilings and are thus more efficient to heat for many families than their single-detached house counterparts. Even more crucially, suburban sprawl means more families are farther from their places of work and socialization and thus are much more likely to depend on cars.

      The difference is easy to visualize—imagine living in West Point Grey, compared to the West End. Unlike residents in single-detached neighbourhoods, West End residents rarely drive cars and prefer to walk and take public transit.

      If we were to build for quadplexes or apartments instead of one single-detached home in all neighbourhoods, TransLink could easily plan for more express buses and dedicated bus lanes, encouraging public ridership and replacing cars.

      A Center for Clean Air Policy report shows how urban multifamily households consume much less energy than suburban homes: Local environmental groups have recognized this as well.

      “The climate crisis does not merely threaten Vancouverites with discomfort: it threatens our species with extinction,” says environmental activist Brendan Vance. “Every single city in every single country must do its part to reduce carbon emissions by at least 45 percent in the next 12 years. To achieve this we must reverse the region's course towards ever-increasing urban sprawl.”

      The sense of urgency from an environmental perspective is in stark contrast to the endless calls for more consultation in our unsustainable land use. Several experts have pointed out the cognitive dissonance in pushing toward more luxury single-detached-home-exclusive neighbourhoods during a housing crisis.

      Economist Tom Davidoff of UBC expressed it thus:

      UBC public policy expert Alex Hemingway agrees.

      “The discussion a rational council would be having is how do we move towards building apartments in these areas, not how do we go back to detached only,” he says.

      Indeed, current zoning laws prevent nonprofit rental, social housing, and co-ops as well—any and all multifamily homes. Instead of re-banning duplexes again, the new council should be looking at lifting the ban for these more affordable market and nonmarket homes.

      Detached-homes-only is the unaffordable, luxury, car-intensive status quo that the new council could return to, with minimal consultation. The cognitive dissonance is real. 

      Jennifer Bradshaw is a renter, data analyst, and housing activist with Abundant Housing Vancouver. Albert Huang is a housing advocate with Abundant Housing Vancouver, and a social purpose real estate developer of social and nonprofit housing projects.