In September 2018, Vancouver councillors rezoned large sections of the city to allow for duplexes where there were once only single-family homes.
On the surface, there was a lot for people to get excited about.
A municipal election was barely one month away and just about everybody knew that the incumbent party, Vision Vancouver, was about to get tossed out of office.
Furthermore, the motion that Vision councillors passed (with a 7-4 vote) concerned a massive portion of the city—some 67,000 lots, or 99 percent of all single-family properties in Vancouver.
Opponents warned that before long, Vancouver’s quiet family neighbourhoods would be crowded with double the density they enjoyed just a few years earlier. It was an undemocratic gift to Vision Vancouver’s developer friends that the party pushed through just before the clock struck midnight.
Some four months later, the dust is beginning to settle. And the picture emerging is one that’s less dramatic than many feared.
Since last September’s vote, City Hall has received just 16 applications for the construction of duplexes on lots where single-family homes stand today.
In a telephone interview, Paula Huber, senior planner with the city’s Making Room program, said that’s actually a lot fewer than her team anticipated.
“Our numbers are low, but it is just the start,” she told the Straight.
According to Huber, city staff project that the mass rezoning that passed in September could eventually see duplexes (two-family dwellings built as a single structure) account for 50 percent of residential properties. That equates to about 400 new duplexes constructed each year, or roughly 33 each month—far more than the monthly average of four applications that the city has received since September.
Huber noted this is likely to change. “With the laneway [housing] program, we saw a slow uptake,” she said. “And then it kind of got to a point where the industry was more comfortable with it.”
Last October’s civic election saw Vision Vancouver’s presence at City Hall diminished from five council seats plus the mayor to not a single elected representative.
The motion that allows for duplexes across most of Vancouver subsequently returned to council and received a second vote from the city’s newly elected officials. But little changed. On December 19, the new team at 12th and Cambie voted to keep Vision’s duplex policy in place, at least for now.
One of those councillors who voted in favour of the motion, the Green party’s Michael Wiebe, told the Straight that in the long run, residents might come to wonder what all the fuss was about.
“It’s amazing how big it’s gotten, how divisive it was, and how we battled at council and how much of a struggle it was,” Wiebe said in a telephone interview. “But [since then] we haven’t had that many applications come forward.
“And when we’ve talked to applicants, and what we’ve heard from staff, is that a lot of them are going to be intergenerational homes,” he continued. “It’s someone buying a home and having their grandparents or their parents live beside them. Or brothers and sisters buying places because they can’t afford a single one and who are then going to buy a place together and develop it into a duplex. I think it is the form of zoning we want.”
A September 2018 city report describes the duplex option in the context of Vancouver’s housing-affordability crisis. It notes that the benchmark price of a single-detached home on the city’s East Side has increased by more than 150 percent since 2006 and that the price of a similar unit on the city’s West Side rose by almost 200 percent during that period.
“Residents want to see more of the ‘right supply’ of housing, and a greater diversity in the types of housing choices available to people who live and work in Vancouver,” the document reads.
As drastic an action as a mass rezoning might sound, Vancouver is not the only jurisdiction in North America to initiate such a process. Cities across the continent are dealing with affordability issues and some are responding with policies that are not so different from what Vision Vancouver did just before its mayor and councillors left office.
In December 2018, Minneapolis, Minnesota, population 3.6 million, entirely eliminated single-family zoning.
"The Minneapolis City Council voted last Friday [December 7] to get rid of the category and instead allow residential structures with up to three dwelling units—like duplexes and triplexes—in every neighborhood," reads a report in the New York Times. "Minneapolis is believed to be the first major city in the United States to approve such a change citywide."
That article notes that Seattle and Portland are debating similar policies, though more limited in scope.
Sara Sagaii is a steering-committee member of the Vancouver Tenants Union, a grassroots organization founded in April 2017 in an attempt to see the city’s renters speak with a unified voice. She told the Straight that while rezoning to allow for more duplexes might be good for would-be homeowners— emphasis on ‘might’, she stressed—it could prove disastrous for existing renters.
“The question for us is not about more density or less density.The issue is whether or not you are protecting tenants and the right to housing,” Sagaii explained. “There are a lot of vulnerable tenants who are renting in single-family homes, and now most areas of the city are rezoned for duplexes. This is going to see a destruction frenzy.”
She acknowledged that thus far, the city has not received the avalanche of duplex-construction applications that her organization fears. But she said that could change and, if it does, Vancouver’s thousands of basement-suite renters will be at risk.
“You are demolishing potential rentals in order to, supposedly, create affordable housing, which is itself questionable,” Sagaii continued. “Affordable housing or affordable investments? That is really an issue. And with the lack of protection for tenants, you could really make things worse.”
Sagaii expressed appreciation for the new council’s decision to tweak the former administration’s motion in order to make the mass rezoning a trial program that will be revisited in the near future.
“I really hope they look at what is happening to renters in single-family homes,” she said.