Vancouver filmmaker Erik Paulsson lives in a Kerrisdale mansion with four other people in a collective-housing arrangement.
They split the rent, which comes to an average of $750 each per month, get together for dinner once a week, share a common expense account, and support each other like a loving family.
It’s an affordable way to live in a pricey city, but because they are not related to each other, they may be breaking an old Vancouver bylaw that regulates the occupation of houses.
According to Zoning and Development Bylaw 3575, no dwelling shall be used by more than one family.
The bylaw passed in 1956 defines a family as one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption. It can also mean a maximum of three unrelated individuals living together as a household.
According to the regulation, a family—which can also mean two people living together in a common-law relationship and their relatives who live with them—can also take in a maximum of two boarders or five foster (or eight daycare) children.
Paulsson is a founding director of the Collective Housing Society that launched on June 1 this year, and an amendment to the bylaw is one of the initiatives it will pursue.
The group wants the bylaw to be updated to prevent potential problems arising from collective housing.
Advocates don’t want to have a situation where neighbours will be calling city hall to complain about too many unrelated people in a house, which could lead to evictions.
Paulsson noted that there is a growing interest in people living together; according to him, there are at least 50 collective houses across the city.
“People that live collectively tend to be happier because you have community,” Paulsson told the Georgia Straight by phone.
The city’s renters advisory committee took note of the situation at a March 2017 meeting when the bylaw issue was presented by individuals who live in collective houses.
On May 24, the committee passed a resolution supporting a change in the definition of family in Zoning and Development Bylaw 3575. “Vancouver is in the midst of a housing crisis and innovative strategies such as collective housing is one strategy to maintain affordability,” the resolution stated.
The resolution also noted that other cities do not limit the number of people who can live in a home. It cited the case of Surrey, where a family is defined as one or more people “occupying a dwelling unit and living as a single non-profit housekeeping unit”.
The resolution also pointed out that in Victoria a family means “one person or a group of persons who through marriage, blood relationship or other circumstances normally live together”.
Karen Sawatzky chairs the renters advisory committee, and she noted that the bylaw is causing some anxiety among residents of collective houses.
“We agree this is an important issue, and collective housing, we think, should be supported in city policy rather than discouraged,” Sawatzky told the Straight by phone.
Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs said that he is familiar with collective housing because that was how he lived when he was a university student.
According to Meggs, the bylaw issue has come to his attention and he has taken it up with senior city staff members.
Meggs noted that changing the bylaw would require additional changes to other regulations, making it a complex process, and because there has been no active enforcement, it has not been put high on the priority list of city hall.
“Are they living contrary to the bylaw? Technically, yes. Has anybody suffered as a result? I haven’t found very many people,” Meggs told the Straight in a phone interview.
The city councillor explained that the intent of the bylaw was to regulate rooming houses.
“When there were rooming houses in residential districts, they required a business licence and fire rules, all that kind of thing, if they had too many unrelated adults living there,” Meggs said.
According to him, amending the bylaw is not an issue that council disagrees with.
“I think that people are very sympathetic,” Meggs said. “It’s just that this hasn’t been a priority for legislative change because we haven’t encountered any problems.”