Opinion: For More Affordable Housing, Start by Building Smaller

The following article by Brian Morton was published in the Vancouver Sun on March 19th, 2017 to see the original click here

The house in Thunder Bay, Ont. I grew up in was no bigger than 900 square feet, plus a semi-developed basement where my brother and I slept in the same bedroom and yakked, told ridiculous jokes, played chess or table hockey, and made up imaginary stories until we drifted off each night.

There were two bedrooms upstairs — one for my parents, another for my sister — along with one bathroom (a sink, a bathtub and toilet).

In the basement there was an additional toilet and a laundry tub that, as I recall, served as a second sink for us boys.

The main part of the house had a living room and small kitchen with eating area. Outside, our backyard was flooded every winter for a skating rink.

A garage? Nope.

But after my parents had taken us on a three-year journey across Canada in a trailer — an adventure around every corner! — the little house they settled down in seemed like a slice of heaven.

Our neighbours’ houses were no larger.

So, why does this matter?

Well, Metro Vancouver is obviously in a housing crisis where young families who overwhelmingly prefer single detached houses are forced into townhomes or — God help them — condominiums. And they still end up paying exorbitant prices.

Call me a silly ass, but I truly believe condos aren’t the way of the future for young Vancouver families, who — I’ll say it again — prefer their own four walls and a yard for Junior.

But we’ve bought this bill of goods from politicians and their development industry buddies, who say: “Forget detached homes, they’re too expensive! There’s not enough land! Condos or townhomes by SkyTrain stations: THAT’S the future!”

Maybe — maybe — that’s the case in Vancouver’s West End or West Side. But beyond that? I’m not so sure.

The main problem, in my humble opinion and since you asked, is that single detached homes of 900-1,000 sq. ft. no longer seem to cut it.

Instead, as families have grown much smaller over the years, houses have grown much bigger and (surprise!) much pricier, which suits the builders just fine.

In my day, today’s typical detached home — about 2,500 sq. ft. versus about 1,000 sq. ft. half a century ago — would have been called a mansion suitable for (apologies to Willie Nelson) doctors and lawyers and such.

But our dreams have gone way ahead of us; out of hand, even.

A few years ago there were constraints on how large homes could be built. Now there are constraints on how small they can be: a 1,500-sq. ft. house might be deep-sixed because it just doesn’t “fit in” with those adjacent mega-homes.

Take a look at the real estate ads. Port Moody, Coquitlam, Surrey, they’re all the same: Homes often start at 3,000 sq. ft. and easily move up to 5,000 sq. ft. There are five, six bedrooms, many with their own “en suites.”

I live in Squamish and can report that the massive home disease has hit my town too.

Even many of the new townhomes — costing up to $800,000 — are easily twice the size of our little Thunder Bay house.

So, let’s go for a little jaunt through a typical new detached house and see where we’ve gone wrong; where, I submit, developers have missed the affordability boat.

For starters, most rooms are just too damn big — there’s little, dare I say, cosiness — and, of course, they all have two, three or even four full bathrooms.

What a complete waste of money and space. Welcome to exorbitant heating and upkeep costs.

One-and-a-half to two full bathrooms work perfectly well for families with two or three children and you certainly don’t need dual vanities in the en suite.

And do we really need en suites? A bathroom is a private place and I don’t like using our en suite as my wife sleeps on the other side of the door. At night, I tiptoe to the main bathroom down the hall.

And those dual vanities? People typically don’t use the same bathroom at the same time. So what’s the point?

And why does a single washroom need a separate bathtub and separate shower stall to go along with the dual vanities and the bidet and God knows what else? Ever heard of a shower curtain for the tub?

For that matter, why even have two bathtubs or two shower stalls in the same house? Use both showers at the same time and you’ll have lower water pressure and reduced hot water.

Many new homes have two eating places, a smaller one in the kitchen and a separate dining room. Do people start eating in the kitchen and then move to the dining room for dessert? One eating area is fine.

An oversized kitchen and ‘island’ the size of Grand Cayman? Again, nothing cosy about that.

You need enough space to prepare food, yes, but let’s get real about counter space.

Don’t believe me? Check out the tiny spaces professional chefs use to prepare dozens of fabulous meals every night in Vancouver’s top restaurants. You’ll be shocked.

Bedrooms? Three are more than enough for most homes. If you have two boys (or two girls), they can share a bedroom into their teens. Believe me, they’ll love it. And they’ll grow closer.

A huge walk-in closet? Let’s call it what it is: extra storage space.

A separate home office? A little nook area works quite well.

And whatever happened to basements with head room that were typically left undeveloped until a parent, grandparent or other family member (two brothers, perhaps?) needed a spare bedroom?

That garage? This is Vancouver, not Thunder Bay. Vehicles don’t need their own apartment-size room.

Yard space? Here’s what’s required: space for an outdoor table for those sunny days and room for a trampoline. Don’t forget the landscaping and a small garden area.

And you don’t need a separate family room to go along with the living room, although if you do, keep the room smaller.

If you want to spend a little extra, ensure the house is solidly built and consider fine finishings: real wood floors, tile entrances, nice furniture and appliances.

Our detached home in the Garibaldi Highlands is less than 1,800 sq. ft. — far bigger than our Thunder Bay abode, but small by today’s standards. It’s got more than enough room (and rooms).

It has many things we don’t really need, like a garage and separate family room (although we do use it) and a large 8,800 sq. ft. lot that was good for my son’s soccer games … and endless hours of mowing.

Solutions? Here’s one.

In the Garibaldi Highlands there’s a forested area slated for eventual development that the local council, which professes to be “green” and supportive of affordable housing (aren’t they all?), won’t approve until the town reaches a higher population density.

If I owned that property, I’d get the ball rolling by proposing a small lot subdivision with homes no larger than, say, 1,200 sq. ft. to keep prices down.

The main objective is to build a smaller house on a smaller footprint that doesn’t overwhelm the lot.

Individual lots would be sold to individual buyers, with the proviso that they’d have to build within a set period of time. That way, you’d not only ward off speculators, but have a variety of housing styles.

There’d be vigilant construction and landscaping standards and the homes would be much cheaper, but still aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, nearby residents in their 3,000-4,000-sq. ft. homes would scream bloody murder. Well, too bad.

Remember, size really doesn’t matter … so let’s get on with it.

Brian Morton is a reporter at The Vancouver Sun and The Province