British Columbia·Analysis

Bedroom-sharing rules shut door on affordable housing for some families

Experts say outdated rules created to gauge overcrowding in Canadian homes are being used to determine who gets affordable housing, leaving some families shut out.

'The rules are tough,' says 16-year East Vancouver co-op dweller

Michelle Hurtig and Kristjan Gottfried were expecting their second child when they were first told they topped the wait list for a two-bedroom co-op apartment. (CBC)

Remember the mixed-gender nursery with Wendy and the boys in Peter Pan?

It turns out the Darling parents could never have let their children share stories in one bedroom if they lived in a Canadian co-op that follows the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's (CMHC) National Occupancy Standard.

Those guidelines — which say a boy and girl over the age of five shouldn't share a bedroom — ended up in the spotlight this week when a Vancouver couple claimed they'd lost their bid for a two-bedroom unit because their children aren't the same sex.

The couple, Kristjan Gottfried and Michelle Hurtig, called it "completely outrageous" that their daughter's birth cost them an affordable apartment.

While their case isn't clear cut — the co-op denies the girl's sex was a factor — there's no dispute that national guidelines do exist and are being used elsewhere in the country.

Experts say the occupancy standard, created to gauge overcrowding in Canadian homes, is an outdated guideline being used to determine who gets affordable housing and who does not, in essence, because the supply is so chronically low.

And with a housing affordability crisis that's particularly acute in Vancouver and Toronto, the rules are having the unintended consequence of shutting some families out altogether.

When Michelle Hurtig and Kristjan Gottfried applied for a unit in a co-op, they had a two-year old son and Michelle was pregnant with their second child. When a girl was born, they were told they were ineligible for a two-bedroom unit. (Kristjan Gottfried)

Living within the rules

In the Vancouver couple's case, the private co-op they'd applied to live in refused to share a copy of its rules with CBC.

But many subsidized housing managers told CBC that they do follow the National Occupancy Standard on how many bedrooms are needed for suitable housing, because they believe that gives them access to CMHC funding.

There must be a bedroom for each: 

  • Couple, lone parent or dependent over 18. 
  • Same-sex pair of children under 18. 
  • Child of the opposite sex over the age of five.

But a CMHC media spokesperson told CBC that while co-ops do need to follow rules to keep their funding, the NOS is "not one of them."

"It remains the sole discretion of provincial and municipal housing authorities to use the NOS to inform their guidelines for matching families to social housing units," said Audrey-Anne Coulombe, of CMHC's media relations department.

This NOS guideline is used to measure how suitable Canadians' housing is for their needs and is reported on by Statistics Canada.

The last National Household Survey in 2011 revealed that 10 per cent of Canadians and 15.6 per cent of people in Vancouver were living in homes deemed overcrowded.

Rules in practice

And those rules are just fine by some.

John King of Toronto was forced to pay $200 more for a three-bedroom apartment in a co-op after he fathered both a boy and a girl.

He saw it as a cost of affordable housing.

"The rules are the rules," he wrote to CBC.

Vancouver's rental costs are skyrocketing, forcing people to line up and compete for affordable options such as co-op apartments. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

In a statement, B.C. Housing confirms that it uses the occupancy standard as a guideline, but says it's "often waived or adjusted" depending on the situation, though it declined an interview to clarify details.

But others say the rules they have adopted to match the guidelines do force tough choices. 

Anna Cooper, 16-year co-op dweller, helps run her East Vancouver building.

She said co-ops must follow the CMHC rules or risk losing their funding.

That can affect seniors who become ill and need an extra room or families with children. She said that often means a building is divided between those who need subsidies and must live by these rules — and those who pay market rent, so do not.

"The rules are tough," she said.

Are rules the right tool?

Cooper believes the real issue is the lack of co-op housing that drives the need for strict rules.

Given the countrywide affordable housing crisis, experts wonder whether such "imperialistic" standards are appropriate.

"This [is] kind of an old Victorian cultural logic which specifies who should be sleeping in the same room with whom. And that's really problematic in our present-day setting," said Nathanael Lauster, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Lauster said that it's good when the guidelines are used to get families bigger spaces.

But what if an alternative apartment is not available, or means a three-year wait? Then following those standards to block people from co-sleeping or having shared children's rooms become discriminatory and punitive.

"That is really problematic, because there are lots of different cultural ways of understanding how sleeping should be arranged," he said, calling the fear of mixing opposite-sex siblings at a young age as antiquated.

"There's a lot of these old standards that are out there, that are kicking around, based upon things that we just don't believe anymore."

Cookie-cutter standards also ignore the affordability crunch.

"Sure, everybody would love to have their own bedroom. But that's not the reality," said Jennifer Ramsay, Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

For the Vancouver family with the new baby girl, the co-op's decision left them hunting for a home outside the city.

So far they are no closer to finding even one bedroom for their two young children.


  • An earlier version of this story was not clear that the CMHC does not require co-ops or other forms of subsidized housing units to follow National Occupancy Standards (NOS) to obtain funding.
    Sep 20, 2017 2:02 PM PT


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend