British Columbia·Analysis

'Feeling squeezed out': Will a move to save Vancouver's housing past compromise its future?

In a city where "bulldozer-bait" homes can fetch close to $3 million, Vancouver's chief planner is faced with a choice that could shape the city for decades to come.

Criticism pushes planning official to 're-calibrate' controversial character home program

About 1,000 homes are torn down every year in Vancouver. At least two-thirds of them were built before 1940. (CBC)

In a city where "bulldozer-bait" homes can fetch close to $3 million, Vancouver's chief planner is faced with a choice that could shape the city for decades to come. 

Are up to 12,000 pre-1940 homes — an immense swath of the city's housing supply — worth preserving at the expense of a younger generation of people who feel they'll never be able to afford them?

Thousands of detached homes are being included in the character home zoning review. (CBC)

"We've sort of poked a hornet's nest," Gil Kelley told CBC News in front of a nicely restored home a few blocks from city hall.

Four months into his new job, the former city planner of San Francisco and Portland, Ore., acknowledged he's been buffeted by complaints about Vancouver's character home review.

Homes considered to have 'character' have an old fashioned look. (CBC)

Freeze creativity

Many homeowners, developers, pro-density groups and even key heritage advocates are all pushing back hard against the "preservationist" plan now under discussion.

The proposal would discourage owners from demolishing pre-1940s houses that the city deems to have character value.

Any new home built on the site would have to be significantly smaller, a move that would limit development options.

Gil Kelley, Vancouver's chief planner, says the character home review has proven more controversial than anticipated. (Chris Corday/CBC)

In return for keeping the old home and fixing it up, the city would grant some extra space for renovations and a larger secondary unit or laneway home on the same lot.

Many argue the plan will not only freeze creativity in some of the city's nicest, priciest neighbourhoods, it will also become far more difficult for the city to build up so-called gentle density, such as townhouses, duplexes and family-focused housing that is now missing and desperately needed. 

Plastic orange fencing, often the mark of a home that's about to be torn down, is an increasingly common sight in Vancouver neighbourhoods. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"The younger generation is feeling squeezed out," Kelley said.

"So opening up new options for affordability and different living option choices for them is really critical — even as people here who are older are trying to hang on to what they already know."

Roughly 1,000 homes are torn down every year in Vancouver. At least two-thirds of them were built before 1940.

Hence the urgency from the preservation lobby for the city to move fast to protect what's still standing.

Owners feel punished

There are already similar character guidelines in effect in one neighbourhood, Grandview-Woodlands, but resident Siobhan Jackson says they've taken a toll on property values.

"The real data on the house next door is that it reduced the value by 15 per cent," said Jackson, whose neighbour's house was re-listed and sold for less money after the city determined it has "character features" on the exterior. 

Siobhan Jackson is concerned about preserving the value of her property. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

What's inside?

"I didn't see there was room for other factors to be considered. Is the home safe? Will it fall down in an earthquake? We are actually now putting people in homes that may not be safe," she told CBC News.

While many homeowners have seen property values soar in recent years, Jackson says it's unfair to make hard-working families who've struggled to get into in this market pay such a high price for a proposal that's overly broad.
Many of the homes included in the character review are nicely restored and maintained, but others are simply old. (Chris Corday/CBC)

The city already has a heritage registry that includes some 2,200 homes with some form of historical significance.

The designation makes them harder to tear down. But in exchange, owners can receive some compensation for maintaining them, such as relaxed bylaws to allow additions.

The "character" designation would capture many more properties, regardless of their structural integrity or the owner's ability to renovate them.
What many now consider 'character homes' line the city's residential streets in this archival photo from 1939. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Gentle density needed

Perhaps the most intense resistance has come from pro-density groups that argue building less on expensive land is counterintuitive when more housing stock is badly needed.

"There's a whole lot of land in this town, but most of it is zoned for low-density family homes," said Brendan Dawe of Abundant Housing Vancouver, a group of housing activists who've been coming to council meetings to push back against the dominance of single-family homes in Vancouver zoning rules.

Vancouver's character home debate

6 years ago
Duration 1:04
Hear Abundant Housing Vancouver members talk about the character home review.

"It's not that we're against character at all. We just want to be able to live in those homes," said Rachael Selinger, who joined a packed kitchen table discussion on the character review in an east Vancouver condo.

The group wants to see more duplexes and townhouses in single-family home neighbourhoods, but fears protecting so many older homes will make that all but impossible.
The city is hoping more people will buy and renovate character homes like this. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Stepping back

Kelley, the planner at the centre of the supercharged debate, hinted he's being swayed by those who argue saving older homes won't help a new generation.

"We have to step back and re-calibrate the program," he told CBC News. "We've got to go neighbourhood by neighbourhood

"If it's a teardown, would we allow replacement with a duplex?"

Four residential areas of Vancouver, including 12,000 pre-1940 homes, are included in the review. (CBC)

Kelley never answered his own question, but for Vancouver's traditional single-family neighbourhoods — 65 to 80 per cent of the city — that could signal the first tentative step towards a realignment.

In evaluating the best strategies to save the city's past, he acknowledges the process ended up underscoring the difficulties of living here in the present.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.


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