Or: that time that Vancouver decided single-family zoning was more important than defeating Hitler
Secondary suites (often just "basement suites”, or ADUs) are an everyday part of Vancouver neighbourhoods now. Even before they were fully legalized in 2004, they provided a large amount of Vancouver’s low-cost housing stock.
The story I usually hear about suites goes like this: people started building a lot of unauthorized suites in Vancouver Specials in the 1970s and 1980s, and this set the stage for a long drawn-out political battle that eventually ended with suites being legalized.
It’s a good story, and it’s true! But Vancouver’s history with secondary suites goes back much further. People were trying to live in secondary suites – and Vancouver was trying to stop them – for a long time before the Vancouver Special.
World War II
Vancouver’s first zoning code was introduced in the late 1920s, and it outlawed apartments, townhouses, and even secondary suites in most of the city. But even then there were Vancouverites who could not afford a single-family home, and the restrictive code soon caused growing pains. The city’s first brush with legalizing suites began just over a decade later, prompted by Canada’s involvement in World War II.
Canada’s wartime government had an especially strong incentive to let more people live in productive urban areas. One of the approaches taken was to restrict cities’ ability to use exclusionary single-family zoning.
In 1942, the federal Wartime Prices and Trade Board issued Order No. 200, also known as the “Respecting Housing Accommodation in Congested Areas” order. This order effectively said "if a homeowner wants to rent a suite or room out to someone, cities can't prohibit that”. According to historian Jill Wade, Order 200 was a success:
As a result, many larger houses in older, one-family dwelling zones and in Shaughnessy Heights became multiple-family units.
-Houses for All: The Struggle for Social Housing In Vancouver, 1919-50
The response from Vancouver council was swift. Less than a year after the introduction of Order 200, council ordered a bylaw amendment expressly designed to constrain the order as much as possible. The city was still bound by the terms of the order for existing homes, but they could use a legal loophole to ensure that it did not apply to new homes. The city’s chief lawyer Donald McTaggart was incredulous:
The corporation counsel told the committee that the amendment it suggests will be quite legal, but he expressed the opinion that the idea of Order 200 is “being lost sight of.” ... “The government,” he reminded aldermen, “said ‘forget zoning bylaws’ for the sake of getting on with the war.”
–Bylaw Ordered on Plea of Town Planning Board, The Vancouver Sun, 1943
UBC students and the post-war era
11 years after the war, Vancouver started eliminating the wartime suites – even the ones that had been created in existing houses:
With the City’s adoption of the Zoning and Development By-law in 1956, secondary suites and other multiple-unit buildings in the areas zoned RS-1 (single-family) became illegal. In the late 1950s, Council decided to remove all illegal suites over a 10-year period, and by 1966, over 2,000 suites had been removed under the program.
–The Role of Secondary Suites, City of Vancouver 2009
The strongest opposition to the city came from UBC students. In 1960, UBC student council begged the city to relent and allow “up to four students per single family dwelling until the housing situation on campus eases”. They were opposed by local homeowners:
Members of the Northwest Point Grey Homeowners Association fear their area will become a slum unless city zoning bylaws are enforced.
The homeowners spokesman said: “The best information we can get shows conversions to boarding houses is a prominent factor in the cause of slums.”
-Boarding Houses Irk Homeowners, The Vancouver Sun, 1960
The Point Grey homeowners won, but UBC students would keep trying in vain for another 8 years. The UBC Alma Mater Society came back in 1966 with a smaller “ask”: this time they asked for 3 boarders in a house (down from 4), and only in the West Side neighbourhoods closest to UBC. Again, they were rejected by Vancouver council and planners.
Planners agreed that there is a shortage of suite accommodation at UBC but said provision of such accommodation for out-of-town students should not be at the expense of single-family residential areas in Vancouver.
–Council Rejects UBC Suite Plea, The Vancouver Sun, 1966
The Alma Mater Society tried twice more in 1968 without success:
Alderman Earle Adams said the first responsibility of council is to taxpayers. He said students from Vancouver can live at home, so the shortage really affects only those who come from outside the city.
“Why should the city be responsible for housing out-of-town students?” he asked.
–UBC Housing Crisis: City Won’t Okay Illegal Suites, The Vancouver Sun, 1968
Even in the 1960s, there was significant demand for more affordable housing in Vancouver’s exclusive single-family neighbourhoods. Council didn’t eliminate that demand when they forced the closure of wartime suites, but they were able to ignore it until the Vancouver Special forced another city-wide conversation.
Vancouver is often cited as a leader in terms of legalizing secondary suites, and with good reason – we’ve gone far beyond what most North American cities have done to date. However, when put in historical context, it becomes clear that Vancouver’s policy changes were still too little, too late.
The federal government forced the city’s hand during World War II and showed that there was demand for denser living in single-family neighbourhoods, even in 1942. That demand didn’t go away after the war – students were begging council to stop barring secondary suites near UBC all throughout the 1960s.
It’s great that Vancouver eventually decided to allow secondary suites in all neighbourhoods. It would have been even better if the policy hadn’t come 60 years after it was first shown to be necessary.
The Wartime Prices and Trade Board Order No. 200, Respecting Housing Accommodation in Congested Areas
From Canadian war orders and regulations, page 177.
Houses for All: The Struggle for Social Housing in Vancouver, 1919-50
Jill Wade. Page 117
The Role of Secondary Suites
City of Vancouver 2009
Vancouver Sun articles
(Available on microfiche at the Vancouver Public Library central branch, reproduced here for convenience)