Q&A on The Death and Life of the Single-Family House

Sandwiched between my teaching duties, my attempts to roll out the book, and my unhealthy obsession with the US election, I haven’t had much time to contribute commentary here on the blog about the many recent and ongoing developments concerning housing here in Vancouver, and across Canada more broadly.  Lots of new moves from taxing vacant homes in the City of Vancouver to tightening CMHC mortgage lending rules all across the country.

But back to my book…


…the roll out continues!  And today the book was featured in a UBC Media Release.  This was an edited Q&A, along with edited video of me talking in front of some houses in the University Endowment Lands (UEL).  For those interested, I’m providing the full Q&A below, with questions posed by UBC Media Relations (mostly the very helpful Thandi Fletcher):

In your book, you make the case that single-family houses are bad for the environment, urban vitality and people’s health. Why is this?

Let’s take these one at a time: With respect to the environment, the development of single-family houses directly consumes an enormous amount of land for suburban or ex-urban style sprawl, disrupting and displacing prior ecologies. By virtue of sprawl, houses also encourage people to drive everywhere, boosting greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, houses generally require more energy to heat and cool than other types of dwelling, further leading to greater greenhouse gas emissions. Just about any way you look at it, single-family houses tend to be bad for the environment.

Strikingly, detached houses also tend to deaden city life. Houses are generally surrounded by more houses, with lots of private space and very little public space. Mostly you don’t run in to anyone you don’t already know. Urban vitality thrives when the private and public are more balanced: when people have places to go and things to do near where they live and they can walk or bike or take transit to get there. All of these ways of getting around put people in contact with one another and make for an engaging environment where people can go simply to watch other people.

Of course walking and biking are good ways to get around not just because they provide for more urban vitality. These kinds of activities are good for us because they keep us healthier. Denser, more vital, and more walkable environments encourage healthier habits. Single-family houses don’t tend to get us out and about as often.

A lot of people are still emotionally invested in the idea of owning a single-family house. They grew up in one and can’t imagine not also raising their families the same way. What do you say to them?

The first thing I say to them is that they are not alone. Culturally, many people have come to think of the house as an important symbol of success. Many others see acquiring a house as an important aspect of taking proper care of their children. No one wants to be viewed as a failure or a bad parent.

But the second thing I say to people who can’t imagine doing without a house is that they might try letting their imaginations run a little more wild. Vancouver actually provides a wonderful environment for re-thinking what’s important, both in terms of broader cultural understandings of success, and in terms of everyday aspects of livability. Most of the people who live here, including parents with children, have made a home without a house.

What’s more there is real strength in diversity. In that sense I won’t suggest a single optimal alternative to the single-family house. We have people who really enjoy high-rise living and others who thrive better in low-rise neighbourhoods. We have people who love the yard access and porch feel of some of our newer townhouses, and others who prefer the character of life in our older, subdivided mansions. There are lots of lovely ways to make a home, which is one reason we shouldn’t reserve nearly all of our urban land for only one way, like we do now.

Density is often perceived as a bad word in Vancouver. What is your response to anyone who is opposed to densification?

My first response is to bring history back into the picture. Densification used to be a normal part of urban growth, particular when land markets were left to their own devices. The prospect of having little control over one’s neighbours frightened residents of the city – especially the elites and those in the rising middle class. A factory or saloon could move in next door. The owner of a wealthy mansion nearby could subdivide their property and turn it into a hotel. These things happened a lot in old Vancouver. Single-family residential zoning was, in large part, an effort to preserve some space for residential life outside of the workings of the urban land market. So what I like to call a Great House Reserve was put in place all around the city.

So how did that turn out? Through subsequent regulation, city life became cleaner, quieter, and much more livable. Vancouver figured out how to do urban livability especially well, and more people here live outside of the single-family areas than in them. But taming the land market within the city led to its revenge in the suburbs. Single-family houses have moved well beyond the means of ordinary Vancouverites.

For those opposed to densification, I’d agree that we don’t need high-rises everywhere. We want to keep Vancouver both livable and diverse in urban form. But we still have way too many houses to encourage that diversity. Even though Vancouver is a leader in this regard, we’ve still set aside some 80 per cent of our residential land base to support single-family houses. That’s huge! At this point, we’ve got the power of the city, through these old zoning by-laws, keeping anyone but multi-millionaires from settling down in these places. I don’t think the city should be doing that.

Some people view condos as lonely places, and social isolation has come up often as a complaint among people living in Vancouver. What is your response to this? Could more condos make for a lonelier city?

There are lots of things we can encourage besides condos. Indeed, the City of Vancouver is encouraging more purpose-built rental buildings. In the past, we’ve also had a variety of programs that helped people form housing cooperatives. Cooperatives require people to work together to manage their buildings, directly countering social isolation. At the same time, they help preserve affordable living options in the city. We should be doing more of this to insure the choice isn’t simply between high-priced houses and luxury condos.

That said, there’s also no reason for us to believe that condos necessarily lead to a lonelier city. In fact, one of my livelier interviews involved a Vancouverite describing how close she’d become to her neighbours in her Yaletown condo building. She noted that everyone in her hallway left their doors open, and the kids ran back and forth between units, enjoying the communal nature of the space. Running counter to perceptions, many people described these kinds of communities developing in their buildings. More broadly, people also noted how they enjoyed running into the same people over and over at parks and playgrounds and local coffee shops. Generally speaking, mixed use urban density is a far better cure for social isolation than the largely privatized spaces of neighbourhoods dominated by single-family houses.

Do you think urban planners have made any mistakes in Vancouver’s development that have made the city less livable?

That’s an interesting question. There were some mistakes planners made everywhere across North America, and I would argue one of the biggest was creating the Great House Reserve and setting so much land aside for single-family houses. Beyond that, there were other mistakes planners really wanted to make in Vancouver, like bringing a freeway into the heart of downtown in the 1960s, that they were largely prevented from making. Since then the record of Vancouver’s planners has generally been far better, and I think they deserve a large share of the credit for the livability of the city. Vancouver has transitioned the furthest and fastest away from single-family houses of any major metropolis in North America while becoming a model for livability around the world. That’s a real achievement! But there are still issues that remain. The biggest of these is insuring livability for all residents, rather than just the most wealthy. Further enabling densification of single-family residential areas will go a long way toward opening up new market options for middle class Vancouverites. But we need a lot more non-market housing too.

What lessons can other cities learn from Vancouver on building a livable city?

I think Vancouver potentially has a lot of lessons to offer other cities. I like to think of these as building lessons. How do we move forward from the legacy of the Great House Reserves set up around cities all across North America? Vancouver figured out ways to build around this reserve, both in the old urban core of the city, and out in the hinterland. Buildings in the urban core provided the attractive living alternatives that characterize so much of Vancouver today. The big construction projects in the hinterland were the Agricultural Land Reserve and our many parks, which together protected much of the region’s land from further encroachment by suburban sprawl. Slowly but surely, Vancouver is also building over the old Great House Reserve, reincorporating this land back into the urban mix. Finally, Vancouver has renovated the very meaning of single-family residential neighbourhoods insofar as they’ve legalized secondary suites and laneway houses, transforming lots that initially could only support a single household into lots that can now support three. All of these building projects are things other metropolitan areas can also work toward.

Now on TV: My book!

My talking head is on TV!


Today’s stormy weather and general traffic chaos kept my taxi to a downtown studio from arriving on time for a scheduled interview about my book with the Business News Network.  Nothing like a shot of adrenaline and frustration with a harried taxi-dispatcher (and really, what could she do?) to start my day.  On the bright side, we were able to work something out via Skype – not perfect, but it worked for most of the interview.  Here’s the link to the video segment.  I appreciated them having me on, though it wasn’t clear at the outset where they were planning on taking their questions for me.

In other news appearances, I was on CBC’s The Early Edition on last week, on Monday morning (Oct. 3rd), talking about the accessibility of ownership and its meaning for Canadians (based upon the recent Angus Reid Survey).  Here’s the audio!  (I’m on at the 01:41:20 mark with Kevin Falcon).  Again I had taxi issues!  But I ultimately made it down to the studio for the chat, and received a much-prized CBC mug for my efforts.

I also spoke with reporter Wanyee Li, at Metro News, about the problems facing renters in Vancouver, especially those who, like single mothers, often face discrimination by landlords.  This was based, in part, on an old study I carried out with Adam Easterbrook and my Built Environments class at UBC on housing discrimination across the metro area and the paper we wrote up entitled “No Room for New Families.”

Later on, Wanyee Li and I spoke again about the potential for densifying Vancouver‘s single-family residential neighbourhoods as a way of improving housing accessibility, touching on the new advocacy group Abundant Housing Vancouver that’s seeking to make that goal a reality.  She very kindly inserted another plug to the book there.

So my career as a media juggernaut is rolling along!  I’m partially using this blog post just to bookmark all of these appearances, but it’s also a heads-up, of sorts.  You can expect to see even more of my mug (or at least my name) as the month progresses.  My book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House, rolls out next week – I’m expecting my hard copy in the mail any day now! – and I’ll be a keynote speaker at Vancouver’s Re:Address Summit on housing affordability on October 27th.  Sure to be a Halloween treat!



Reading and misreading Chinese immigration to Vancouver

Many of the reactions I’ve received to the recent write-up of my research with Jing in the Globe & Mail (and to my quick perusal of the comments section) seem to suggest that there’s something fundamentally dishonest and wrong about immigrants looking to make a better home for themselves in Vancouver.  I want to clarify that I don’t think this is the case.  The intent of my discussion with Frances was to make three things plain:

  1. Immigrants are people.  They’re a highly selected set of people, but they are fundamentally human.  This all too often gets lost in discussions about their impact on local housing.  That they’re mostly coming to Vancouver to make a better home for themselves is a fundamentally human thing to do.  And Vancouver is a great place to make a home.
  2. The selection processes concerning who gets invited to come to Vancouver matter.  Many (but not all) of these processes are policy-relevant.  Right now Canadian immigration policy selects heavily for “skill” and wealth (it is difficult to fully disconnect the two, though the skilled stream selects more upon our constructions of the former and business/investment streams have selected more for the latter).  The assumptions behind this selection are that these immigrants will most contribute to the dynamism of the Canadian economy.  As such, the policy is very much market-focused and oriented toward the business world rather than considering other motivations for immigration or broader questions about social justice.
  3. The selection processes concerning who makes a decision to come (or try to come) to Vancouver also matter.  Mostly those who make this decision already know (thanks to things like internet chat forums) that they will not have nearly as many economic opportunities in Canada as they already do in China.  If you’re really into economic dynamism and a high status career, you stay in China!  So most immigrants who come to Vancouver from China select themselves for being more interested in the quality of life in Canada. They want cleaner air, safer food, better and more sensitive education for their children.  They want a home life, where they can spend time with their children.  They also want a responsible and navigable bureaucracy, where they don’t need to know the right people or bribe their way to get what they feel they need.  These are all very human things to want, and they all involve appreciating what Canada has to offer – not free market dynamism, but rather careful restrictions and regulations placed around markets by a largely responsive government to make them work better for people.  [Yes, yes, Canada doesn’t always do this to my satisfaction, but compared to China we do it pretty well].

So mostly the people who select themselves to come to Canada are nice, home-loving sorts who really appreciate what Canada has to offer them.  But because of Canadian immigration policies (as well as the difficulties in navigating bureaucratic systems in China), they also tend to be quite privileged and well-off.  This is the world which my comment to Frances that, “Canada could look at letting in fewer millionaires and more refugees” was meant to reflect.  There are plenty of nice, home-loving sorts of people who would really appreciate what Canada has to offer them currently being excluded by Canadian immigration policies.  And many of them need better homes far more than the wealthy privileged folks we’re currently inviting to the country.  That said, I’m also quite sympathetic to letting in more immigrants period, and I don’t mean to suggest those who have already arrived are in any way undeserving.

So I’m not seeing villains, but are they out there?  Are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members also getting into Canada, and using immigration to hide their wealth?  This seems very likely.  There are corrupt officials, ruthless capitalists, and their extended family members from countries all over the world doing terrible things (I believe there might be one running for president of the United States at the moment).  And they often get away with it.  We should try and stop that from happening.  But I’d suggest these people are relatively rare, and they’re certainly a minority among immigrants to Vancouver.  Indeed, the folks we talked to were selected for rejecting that aspect of life in China.  They came to Canada to get away from cronyism and corruption.

So I think villains are quite rare, but it’s worth noting that the wealth flowing into places like Vancouver has had an enormous impact on local life. Housing prices, in particular, have risen astronomically, motivating much of the ire at new immigrants, especially those coming from China. We should acknowledge that regardless of the intentions of wealthy immigrants, they’re contributing to processes of gentrification on a global scale. It’s important that we work to figure out equitable ways of dealing with this  from a policy standpoint (I’m not sure the foreign-buyer tax qualifies, but I’ll admit it represents at least an effort).  But it’s also important that we work on this without demonizing immigrants.

Immigrants arriving for better homes, not better money

About a month ago, local reporter Frances Bula ran a story in The Globe & Mail where she went out and actually talked with many of the wealthy Chinese immigrants at the heart of many local debates (mostly over housing).  I thought it was a good story!  I also thought it sounded a lot like the story I’d been working on getting into an academic journal with a grad student since 2014.  After a lengthy review process, that story was finally accepted for publication in Social Problems (our first choice) earlier this year, but academic publishing being what it is, who knows when it will actually come out.  I sent Frances a note about how much I appreciated her article and I mentioned that in many respects she’d scooped us!  I attached our paper.  In her generous response, she wrote up a little piece about our research, out today in the Globe & Mail under the title, “Wealthy Chinese migrants come for better housing, not money: study.”

It’s a fine little write-up.  Thanks Frances!  But after I sent it to my co-author, UBC Sociology PhD Candidate Jing Zhao, she suggested she would’ve substituted “homes” for “housing” in the title, which is more or less what I’ve done above.  (Also the article is coming out in Social Problems instead of Social Work, but that’s a minor quibble for anyone not invested in academia!)

Here I wanted to post a link to the Pre-Print Version of the full article directly for those interested in reading it.  I’m slowly getting the hang of where and how copyright works – mostly in this case just by closely reading the fine-print of the copyright agreement where it notes my rights to distributing pre-prints!  Building on this, I’m hopeful I’ll get most of my old and new work out in the public domain in some form or another through this blog and other venues (like my Faculty website). So here’s today’s piece (with citation and abstract):

Nathanael Lauster & Jing Zhao.  Labor Migration and the Missing Work of Home-making: Three Forms of Settling for Chinese-Canadian Migrants.  Forthcoming in Social Problems.


Much of migration theory has come to revolve around the category of the “labor migrant,” without taking into account labor, like home-making, that remains unrecognized by the market. Drawing from qualitative interviews with thirty one Chinese migrants in different stages of making a move from Beijing to Vancouver, we attempt to bring better visibility to how the labor involved in home-making intersects with migration. Defining home-making as work in the pragmatic-existentialist context of the stabilization of everyday routines, we uncover three themes to home-making work: settling in, settling down, and settling for. Discussion of these themes reveals two important issues for migration theory: settlement relies upon the work of home-making and the work of home-making in many cases motivates migration. For these reasons, the work of home-making should be more carefully studied within the migration literature.


At Home Looks Like…

A few years ago I received a grant (with co-I Frank Tester) to explore more closely the connections between housing and home in two locations with marked housing crises: Vancouver, BC and Arviat in Nunavut.  And so the Making Housing Home project was born. The basic starting point for the work was that housing was an important component of home, but did not, in and of itself, constitute home.  Instead home could be found in our routines and connections to a wide variety of people, places, and things.  So we set out to document everyday routines and their relationship to housing.  Mostly we worked through in-depth interviews and collaborative calendar and map construction projects.  But we tried as many different ways to get at home as we could think of.  One sub-project involved working intensively with youth in both Arviat and Vancouver to get cameras and some basic photography training into their hands and let them document what “at home” looked like for them.

One member of my research team, Karina Czyzewski, took an especially critical lead role in this sub-project.  Working with the youth in Vancouver, and with other team members, she put together an exhibit at the Roundhouse Community Centre.  Then she brought photos and descriptions of home together into this wonderful booklet, which we printed off and gave to all youth participants and several other community partners in both Arviat and Vancouver. I’m now providing an electronic copy of the booklet here to get as wide exposure for it as possible.

So here’s the booklet!  (Or click on the image below!  Note: 19MB size file)


While our research is still on-going, and I’ve got a whole lot of data analysis ahead of me, I think this is a good time to get some of the voices of our participants out there, speaking in their own words about their experiences of home.  I think the results speak for themselves.  So… at least for the moment… I’ll stop talking about them.  Enjoy, and feel free to share widely!

Seattle Conferencing – ASA & SSSP

Just putting this up for anyone interested in the two talks I’ll be giving at the two professional Sociology conferences being held simultaneously in Seattle this week!

At the American Sociological Association (ASA), I’ll be presenting a paper related to (but distinct from) my book project on the Death and Life of the Single-Family House.  It will be part of the Regular Session, Performing Parenthood in Social Context, convening Saturday at 2.30pm in the Seattle Sheraton (4th Floor, Seneca Room).  (see here for other events going on that day). Title & Abstract:

Housing Parenthood: Performing a role on an unsettled stage – N. Lauster

How do people construct the social role of parenthood?  What gets enrolled as part of the performance?  What are the implications of unsettling expectations?  In this paper I pay special attention to how housing relates to the performance of parenthood, drawing upon qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with 50 residents of Vancouver, Canada.  Frequently depicted as the most unaffordable metropolis in North America, Vancouver offers a culturally “unsettled” environment where single family homes, in particular, have moved rapidly out of reach for the vast majority of residents.  In general terms, analysis of interviews illuminates how housing provides a material scaffolding for the role of parenthood; offering up both a stage for the performance of parenthood and a crucial retreat from the stage.  More specifically, I call special attention to how people treat ownership of a single family home variously as: 1) a pre-packaged co-requisite, 2) a prerequisite, 3) inconsequential, or 4) a foil to performing the role of parenthood.  In addition to shaping the role of parenthood, the balance between these four treatments of single family home ownership has important implications for how housing policies and markets influence both childbearing and mobility.

Meanwhile, at the conference next door, The Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), I’ll be presenting a very different paper based on my musings (working with my co-authors) concerning hoarding disorder and its relationship to broader discourses about how people are understood to normally relate to their environments.  This will be the first time I’ve ever presented at SSSP!  My paper here will be part of the Session on Health and the Environment, convening Sunday at 4.30pm (absolute last panel of the conference) in the Westin Seattle Hotel (Mercer Room). (Full program here) Title & Abstract:

Making Room for Thought: Contrasting Models of Human-Environment Relations in the Conceptualization and Diagnosis of Hoarding Disorder – N. Lauster, C. Bratiotis, S. Woody

Hoarding behavior, at first glance, bridges academic worlds concerned with health and environment insofar as “hoarders” seem to exemplify just how rampant consumerism can lead us all awry.  Yet at least a few commentators have suggested the opposite: by virtue of saving rather than discarding, those labeled hoarders often view themselves as rejecting consumerist logics and instead fostering sustainability.  The psychiatrists and psychologists who actually study hoarding focus less on the broader social and cultural implications of the phenomenon than on its impact as a mental disorder affecting the well-being of the individuals involved.  We argue here that this is both laudable – hoarding has real impacts on well-being that are too often overlooked – and a fundamental mistake.  The debate over how people should and do relate to their environments is of central importance to the conceptualization and etiology of hoarding as a disorder.  We demonstrate how one position within this debate, that people’s relationships to their environment are best modeled along the utilitarian lines of consumers (see also, homo economicus) has been implicitly adopted within the psychological and psychiatric diagnosis of hoarding.  We contrast this position with an alternative; what might be learned by basing conceptualizations of hoarding in the model of people as builders and dwellers?  This model takes seriously home-making as a collection of human orientations toward the environment.  Its adoption could offer up new implications for the etiology and conceptualization of hoarding as a disorder.



Pre-sale Media Coverage: The Death and Life of the Single-Family House

A few local media outlets have picked up interest in my book since I announced it was available for pre-sale on twitter and this blog.  On the one hand, this is great!  I really welcome the exposure for both the book and the ideas it contains.  On the other hand, I worry (together with my publisher’s media rep) about too much early exposure before the book is actually available (October!).  I don’t really know what the right balance is – we don’t get a lot of media training in academia – but I’ll keep working on figuring it out.  In the meantime, I ask for patience from interested reporters with my ham-fisted efforts to manage the roll out of the book and its ideas, and I’m hopeful interest continues into when the book is actually ready to fall into readers’ hands.

For now here’s the audio clip from a recent interview talking about my forthcoming book with Stephen Quinn on CBC’s On The Coast.  (Or you can just listen to the whole August 11th, 2016 show).  I’m a regular listener, so it was really fun to meet Stephen Quinn and Amy Bell and see the inside of the CBC studio. [Update: and here’s the CBC write-up].

Prior to the radio interview, Jen St. Denis also interviewed me about the book for the Metro News, in a nice little piece posted here.  I think the piece was good, but it’s worth making two quick clarifications:

1) The 80% of land base figure speaks to 80% of land set aside to support residential uses (rather than 80% of all land as a whole), and covers the municipality of Vancouver. Metro Vancouver has data on land use broken down by municipality (and a lot of other data besides!)  Also Jens von Bergmann over at MountainMath (mentioned in the piece) has a beautiful map breaking down land use by lot within the City of Vancouver, which everyone should check out.  It really demonstrates just how much land has been set aside for single-family detached houses (almost entirely in protected RS zones, though there are also duplexes in RT zones and houses in Shaughnessy included, along with a scattering of old houses remaining in places unprotected by zoning).

2) The accompanying photo for the piece, as multiple people have pointed out, looks like it was taken at Mole Hill, which is a lovely little development preserving and rehabilitating old houses downtown by subdividing them up into apartments.  To be clear, the census would not consider these to be single-family detached houses, nor would the city.  But the ambiguity of how they LOOK like houses (and very photogenic ones at that) is really interesting.  This speaks to the focus of my first chapter in the book, laying out just what we talk about when we talk about single-family detached houses, and how the legal categories don’t always match people’s lay understandings of what counts as a house.  It also speaks to the many possibilities for subdividing existing houses to support more households – if zoning laws were modified to allow such a thing (it’s already the case, of course, that most RS zoned lots in Vancouver can now already support up to three households through secondary suite and laneway housing provisions).


Home on the Road

In my younger days, after working a variety of odd jobs and building up a a bit of savings, I set out with my dog in a little red truck with a cap on the back to travel across North America.  I didn’t really know the term “gap year” at the time, but that’s kind of what it ended up being, tucked between my undergraduate degree, a little more schooling, and a lengthy career as a graduate student.  I enjoyed life on the road, often pulling up and sleeping in the back of the truck at campgrounds and out-of-the-way parking lots across the USA.  I had a campstove for cooking and carried plenty of water.  Whenever I wanted, I could roll out my sleeping bag in the back, with a pad beneath it, and I slept reasonably comfortably.  At least once I was asked to move along by concerned police officers.

Some years later, a good friend of mine took up much the same lifestyle, living out of his van.  But he remained mostly in place, in Seattle.  He did it to save money.  Later, he also lived out of an office space for awhile.  Both arrangements, of course, were illegal according to municipal codes.  We actually  had several conversations (and put together a presentation for a sociological conference) concerning how we understood his arrangements vis-a-vis homelessness.  Certainly most people working homeless counts would readily have counted my friend as homeless (and might also have counted me as homeless had I passed through town during my truck-living days).  Below is the City of Vancouver’s 2016 Homeless Count definition (see here for the last Metro count):

The 2016 Homeless Count uses the same definition of homelessness used in previous City and regional homeless counts. Someone was considered homeless for the purpose of this count if:
* they did not have a place of their own where they could expect to stay for more than 30 days and if they did not pay rent.
This included people who are:
* without physical shelter staying on the street, in alleys, doorways, parkades, vehicles [my emphasis], on beaches, in parks and in other public locations
* temporarily accommodated in emergency shelters, detox facilities, safe houses or transition houses for men, youth, women, and families with children
* staying at someone else’s place (friend or family) where they did not pay rent (i.e.couch surfing)
* in hospitals or jails and had No Fixed Address (NFA)
For example, someone who stayed in a garage would be considered homeless if they did not pay rent, even if they considered the garage to be their home. Emergency shelters are not considered permanent housing, thus shelter clients are included in the homeless population. Someone who stayed at a friend’s place where they did not pay rent (i.e. couch surfer) is also considered homeless as they do not have security of tenure.

Seems pretty clear: living in vehicles = homelessness (especially without paying rent).

So what to make of the many folks who live in vehicles that were built for living?  They don’t fit well into municipal definitions of home, but in many cases they also don’t quite fit our preconceptions of homelessness.   My truck was admittedly borderline, but its little shell had windows and was made to support camping.  My buddy’s van was even better equipped.  Pieces in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe & Mail (the latter by a former student, Wanyee Li), both speak to the attractiveness of these alternative forms of living for some people.  But in many cases, these are folks who straddle the line between homelessness and home.

Strikingly, it doesn’t take all that much more, symbolically speaking, to shove people more clearly into the “home on the road” camp and out of the “homeless” camp.  My wonderful sister and her family (including husband, two girls, and two dogs) recently embarked on an adventure, buying a 31 foot Winnebago Vista.  They were written up, together with two other intrepid families, in this piece in the Baltimore Sun (Permanent copy complete with photos archived here).


Pretty awesome.  And ok, I’ll admit it: mostly I just wanted to blog about my sister.  But there’s also an interesting point here: I don’t think any observer would reasonably consider my sister and her family homeless.  Yet note how they’re coupled with a family living in tighter and somewhat cheaper circumstances.  Does the boundary grow fuzzier again when we move from RVs to Vans?  Does it matter that it’s a touring van attached to a band?  Or if van residents only become homeless when their vans become mostly stationary, like the one my friend lived in, then how should we think about the greater stability of a stationary residence contributing to a definition of homelessness?

These are all tricky questions, and they occur mostly at the margins.  To be very clear, in raising these questions I’m not doubting the problem of homelessness in Vancouver or expressing skepticism concerning local homeless counts.  We’ve got real problems here.

BUT, all that said, we also have a problem in restricting what we consider decent housing and thereby diminishing diversity by legal fiat.  To return to a major theme: this is a BIG problem when it comes to locking away land for single-family detached houses and such houses alone.  But it’s also a problem when we fail to consider and make room for alternative forms of homes that people might want to try, including life on the road.

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: available for pre-sale!

Did you know that Vancouver has moved the fastest and the furthest away from reliance upon single-family houses of any metropolis in North America?  Only Montreal competes for the title of least house-dependent.  I have a new book coming out that traces the history of Vancouver’s dramatic transformation and describes its effects on residents, as detailed by interviews with locals. More broadly, the book makes the case that this is mostly a positive development, primarily dependent upon regulatory innovation, that has many lessons for other metropolitan areas across the continent.

The book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, hits shelves on October 16th, but I’m happy to announce that it’s now available for pre-sale!  It will be part of the broader series by Temple University Press on Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy.


Click on the image link to see the promotional flyer, complete with a pre-sale discount code!  Please feel free to distribute the flyer widely!  The book is also now available for pre-sale via Amazon (Canada) , Amazon (USA), Bibliovault, and other related book sites, but you may not get the discount via these locations!

Who is an “average voter”?

I’m restraining myself from writing too much about the US election, but I’m definitely reading about (and obsessively tracking) the race.  In light of that, here’s a piece I really enjoyed from the NYTimes: “So What Do You Think Of Hillary Clinton Now?”

Effectively, it’s one of those pieces where a reporter (Emma Roller) goes out and interviews a bunch of people on the street, in this case to gauge their reception to Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic candidate for US President.  Or as Ms. Roller put it:

What does Mrs. Clinton’s presidential nomination mean to average voters, die-hard Democrats and Bernie or Busters? We asked a few here in Philadelphia.

I suppose, as I read through, I can pick out a few of the “die-hard Democrats” and the “Bernie or Busters,” but who is supposed to be an “average voter?”  And what does that even mean?

In a straightforward statistical sense, we can identify who falls into the group of “modal voters,” at least once we have a set of votes.  Modal voters would include all of those who voted for the candidate who won the most votes.  If we can arrange candidates on a scale (say left-to-right), then we can also come up with a population of voters that we could draw from in order to select a “median voter.”  But in each case, if we wanted to find someone to exemplify the modal or median voter, we’d still have to randomly select from all of the possible people that would fill in that category.  To put it mildly, there is a lot of diversity there.  But finding someone to exemplify an “average voter?”  I have no idea how that might be accomplished.

Here I think Emma Roller actually means something different.  She’s looking for someone who isn’t selected into the streets of Philadelphia as either a Democratic delegate (like Ms. Ali, her first interviewee) or a Bernie-or-Bust protester (like  Ms. Ernst or Mr. Hainer), presumably making them more “average” in terms of their level of political participation.  Still, it’s tricky to pick these people out.  Do we count Ms. Driver and Ms. Sanabria (two of my favorite interviewees)?

Ms. Driver said she and Ms. Sanabria spontaneously decided to rent a car and drive to Philadelphia from Washington for Mrs. Clinton’s nomination after watching Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night. Ms. Sanabria texted her.

“She was like, ‘I’m crying!’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m crying!’” Ms. Driver said. “We have to go. This is a historic moment. We can’t miss this.”

That sounds like a pretty unusual (and kind of awesomely spontaneous) level of political participation.  But even the people who seem more “normal” in their orientation to politics, like Mr. Schumann, are also really wacky (as she notes, at 59, “Mr. Schumann is the oldest person I’ve seen playing Pokémon Go” – making him my another of my favorite interviewees even though I really, really don’t play Pokémon Go).  As a matter of fact, most people are kind of wacky, as I’ve often witnessed in my own interviews with people.  It’s part of what makes the job of sociologist fun.  And the US, like Canada, is a diverse country, full of idiosyncratic wackiness.  So what use is it attempting to find an example of anyone average?

To return to a theme, one reason I like the kind of thing we see in Ms. Roller’s piece is that good stories attached to real people quickly remind us just how devoid of human messiness our statistical averages may be.  That’s not to say that the statistical stuff is wrong and we should all resort to “voice of the street” analyses.  Indeed, statistics is ultimately how we’ll figure out who is going to win this election.  But if you really want to get into how or why someone wins this election, the stories help remind us of the underlying diversity and complexity of peoples’ decision-making processes.