Seven adults and two children have created affordable housing in an east side Vancouver neighbourhood in a home that is, on paper, a single-family dwelling.
The “roommates with kids” concept, as their architect calls it, is a blend of close friends and strangers who’ve come together to share housing costs in one of the world’s most expensive cities. They are a model of communal living and economic necessity: a merger of young condo owners with limited finances and an established house-owning couple who’d gotten into the market earlier.
Today, the young families share the three upper floors of a fully renovated house at 1057 E. 13th Ave., while another couple live on the basement level, which opens onto a garden. One of the young families has a roommate living in one of their two bedrooms. And they are in the process of building a laneway house, which could easily accommodate a renter or other family members, or be used for short-term rental one day.
The three couples combined to purchase the house in February, 2018 for $1.808-million, says Alicia Perez, who lives in the house with her husband, Ryan Perez, and their 16-month-old son. Their bedroom is on the same floor as her friends, Andrea and David Minor, and their three-year-old son. In the attic level there are the children’s rooms, and space for their families to grow. On the main floor is a kitchen that has two refrigerators for both families. There is an internal staircase linking to the basement suite, occupied by the other owners, Mark Stockburger and Lee Tracie-Stockburger.
They are all proponents of communal living and once belonged to a neighbourhood group that aimed to foster better connections with others in a city that has a reputation for its lack of neighbourliness. In 2017, the Vancouver Foundation released a report that showed one-quarter of Metro Vancouver residents felt isolated and without community.
“We were part of a group that was trying to build connection,” Ms. Perez says.
Ms. Perez says a lot of their friends had moved out of the city because of housing costs, but they were determined to find a way to stay. Many young people who do manage to buy homes in Vancouver have roommates, so communal living is already a fact of life for many people in their 20s in Vancouver, she says.
“Ryan and I lived in a condo for seven or eight years, and we had roommates the entire time, which we loved.”
When they decided to start a family, they knew they’d need more space. Their friends Andrea and David were also keen on communal living, lived in a condo and were also starting a family.
“We thought maybe we could buy a house together, grow our families, live with others and continue to get to know our neighbours,” Ms. Perez says. “But then we learned that younger couples couldn’t buy a house together, even if we combined resources.
“So we thought about buying a townhouse, or a co-housing unit, or half a duplex. That led to dreaming about, ‘What if we knew the family on the other side? Wouldn’t that be nice?’ It was all very playful in the beginning, and we were dreaming and wishing for something.”
They reached out to the Stockburgers, who owned a house and whose kids were grown up. Ms. Perez knew Ms. Tracie-Stockburger through work.
“Mark is a doctor but also this master gardener. They had a beautiful home on Main Street at the time, and they are very cool Main Street people and we admired them as older adults. Their kids are in their 20s.”
When she texted Ms. Tracie-Stockburger and half-jokingly put the idea out there, to her surprise, the couple were interested. But they soon discovered that a lot of the new duplexes were not suited to families who wanted to build a community.
“We realized quickly that a lot of what is being built right now isn’t built well,” Ms. Perez says. “They’re developer built to make a quick sale.”
Also, duplexes are designed to maximize privacy for each unit, with back-front living areas and fencing, which was the antithesis of the environment they were trying to create. They’d have to buy a single-family house and create living zones.
They set about looking for a house that fit the size and zoning requirements suggested by their architect, D’Arcy Jones. Building a house from scratch would have taken far too long, so they chose to renovate an existing house, and they eventually settled on the house on E. 13th Avenue. They purchased the house in 2018, site unseen.
A few months into the renovation, the top floor of the house caught fire, which set the project back in terms of timing and budget. And then the pandemic happened, which also caused delays. Without those cost overruns, Ms. Perez said, their monthly payments for their share of the mortgage would have been the same as they’d been paying in their condo, where they had a $400,000 mortgage. So, everyone is a little more in debt than they’d expected, but the housing market has also soared since they moved in last year.
Obtaining the financing was a challenge, because all six of them are on title. The Stockburgers own 50 per cent of the property and the other two families own 25 per cent each.
To help with costs, the Perez family have never had a problem finding a roommate for their spare bedroom. They find roommates online, and they don’t mind sharing space with families.
“It’s just a reflection of how grim the housing market is for tenants. People are like, ‘my situation is precarious and this sounds stable.’”
Architect D’Arcy Jones, who has 23 projects in various stages throughout the neighbourhood, created reading nooks and quiet spaces for the shared space.
“They are in a league of their own, three couples that aren’t relatives,” he said. “It speaks to their good natures.
“And there could be four households once the laneway is done.”
Mr. Jones says it is a slight nod to the Los Angeles Schindler House – an unconventional 1920s house in which two families shared communal space.
“I wouldn’t want to draw too many parallels. It’s more radical than what we did. But we did all this in a regular house, plus the laneway. … This is no bigger than the house next door, and no bigger than anything across the street.
“I’m more realistic than idealistic about all these things,” Mr. Jones says. “People said we could ask for a variance, and if you have nothing but time on your hands, okay. But why don’t we see what you a can do with what is outright allowed? That is way more interesting. And [the homeowners] won’t pull their hair out.”
Ms. Tracie-Stockburger, who works as an executive coach, said there are more people living in the house now than there were when they’d purchased it. Back then, the house was a triplex.
“There are lots of reasons we like density – not taking up a large footprint of space, and what does it look like to share the wealth of real estate in the city? And urban densification helps that.
“This isn’t rags to riches story,” she adds. “We all felt very fortunate about what we had, and bringing our assets together. …There are people with resources who are craving connection to other people in the city.”
She and her husband live in fairly self-contained area, although they can wander upstairs whenever they feel like joining the others for a meal.
For them, another incentive was also the financial benefit of downsizing their mortgage.
There has been an adjustment from living in their own house, but that was to be expected.
“We forgot how loud babies are, I’m not going to lie,” she says, laughing. “But it’s not much different than renting. We like what we call ‘life in the house.’”
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