I just can’t stay out of peoples’ bedrooms.
In my earlier post I noted how Vancouver is distinct in the degree to which it’s been trading more bedrooms within housing units (“Super Size” mansions!) for separate housing units of “Family Size.” This is an important part of the story of why Vancouver families feel like they’re being priced out of owning a home (for renting see here). When it comes to bedrooms, Vancouver really does have a “missing middle.”
With this post, I want to explore how bedrooms are getting used. Of course, we don’t have direct information about how people use bedrooms. But we can compare number of bedrooms to household size and get some sense of how empty or crowded rooms are likely to be. We can also compare bedrooms to household structure to get some sense of how creative people are being in filling up dwellings. More on that in a moment. First, let’s count some bedrooms!
Here I’m counting bedrooms as “used” if there’s at least one household member per bedroom. I count them as “extra”, or empty, if they remain left over after after all household members have been given a room. Finally, I count a bedroom as “crowded” if more than two household members would have to share it. Below I count number of bedrooms by unit size.
Once again, one thing that really jumps out here is the extent to which Vancouver is unusual in how many bedrooms are locked up in five bedroom, “Super Size” dwellings. Metro Vancouver is way outside the norm for Canada. By contrast, Metro Van has relatively fewer of the “Family Size” three bedroom dwellings that seem to be the workhorse for most of the nation.
What about the counts? I count 459,994 extra bedrooms across Metro Vancouver, estimating that about one-fifth of bedrooms remain empty. Compare this to the 66,719 unoccupied dwellings counted across the metro area, constituting just over one-in-twenty housing units. There are other, less conservative measures of empty bedrooms out there,* but any way you look at it, we have way more empty bedrooms than empty homes.
What’s also striking, though not especially surprising, is that the proportion of “extra” bedrooms rises with the total number of bedrooms in a dwelling in basically a linear fashion. So “Super Size” dwellings tend to have more empty bedrooms. By contrast, smaller dwellings have very few (those in occupied studio and 1BR dwellings, by definition, are always using all of their bedrooms). To put it differently, in Vancouver we have nearly twice the proportion of bedrooms remaining empty in 5 BR+ “Super Size” dwellings (28%) as have do in much smaller 2BR “Family Size” dwellings (15%). Again, this isn’t really a surprise: smaller dwellings are much more efficient ways to house people.
BUT given that we’ve reserved so much land for big, land-consuming houses, and given that so many of these have been turned into “Super Size” 5BR+ mansions, how are the residents of Vancouver dealing with the situation? Are they getting creative?
In my book, I detail the situation of one of my interviewees, a single mother who rented a mansion in a wealthy Vancouver neighbourhood. She couldn’t afford the place by herself, so she rented with a friend who was also a single-mother. Even together they still couldn’t afford the rent on their own, so to get by they also each kept boarders – mostly international students. I applauded the extremely creative way this mother figured out a solution to the housing situation she faced, re-purposing the “Super Size” mansion she lived in to make it work for her and a host of others.
How much of this creativity goes on in Vancouver? Let’s explore household type by bedrooms for residents of Canada at-large and Metro Vancouver in particular.
Here I’ve separated out in shades of drab gray the more boring kinds of households that we generally expect to find, including living alone, or living with a partner and/or children in a simple census-recognized family household. I’ve highlighted in color all of the more intriguing household combinations, including roommates, extended families, and everything in-between. Relative to the rest of Canada, Metro Vancouver demonstrates a lot more creativity in nearly every category, but it’s especially interesting how much creativity we see in filling up those “Super Size” mansions. Over 40% of residents are living in some kind of creative household, quite a bit higher than the 30% we see in the rest of the country. Lots of this may reflect the ethnic diversity of the Metro Vancouver area, and cultural practices more supportive of extended family living. But there’s clearly a lot of creativity going on in dealing with our housing shortage as well.
To sum up, we could be building in a better way to house people instead of setting aside so much land for mansions, but we also see creative responses to the housing stock we’ve got.
*-Empty homes have gotten a LOT of attention. Empty bedrooms less so. A previous analysis that gained some media attention in Vancouver estimated there were 800,000 empty bedrooms across the Metro Area. But the analyst assumed all couples shared a bedroom. I take a more conservative and simpler approach here that counts bedrooms as empty only if they exceed the number of people in a household. In other words: if everyone in a household gets their own bedroom, what’s left over? Adopting sharing rules definitely boosts estimates of empty bedrooms.