Vancouver councillor calls for removal of gender biases from bylaws

Vancouver's outdated bylaws have the power to enforce gender biases and restrict housing options

Photo by Ruth Hartnup
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Reported by Kathryn Tindale

A Vancouver councillor is calling for the removal of gender biases from the city’s bylaws that make it illegal for more than five women to live together.

Coun. Melissa De Genova said she thinks it’s shocking that Vancouver still has a bylaw on the books restricting the number of people living together.

“Five people could live in a house very comfortably and that would be more affordable. And if they were women there shouldn’t be a bias against their gender,” she said.

Outdated bylaws still have power today

De Genova is getting support from groups in the community who want to see more housing options, including more leeway for women or other non-related individuals to share a house.

“Historically, those sorts of rules limiting the women is to prevent brothels. Unfortunately, the bylaws are only supposed to be about preventing certain types of buildings, but it comes down to preventing certain kinds of people living in an area,” said Jennifer Bradshaw from Abundant Housing Vancouver.

Enforcing these regulations restrict low-income folks who want to live in collective housing or other housing options that don’t fulfill the requirements of a nuclear family, Bradshaw said.

De Genova said the bylaws aren’t being enforced to prohibit collective housing, but the bylaw still makes it illegal.

“I do still hear the concern of people who live in collective housing who are concerned that one day someone will come along who does take issue with their choice of living arrangement and chooses to use that bylaw against them,” she said.

A city official said, however, that it’s taking longer than staff originally thought to change the bylaw.

“That is work that we’re looking at and we’re exploring it. One of the things that we’re finding as we look at the ability to just amend the bylaws to remove the things that, if you will, we don’t like about them we just need to do a little bit of careful work to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences,” said Dan Garrison, the assistant director of housing policy for Vancouver.

Besides the prohibition against unrelated women living together, De Genova is also pushing for the city to redefine the meaning of family in the bylaw. The current specifications of a family restrict the opportunity of collective or social housing.

The bylaw defines a family if individuals are related by blood, marriage or adoption. A family can also mean a maximum of three individuals living together in a household. Two people living as common-law can be considered married and their blood relatives shall be considered related.

De Genova said there isn’t a case of individuals removed from a collective house without a safety concern because of the bylaw in Vancouver.

The definition of a family is cause for eviction

However, in Saanich, B.C., seven unrelated women were evicted for sharing a seven-bedroom house because they exceeded the number of unrelated individuals in a residence according the bylaws. The specific definition of a family was used to evict the women from the home in December 2018. Saanich is now looking to change the bylaw causing these restrictions.

The difficulty in changing the bylaws for collective housing starts with changes made by the province since it is their ruling, said former Vancouver councillor George Affleck. Once it is adjusted, the city is able to work with more flexibility for alternative housing.

“These co-housing places are a great solution for people to share the costs, but it’s very, very difficult and challenging in the process,” Affleck said. It is about prioritizing issues at the municipal and province level to make the changes and it can’t be as simple as rewriting a bylaw, he said.

Vancouver’s bylaws also specify limitations as to how siblings share their rooms.

“If you’re over five years old you’re not supposed to be able to share a bedroom with a sibling that is of the opposite sex,” said Bradshaw.

She added it is rooted in outdated perceptions of gender differences, and how people view the opposite sex living together. Instead, Bradshaw said the focus should be on safety and fire regulations.

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