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Comment: We are better together: in praise of multi-family housing

A commentary on housing by a Victoria resident.
Families sharing life and space is a good thing, writes Alicia Schlag.

I’m now in my mid-40s and have only the vaguest memories of living in a single family home — certainly none of the little Deep Cove cottage I was born into.

As rents rose since I was a young child, even more so after I started my own family, life has been in a series of multiplexes and apartments, across Canada, abroad, and in Victoria. And I’m telling you, I haven’t missed a thing.

On my nightly walks through Gonzales — that suburb-like Victoria neighbourhood with its almost exclusively single family zoning and ironically shrinking family base — I think a lot about the properties around me. I wonder why they are so vehemently protected (and their values bloated beyond the pale) under the guise of “character” and other invented reasons (“trees” being a local one). And I think I understand why.

There is a sickness to the Canadian dream: We don’t like our lives touching others’. We don’t want to share them — not in real time and space. We want our own walls and gardens, our privacy and peace.

I get it. I grew up often mortified by my loud, messy family, and in turn shushed my own kids with “We have neighbours!” Honestly, part of me always longed for the white picket fence, to pull up the drawbridge. But recently, I gained some hard perspective on this.

In January, the downstairs family we’d shared our duplex rental with for four years bought a townhouse in Comox, and were suddenly gone. By contrast, the professional couple who replaced them live like monks.

There is more peace. And yet, I’ve found myself aching for the sound of a new baby crying through the floorboards, for the eruption of backyard noise when all little ones from the street descended, for the laughing screams of a toddler playing with her dad at the end of the day.

My daughter misses popping down to babysit. I miss our long chats about things we had in common. We shared our lives, in every sense. I miss that.

There are two lessons here. One is clear: Our friends had to leave Victoria, and indeed the south Island, because they had long outgrown a one-bedroom, and there were no other options here.

The other is personal, but no less true: Families sharing life and space is a good thing. It makes you feel connected, more supported, less alone, less ashamed of your own chaos and the need for grace.

It’s good for your kids’ social-emotional learning and for your own mental health. It’s good for our increasingly classist city, and it’s definitely good for our otherwise hopeless housing crisis.

It’s called community. My hope is that we can honestly weigh it against unfairly dominant notions of “value” as this much-needed missing middle housing debate continues.

It shouldn’t be this hard to legalize multi-family housing, everywhere. I’ve lived it all my life, and I know: We are better living together.