Rules designed to “preserve the character” of Vancouver neighbourhoods are keeping out working people and effectively subsidizing the owners of multi-million dollar homes, according to a UBC economist.

And those zoning rules are encouraging the construction of mega-mansions on single family home lots because building townhouses and apartments are illegal, Tom Davidoff said.

“Single family zoning is snob zoning,” economist Tom Davidoff told CTV News. “That’s what we have in Vancouver.

“They’re trying to preserve the character of our neighbourhoods. Well, the character is out the window. These are the global elite building multi-million dollar palaces. That’s the character that our city aims to preserve,” said Davidoff.

Some two-thirds of the City of Vancouver is zoned for a home, including a basement suite and a coach house. The city has also allowed more density on arterial routes close to transit.

Davidoff proposed a further rule change that would automatically allow the rezoning of a lot when it became more expensive.

He said when a lot became worth $2 million, the owner would automatically be allowed to built a two to three-storey building of townhouses or apartments. He allowed for some exceptions, such as heritage value, but said the general rule should be to allow development, not restrict it.

“Let’s keep it simple,” Davidoff said. “If 95 per cent of Canadians can’t afford what you’re zoning that should not be legally enforceable.”

Davidoff was speaking about affordability challenges the same day of the launch of Generation Squeeze’s Code Red campaign, which measured just how unaffordable Metro Vancouver real estate has become.

The $500,000 that would have bought two houses in 1976 only buys two bedrooms today, even when adjusted for inflation. And a young Vancouverite earning the average wage would have to save for 23 years before he or she could afford a down payment. Meanwhile, wages have dropped $4000 compared to 1976.

Young people are having to come up with more dramatic ways of getting by, shown by videos of young people packed into a house designed for far fewer people.

“You put five, six, seven, eight people in a place you can get an affordable rental price,” said Noel Farrand, who was behind one of the videos.

He said the current situation can be frustrating for young people who are trying hard but barely squeezing by.

“My parents are baby boomers. They worked hard but they had other factors in play that allowed that hard work to pay off in a way that doesn’t exist today,” he said.

The City of Vancouver has rezoned single family homes to allow for coach houses and basement suites, though only about 2500 of the estimated 50,000 homes have built coach houses.

Today the city announced the construction of a $141-million rental housing project for seniors and families that would have 358 units.

“Given our vacancy rate in Vancouver is at record lows, getting more housing built couldn’t come at a better time,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said at the announcement.

Robertson didn’t say whether he would prefer Davidoff’s solution, simply saying, “Ultimately it’s up to the community whether they would support that kind of density in the neighbourhood.”

Often residents oppose new developments at city hall, referring to “neighbourhood character” as they oppose more people. Several speakers at the hearing Tuesday night referenced “neighbourhood character.”

Davidoff said allowing the free market to operate effectively in Vancouver would ensure more development, which could lower prices in other units as supply increases – and not cost the city anything.

“When you see a mansion going up on the West Side of Vancouver, that’s not the free market. The free market would be 50 stories of apartments,” Davidoff said.