Laneway housing could ease pressures

As mayor of the City of North Vancouver, Darrell Mussatto sure knows how to talk up the benefits of laneway housing when he’s making a pitch for his municipality to allow this type of accommodation. About to win reelection by acclamation—no one stepped forward to challenge him in November’s civic election—he is well prepared to argue in support of these cottages, which are built at the back of a property, from an environmental-sustainability perspective.

But what may ultimately be Mussatto’s most persuasive argument is that he himself has lived in one for the last six years. In a phone interview, the mayor recalled that he moved out of the family duplex in 2002 so his parents could move into his half. His brother and sister-in-law occupy the other half of the house. He then had a coach house constructed at the back of the family lot.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Mussatto told the Georgia Straight. “I’m able to check on my parents every day, and they can check on me every day.”

Next spring, Mussatto intends to publicly display laneway-house models to show residents that they are not big structures and can go a long way toward easing the housing pressure in the city.

Mussatto conceded that his two-storey coach house is not the best example because it has 900 square feet of space. He said that it’s more of an infill house, compared to the ideal-size laneway house, which is around 400 to 700 square feet.

At a committee meeting today (October 30), Vancouver city council will discuss a report on laneway-housing options that has been submitted by city planning staff. However, Mussatto said his city may still be ahead of Vancouver in putting in place zoning and related regulations to allow this kind of residence.

Discussions about laneway houses got a head start in Vancouver in public forums about the EcoDensity initiative of outgoing mayor Sam Sullivan, a program that may yet become one of his enduring legacies. In the report, staff asked council to approve a set of recommendations that will serve as directions in the development of regulations and policies.

To address affordability issues, staff have proposed that laneway houses be for either family or rental use and not subject to strata titling. Based on the staff recommendation, these cottages will be allowed on close to 70,000 single-family lots across the city, presenting an enormous potential increase in the housing supply.

Staff also requested council’s direction on the maximum size of a laneway house, a matter that has raised some concerns from the Vancouver Heritage Commission, a civic advisory group.

In a separate report to council, the civic body pointed out that a 300-square-foot to 400-square-foot studio would have a smaller footprint. But it also recalled that in previous presentations, city staff proposed that lots with a 33-foot frontage can have a 525-square-foot to 800-square-foot laneway house, while 50-foot properties can accommodate units of 700 square feet to 1,400 square feet.

Moreover, the Vancouver Heritage Commission pointed out that a staff suggestion allowing laneway houses to have one-and-a-half storeys would mean that these accommodations could become 1,200-square-foot to 1,500-square-foot units with three bedrooms.

Aaron Rosensweet is a partner in Smallworks, a Vancouver construction company specializing in small structures. He will be present at today’s council committee meeting to see how the city can move forward with this initiative.

Smallworks is mostly engaged in constructing backyard studios that serve as home offices and music studios. Because zoning regulations don’t allow laneway houses in the city, these accessory buildings cannot have kitchens and full bathrooms.

“We’re waiting for the zoning to change to allow us to do the type of building we really want to be doing,” Rosensweet told the Straight, referring to laneway houses.