Neighbourhood tensions over proposed laneway housing in the West End burst into the open at an August 28 public meeting with senior Vancouver planning staff at the West End Community Centre.
Vancouver’s general manager of planning and development, Brian Jackson, told the crowd of about 200 that he recognized that many of them dislike the introduction of these homes as part of the new West End community plan. Then he tried to mollify some of the angriest people by saying what’s being proposed in the West End is not like many laneway houses in single-family zones.
“It is, in fact, to help us renew the rental stock that we have here,” Jackson insisted. “Because without an incentive to assist us in promoting the preservation of rental, it’s going to be difficult for us to maintain the rental stock and the relatively affordable rents that are in the area. So we are looking at the laneway housing as part of that to address the anticipated rental housing [need] in the West End.”
Judging by the catcalls from the audience, not everyone accepted this explanation.
It’s the newest controversy over laneway housing, which has been generating enormous attention since city council approved these detached secondary dwellings in 2009.
Vancouver’s deputy director of planning, Jane Pickering, told the Georgia Straight by phone that permits for 1,065 laneway homes have already been issued, which is far more than in any other municipality in the region.
Given all the media coverage, it would be easy to conclude that Vancouver was the first city in the region to allow them. But according to Pickering, Maple Ridge was ahead of everyone else in allowing these structures.
Pickering knows this because she was the director of planning in Maple Ridge when the decision was made by its council. “Vancouver was fast on our heels,” she acknowledged.
Maple Ridge calls its detached infill homes “garden suites”, and they’re allowed up to 90 square metres or 10 percent of the lot size (whichever is less). Vancouver permits a maximum of 70 square metres on larger lots and 46.5 square metres on a typical lot.
“In Maple Ridge, there are many properties that don’t have lanes, but they have very large properties with very wide frontage,” Pickering said. “So there was an accommodation made. If you could fit the home at the back of the property and still gain access from the front, particularly fire access, then you could build it. It was a bit of a different program, but the same kind of concept.”
City changed rules around parking
In Vancouver, city council adjusted laneway-housing regulations earlier this year to require parking spaces outside of the building. Pickering said that this came in response to complaints that people were turning indoor garages into additional living space and then leaving vehicles on the street.
“We have also done some things to encourage single-storey laneway houses,” she added. “The regulations before were set up in such a way that they were encouraging a sort of storey and a half. We had a lot of feedback from the neighbourhoods that they felt that a storey and a half were too high. There were issues of shadowing and overlooking into their yards.”
Vancouver architect Frits de Vries told the Straight by phone that he designed one laneway house with the parking spot on top of the structure. “It is because the lane sits at least a storey higher than the garden,” he said. “In that case, the car arrives at the level of the upper floor. We may be doing it again because one of our other clients is interested in that.”
Last year, de Vries won the first Georgie Award—handed out for excellence in home-building—for the design of a laneway house. He pointed out that it’s much more economical to build a laneway house at the same time as a new house is being constructed because the cost of installing water and sewer services is spread over both dwellings.
“It’s better to do it as a redevelopment,” he said.
When asked if it was feasible to create laneway houses in the West End as a means of preserving affordable rental stock, de Vries said that this could be challenging, given the cost of construction. He pointed out that in other areas of the city, these units are often occupied by the property owner’s relatives.
This is also true in the city of North Vancouver, according to Mayor Darrell Mussatto. He should know because he lives in a 93-square-metre laneway house beside a duplex occupied by his brother and his mother.
“They call it Fonzie’s suite,” Mussatto quipped in a reference to the character who lived above a garage in the TV show Happy Days.
Mussatto explained that there are two options for developing detached dwellings on single-family lots in his city.
Single-storey homes up to 74 square metres require only a building permit from city staff.
Applicants who want to add one-and-a-half-storey homes up to 93 square metres are required to talk to their neighbours and attend a public meeting at city hall, where council votes on the matter.
“People tend to want the little-bit-bigger size,” Mussatto said.
Regulations differ by municipality
In a December 2012 discussion paper, the District of West Vancouver noted that in the distant past, a coach house was an extra building on a property for horse-drawn coaches, carriages, and other vehicles. Other coach houses were servants’ quarters.
“Today, the term ‘coach house’ refers primarily to a smaller detached dwelling, which is typically a garage,” the paper states. “Even though coach houses are becoming more common in Metro Vancouver, there is still public misconception about what a ‘coach house’ is due to the common use of various terms to mean essentially the same thing.”
It lists the rules for various municipalities across B.C. Coquitlam, for example, allows one-storey "carriage house" rental suites on the second storey on garages. Delta, Langley Township, and Richmond use the term coach house to describe the same thing. In all cases, the homes must be accessible from a lane and have their own parking spaces.
The largest permitted size in Coquitlam is 50 square metres, whereas they max out at 42 square metres in Delta. In Langley Township, there are no maximums under the zoning bylaw, but density cannot exceed what’s allowed in the community or neighbourhood plan.
Richmond permits coach houses up to 60 square metres in the Broadmoor, Burkeville, and Hamilton areas, as well as in areas zoned for infill residential and coach houses. The city requires that 75 percent of the floor area be above the garage except in Edgemere, where the requirement falls to 60 percent. Granny flats—described as self-contained detached housing units—with up to 70 square metres of living space are also permitted in the Edgemere neighbourhood in Richmond.
Last month, West Vancouver council voted to allow coach houses, despite concerns expressed by veteran councillor Bill Soprovich.
Over the phone, he told the Straight that he’s unhappy these dwellings can be approved by staff without going before council. He also claimed that there will be insufficient consultation with the affected neighbours.
“It bothers me in the sense that council will have no say in the future,” he said. “Citizens will have little say in the future. It will be a planning initiative.”
The District of West Vancouver discussion paper points out that 25 percent of West Vancouver residents were age 65 or older in 2011, compared to just 13 percent across the region.
“The growing proportion of older residents in the community has significant implications for health and social services, recreation, transportation planning, and housing,” the paper states. “Access to well-located, low-maintenance, and adaptable/accessible housing that is convenient to community support networks is important to the overall well being and quality of life for many of these residents.”
District of North Van and Burnaby may be next
There are signs that the District of North Vancouver is also about to move forward on this issue.
“Staff at North Vancouver District have researched coach houses and best practices, and will be presenting that information to district council in the near future,” communications and community-relations officer Jeanine Bratina told the Straight by phone. She wouldn’t provide any details beyond that.
In Burnaby, the city’s social-sustainability strategy has identified considering the feasibility and advisability of allowing secondary suites and laneway housing as “priority actions” to facilitate housing affordability.
If this is deemed appropriate, council would revise the Burnaby zoning bylaw to permit these land uses. Mayor Derek Corrigan, who chaired the steering committee, and Coun. Colleen Jordan, who is the liaison to the planning department, did not return messages from the Straight by deadline.
Back in Vancouver, deputy director of planning Jane Pickering said that staff have been surprised by the distribution of laneway houses.
“We thought there would be a concentration on one side of the city, and actually, there is not,” she said. “They are widely and fairly evenly dispersed across the whole city. It’s been pretty interesting.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @csmithstraight.