Lorrie Williams has a two-car garage that’s big enough for a nice little suite. However, it has no plumbing, and at this point, laneway houses aren’t allowed in New Westminster, where Williams has been a city councillor since 2002.
She acknowledged, though, that it’s generally known that a number of residents have illegally converted detached garages into dwelling spaces.
“We sort of know that they are,” Williams told the Georgia Straight in a February 3 phone interview.
It’s probably not just older garages. Some of the new ones are also likely being lived in.
Because the city’s zoning bylaw is silent on how many plumbing fixtures are allowed in an accessory structure, a person can install an unlimited number. And when there’s a sink, a shower, and a toilet, it’s livable.
“Everybody’s got this notion now that they’re going to make this extra little house,” Williams said about the situation.
In order to plug this hole, Williams and her colleagues on city council approved on February 2 a staff recommendation to limit plumbing fixtures in new detached accessory buildings to a sink and a toilet.
A staff report that was included in the February 2 council agenda noted that over the past two years, city hall has received 139 building-permit applications for accessory buildings. Fourteen percent, or 20, of these contained two or more plumbing fixtures.
Staff also went on to cite as an example one active building-permit application for an 871-square-foot accessory building with four plumbing fixtures. In addition to a toilet, a sink, and a washer and dryer, it also has a bathroom that has an extra feature: a dog shower.
The report was coauthored by Jackie Teed, manager of planning for the City of New Westminster.
“We’ve been seeing an upswing in building applications that have multiple plumbing fixtures in the detached accessory buildings, and at the same time, we have a lot of interest from our community in whether laneway houses or detached accessory dwellings are permitted, which they’re currently not,” Teed told the Straight in a phone interview.
“And so our concern is that we want to put something in our zoning bylaw that helps to prevent that,” Teed continued. “Our concern is that it’s too easy to convert your accessory building into an accessory dwelling if you’re able to have as many plumbing fixtures as you would like.”
The planning manager pointed to safety concerns about accessory buildings, because they aren’t built to standards required by law for homes.
The conversion of garages into dwelling units also affects parking. “When we look at allowing more units on a site, we generally look at the impacts to parking in the neighbourhood,” Teed said. “So if the detached accessory building is not originally intended to be a dwelling but then later becomes a dwelling, it puts additional pressure on parking in the neighbourhood that has not been considered.”
Teed said that in the next few weeks, staff will bring forward a bylaw amendment on the one-sink, one-toilet rule for approval by council.
For those who want an extra home on their lot, however, it looks like it’s just a matter of time.
According to Williams, council is looking at the idea of changing the city’s official community plan to allow laneway homes. “We’re going to go neighbourhood by neighbourhood. It’s not going to be one-size-fits-all for New Westminster,” she said.
Infill houses go by various names. Depending on the Lower Mainland jurisdiction in which they are located, they’re called laneway houses, coach houses, carriage houses, garden cottages, or garden suites. In Richmond, they’re known as granny flats.
“If people are putting in garages right now that may be converted into laneway housing [later], it’s fine,” Williams said. “It’s part of the densification that we expect to happen.”
As the long-time councillor noted, this may be a desirable option for “older folks wanting their kids to live in the big house, and then they want to have just a little place in the back”.
Williams added: “We have to get realistic that, [housing] prices being what they are, maybe this is a way a family can stay together and help each other out.”