One of the most desirable and expensive places to live in Vancouver is becoming the test case for an ambitious policy to provide more affordable homes in the city.
The affluent Point Grey neighbourhood has the most backyard houses under construction anywhere in the city, with five in one lane.
But the city’s haste to create small, affordable homes has caused residents in the 4600 block of West 11th Avenue to complain about overcrowding, traffic congestion and a loss of privacy.
“It’s just full steam ahead and a blind eye to the concerns of the people,” said Marie Kerchum, who has lived with her husband on West 11th Avenue for 32 years.
A bylaw Vancouver city council passed in July 2009 allows for the old garages or carriage houses of single family homes to be converted into laneway houses.
The idea was that these small houses could be rented out to help pay the mortgage. They might also be suitable for aging family members or grown children who can’t afford Vancouver’s pricey homes.
The complaints about how the bylaw is being applied have led the council to revisit its policy. The council might make changes next year, but for now, applications and construction are going ahead under the current bylaw.
Related: The Santa Cruz laneway experience
Vancouver has approved nearly 200 applications for laneway homes since the bylaw was adopted.
The bylaw does not limit the number of laneway homes that can be built in a single lane, nor does it require advance notice of construction to neighbours.
In Point Grey, Kerchum leads a group of residents who worry that the flurry of construction is overrunning their tight-knit community.
“Our primary concern is the height of these things,” she said. “The guidelines are much more permissive than we anticipated.
“We were led to believe they would be tiny little houses,” she added.
The group has set up a website and is forming a network to bring together residents across Vancouver who are concerned about the implementation of laneway housing.
“City hall has re-zoned the entire city of Vancouver … all under the cloak of EcoDensity,” Kerchum said.
The EcoDensity Charter, passed by city council in 2008, commits the city to pursuing development plans with sustainability, livability and affordability in mind.
“It’s bigger than our block,” Kerchum said.
The deluge of applications to build laneway houses, and the reaction of residents like those in Point Grey, has led the council to reassess its policy.
Vancouver City Councilor Suzanne Anton said she recognizes the concerns of residents who worry about the potentially intrusive height of laneway homes.
“I was a little bit surprised when staff came back with the 1 1/2 storey option,” Anton said.
Anton raised these concerns at the city council’s Nov. 2 meeting. She asked staff to research options that limit construction to one storey, with the possibility of allowing 1 1/2 storey houses on a discretionary basis.
Staff will report back to city council with recommendations next year.
“I always envisioned little cottages,” Anton said. “If they could be kept to one storey, I think it would make them more accepted.”
The bylaw limits the height of a laneway home to 20 ft, or 6 ft taller than a standard garage.
The company behind one of the projects in the Point Grey lane says its building is within the limits.
Mathew Turner, partner and co-founder of Lanefab, said the project is 1 ft under the maximum allowed in the bylaw.
“People don’t understand that you live in a city,” he said. “Your privacy is going to be compromised.”
A livable city
Laneway housing is an initiative of city council’s EcoDensity program, which according to the city’s website is designed to create a “sustainable, affordable and livable future” for Vancouver.
The city has a severe shortage of affordable housing.
A report by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy found that Vancouver boasts the most unaffordable housing in the world. The city beat out 272 other markets for the title, including New York, San Francisco and London.
A document on the laneway housing website explains that the bylaw was introduced as an option that “speaks to the extremely tight rental market in Vancouver by offering an additional affordable choice.”
Jake Fry, owner and operator of Smallworks Studios and Laneway Housing Inc., worked closely with the city to develop the laneway housing bylaws.
Fry admits that presenting the laneway bylaw as an affordable housing option may have been naive.
“Laneway is not affordable in the context of what it costs to build,” he said. “It’s a complicated structure and quite sophisticated.”
What laneway housing does allow for, Fry explained, is a certain degree of mobility in the rental market. For many families it’s a suitable model that didn’t exist before.
People poised to upgrade from lower-end rental units, but who cannot afford to buy a home, have a new option.
“But the lack of cheap rentals,” Fry said, “is the root of the problem.”