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Laneway housing heats up city council race

Some residents in Dunbar, a neighbourhood made up predominantly of single-detached homes, are hoping that the incoming Vancouver City Council…

By Gudrun Jonsdottir , in Development , on November 18, 2011 Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Some residents in Dunbar, a neighbourhood made up predominantly of single-detached homes, are hoping that the incoming Vancouver City Council will put a moratorium on the building of laneway houses.

The city council candidate meetings in Dunbar are always well attended
The city council candidate meetings in Dunbar have been well attended

The council approved a bylaw in July 2009 rezoning 94 per cent of the city, in the process allowing homeowners to build small homes located in their backyards (PDF).

Six of the first 100 so-called laneway houses (PDF) – which can be up to 1.5 storeys high, can be rented but not sold and must include at least one onsite parking spot – were built in Dunbar.

According to Peter Selnar of the Dunbar Resident’s Association (DRA), by September of 2011, that number had risen to 34. As of October 2011, 185 laneway house permits had been issued in Vancouver according to a report from the chief building official of the city of Vancouver.

Of stories and storeys

The issue for he and his fellow DRA members is not the houses themselves, but the lack of say they have over their construction.

“The DRA’s position on laneway housing is that it believes that the city should take a step back and halt further building and engage in discussion with the DRA and neighbourhoods across the city,” he said in an email.

They want input as to “whether the concept is acceptable at all in specific neighbourhoods and if so, what changes need to be made to the regulations (e.g. single storey, off-street parking, etc.).”

The association has told city council how, for one Dunbar resident, her vegetable garden no longer gets any sunlight because it’s blocked by the laneway house next door, and that its residents can see directly into her bedroom. For another, the construction of a neighbouring laneway house meant an 80-year-old Douglas fir on her property had to be cut down.

Dunbar is not the only neighbourhood whose residents are unhappy with laneway housing.

Wally Kerchum, who lives in Point Grey, runs a blog devoted to the issue that attracts supportive comments from across the city.

He has all but given up on the sitting council members, saying that when he and others have presented their concerns at meetings, “the councillors would be playing with their Blackberrys; they would get up and leave. It was obvious they weren’t going to make any changes.”

City Councillor Ellen Woodsworth of COPE had called for a four-month moratorium on the issuance of permits for laneway houses back in November 2010, citing the numerous concerns that had been raised by city residents. The motion was denied.

A laneway full of dreams

Bob Ransford, an urban land use consultant, disagrees with the notion that laneway housing has negatively impacted neighbourhoods. In his view, it is “one of the most creative and long-overdue examples of how we can diversify the housing supply in Vancouver and contribute to more affordable housing.”

Akua Schatz is content in her new Laneway house.
Akua Schatz in her new laneway house.

Listen: Schatz explains why they decided to build a laneway house in her in-law’s backyard
[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2011/11/Jonsdottir1611-first.mp3]

Akua Schatz wholeheartedly agrees. She and her partner spent three years living in her in-law’s Dunbar basement suite. Buying a single detached home in the area was simply not an option, given that the average listing price for 2010 was $1.7 million vs. $1 million for the city as a whole, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.

They broke ground on a $300,000 laneway house on her in-law’s property in October 2010. “Being able to be at ground level, being able to be in a neighbourhood like Dunbar, having that inter-generational experience of having the support system nearby. You couldn’t buy that for the price we paid,” said Schatz.

Listen: Schatz on the process of building their laneway house
[audio:https://thethunderbird.ca/files/2011/11/Jonsdottir1611-version2.mp3]

As for the opposition in the neighbourhood, she feels that the DRA has blown it out of proportion. “We’ve had an outpouring of support from our neighbours.”

A change of policy?

Whether or not citizens will get more say in the laneway houses built in their neighbourhoods will depend on who gets voted in to Vancouver City Council.

At a candidates meeting held in Dunbar on Nov. 14, council hopefuls from COPE, NSV and the Green party all said they were willing to change the rules in order to increase neighbourhood input.

A representative from Vision Vancouver, meanwhile, stressed the need for density and alternative housing in Vancouver and said they would look into it when the next city staff report comes out.

The most definitive promise came from NPA candidate Bill McCreery, who prior to the meeting had issued a press release calling for a moratorium on laneway housing. Ken Charko, also running for the NPA, is a former Dunbar resident. He said he would vote so there is no more laneway housing in the Dunbar area.

Suzanne Anton, mayoral candidate for the NPA, has been quoted as calling laneway housing her “baby” in the past, but Charko feels the NPA candidates can have differing opinions on the matter of densification in Vancouver.

As to Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV), its stance on laneway housing is to “place [the] current program on hold and assess approved projects and institute a neighbourhood-based process to deter demolition of existing houses and to set standards for scale, design, and locations on a neighbourhood basis.”