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Laneway houses planned for West End despite doubts

As Vancouver announces plans to extend laneway housing to the West End, some say the small homes aren’t the affordable…

By Hallae Khosravi , in City , on November 22, 2013 Tags: , ,

Laneway housing
Laneway homes are built in the alleyways behind homes.

As Vancouver announces plans to extend laneway housing to the West End, some say the small homes aren’t the affordable rental option the city claims.

The city council approved laneway homes in 2009 to provide a greater range of rental options in desirable neighbourhoods and are frequently described as “affordable” housing.

But almost five years later, and as the city has passed the 1,000-mark for laneway house permits, the homes are adding to the expensive rental landscape in Vancouver. One bedrooms with 480 square feet are renting for an average of $1,550 in Kitsilano. Two-bedroom units are close to $2,500.

City planners are proposing to expand laneway housing to the West End where alleys are the widest in Vancouver.

What is affordable?

Whether laneway homes are considered affordable is a point of contention between housing advocates and the City.

“We don’t have a civic definition of what affordable housing is. Some say any housing that is rental is affordable,” said Alvin Singh, an activist whose work in Vancouver politics has focused on housing policy.

While the standard definition of affordable housing used by many organizations says affordable housing is 30 per cent of one’s income, Singh says that the city is completely vague about what rental units should be priced at.

In contrast, Richmond’s affordable-housing policy sets out specific targets for what it expects units to be rented for.

“We don’t have anything near that level of specificity,” said Singh, a former executive director for city’s left-wing municipal party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors.

Supporters of laneway homes argue the expansion of the housing supply is a positive development.

“Laneway homes are just one part of the picture,” said Coun. Geoff Meggs, who is a member of the ruling Vision Vancouver party on council. “Building more rental housing is a contribution to affordability because the people who can afford them will move leaving the cheaper apartments available.”

Making money from laneway homes

To date, the City of Vancouver has approved 1,000 permits and over 500 laneway homes have been built.

Laneway housing
The homes cost hundreds of thousands to build.

Homeowners pay between $200,000 and $300,000 for laneway houses on single-family lots where space is typically limited. The result is a small space for a big price, so some owners try to make back what they put it in as quickly as possible.

JP Lotzkar is the owner of one of these just under 500 square feet, one-bedroom laneway homes in Kitsilano. It was one of the first 100 approved by the city.  His laneway house is currently up for rent for $1,550 and has been vacant for two months.

“We do have some times when it’s vacant,” said Lotzkar, “but we’re also particular. A bit more was spent on the house, so we try to get a bit more in rent.”

Cost is not the only issue. Laneway houses are, by their very nature, small in size.

“The issue is space. There’s not a lot of storage space,” said Lotzkar. “There’s been some interest, but with that [space] and the cost, well, they just couldn’t.”

According to Lotzkar, the longest time the home has been empty is half a year.

Homes for ‘regular folks’ 

Coun. Kerry Jang, an advocate for low-income housing, says the laneway homes aren’t necessarily a solution to Vancouver’s affordable housing problem. Such houses are for what he describes as “regular folks.”

But he recognizes that, for many owners, the priority is to recoup their building costs as quickly as possible.

“If owners could be patient and lower prices, they would make it back over time, but many are new to this game.”

For activists like Singh, the laneway issue highlights the tensions that arise when housing is left to the private sector.

“You need to be able to make that money back in a time frame that is suitable for a homeowner, “ says Singh, “and that timeframe is usually much shorter than what a civic authority would need to make money back.”

Laneway homes in Vancouver (click to scroll through)