They’re tiny and adorable, but do Vancouver’s laneway houses make economic sense?
In the early fall of 2009, Akua Schatz, 33, and her husband Brendon Purdy, 34, faced a trifecta of choices. Having lived for three years in Brendon’s parents’ basement in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood, they wanted a place of their own. For $400,000 they could get a nice three-bedroom home in suburban Abbotsford and face a gruelling two-and-a-half-hour daily commute. Or they could get a compact highrise condo in Yaletown and live in the air. Or, given Vancouver’s then-new legislation allowing laneway housing, they could arrange that their own miniature house be built in Brendon’s parents’ backyard. Today, beer in hand, the two sit on the outdoor deck of their 500-square-foot laneway home off West 23rd Ave., pleased by the fact the project is finished and that, at $280,000, their modernist, one-bedroom Dunbar bungalow cost a fraction of the other, much larger homes in the neighbourhood.
They are not alone. From Maple Ridge to Montreal, from Surrey to San Francisco, municipalities have begun to realize that single-family residential neighbourhoods can be densified without being destroyed, and that increasing density mitigates the calamitous environmental and economic effects of suburban sprawl. Since the 2009 launch of Vancouver’s EcoDensity laneway housing initiative, more than 200 little homes have either been built or are currently nearing completion in the city. These range from 500 square feet to 750 square feet, and as public interest has grown, the city’s building permit department is now processing between 30 and 40 new laneway housing applications each month.
No one knows more about the politics and practicalities of laneway housing than Vancouver’s director of city planning, Brent Toderian. He set the program in motion in 2006, and sees it today as his baby. Faced with a city hemmed in by its mountains and water, planners’ traditional logic would have suggested there were just two options for increasing density in the fast-growing region: Vancouver could grow upward in highrises, or outward in Los Angeles-style suburbs. But both required deep-pocketed developers, and both presented troubling aesthetic and environmental problems. A third option did exist, one Toderian believed had never been tried on a major metropolitan, city-wide basis: small, backyard, laneway homes. Because Vancouver has lanes everywhere and because the initiative covers most of the city, Vancouver is, Toderian believes, unique in the scope of its proposed lane housing. He believes Vancouver’s lane housing initiative is unparalleled in North America, and probably will be, when completed, one of the largest urban infill projects in the world.
Two years ago, Vancouver city council approved a wide-ranging laneway program that allows for the placing of a very small residential building on virtually every 33-foot (or larger), lane-facing, detached housing lot in Vancouver. This covers 90 per cent of the city’s entire housing stock. In other words, an estimated 70,000 Vancouver homeowners can, following strict development guidelines, add a laneway home to their RS-1 or RS-5 residential-zoned property.
Says Toderian today, “Lane housing is about ordinary people. Thousands of individual homeowners can do it, one by one by one. It’s publicly propelled, not corporate-propelled densification. It’s gradual. It’s discrete. It’s green.” He expects there’ll be thousands of Vancouver lane houses built in the decades ahead. Several other nearby municipalities, including the City of North Vancouver, Coquitlam and Maple Ridge, have followed Vancouver’s lead.
Agnes and Manuel Mendoza, Filipino immigrants in their early 60s, are owners of a garden-engulfed bungalow at the corner of McGill and Slocan streets, not far from the PNE. In the fall of 2009, they learned about Vancouver’s new policy on back-alley housing, and Lanefab Design Build Ltd.’s intention to work with clients considering building laneway homes. Agnes checked out the city’s new building regulations, Lanefab’s projected costs for a 710-square-foot unit, and realtors’ estimates of monthly rental income from a miniature, one-and-a-half-storey east Vancouver lane house. The math made sense.
The Mendozas left the architectural work, the bureaucratic jockeying and the construction to Lanefab, which had been set up a few months earlier to capitalize on Vancouver’s impending laneway program. As Lanefab’s co-owner Bryn Davidson explains, once the lane house foundations are in, the prefab building is delivered on two flatbed trucks, then erected and insulated in two days. From start to finish, construction takes four months. Says Davidson, “Banks view lane houses favourably. They’re a way of converting equity – your primary home – into cash flow. That was the Mendozas’ thinking.”