Last Saturday, I joined approximately 500 people wandering the back lanes of Vancouver taking their shoes off and then putting them back on. We were participating in the fifth annual Vancouver Heritage Foundation Laneway Housing Tour that showcased eight laneway homes around the city.
Now some might wonder why a heritage organization would be organizing a laneway housing tour. The answer is simple. It wanted to demonstrate how adding a laneway house behind a house can be a positive way to retain heritage and character homes.
This year’s tour included six houses built after 2009 when the City of Vancouver amended its zoning bylaws to permit laneway houses in some single family zones. However, it also included a 900-square-foot laneway house behind a West 11th home that was constructed in the 1890s, and a 1,600-square-foot house built in 1990 behind a 1912 character home on Maple St.
What was significant about these two properties was unlike the smaller houses built under the city’s laneway housing program which must be rented, they could be sold. That is because in some zones the city allows a laneway or coach house, as they are sometimes called, to be sold when a heritage house is being preserved.
I have had a longstanding interest in laneway houses dating back to the 1960s when I first discovered London mews houses. As a CMHC planner in 1976, I oversaw a study exploring opportunities for “sensitive infill” that proposed laneway housing for Vancouver. In 2008 I formed Laneway Cottages Inc. anticipating changes in Vancouver’s zoning bylaws to permit laneway homes, noting that this had been one of the recommendations of the earlier EcoDensity initiative.
Unfortunately, given the way the initial laneway zoning bylaw was drafted, it did not permit the kind of laneway houses many were seeking, namely predominantly single storey cottage-like homes for sale.
The earlier Vancouver Heritage Foundation tours demonstrated how laneway houses could be a very effective and charming way to increase the density in a neighbourhood without significantly compromising its character. However, there was often a shortage of parking since the zoning did not require any parking space for the laneway unit.
Furthermore, the garages in many early laneway homes had large windows and in-floor heating, making it obvious they would be converted to living space at some time in the future.
Given that some single-family lots could have three dwelling units (a main dwelling, a basement suite and laneway unit) without any off-street parking, this resulted in numerous and valid complaints about parking in some neighbourhoods.
The city has hopefully addressed this problem by modifying the regulations to discourage garages from being used as living space.
From discussions with laneway house builders it appears a large number are not being constructed as rental units, but rather as homes for relatives. In some instances, the children are moving into a laneway house, with the intention of moving into the big house at a later date. In others, one or both parents are moving into the laneway unit.
Despite some complaints, I believe the program is working. However, many would like to see the city permit some laneway units to be sold, rather than remain as rental, resulting in more affordable ownership housing in established neighbourhoods.
During my recent trip to England, I learned that the government is exploring ways to encourage those 55 and older to move out of larger homes to free up their homes for families with children. However, for older people, a major constraint is often the lack of appropriate alternative accommodation.
A similar problem exists in Vancouver. Many older households would gladly sell their larger houses but they don’t want to move into an apartment. However, they would happily buy a smaller infill house in their neighbourhood if this type of housing was available. Similarly, young couples would buy a small laneway house to get into the market.
On Nov. 15 we will go to the polls. This is a good opportunity to vote for those politicians who support innovative approaches to the provision of more affordable housing choices, such as laneway housing for sale.