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Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Co-operative solution to affordable housing

We have spoken several times about the difficulties finding affordable housing in our fair city.  One idea I haven’t written about is Co-operative Housing.  That’s ironic, because I lived in a housing co-op for 14 years.


A housing co-op, whether for-profit or non-profit, differs from other multi-unit housing in that everyone who lives in it owns a share in the whole building — not just your unit.  So you own — and have responsibility for — the whole building.  The co-op board (made up of people who live in the building) determines who can or cannot move in and how the building will be managed including how much each share in the building will cost.

Lots of people find it hard to get their mind around the idea that co-ops are affordable.  That may be because they have only heard about exclusive, expensive co-ops such as the famous Dakota in New York City, where suites could cost millions of dollars.  But they are an excellent way to get affordable housing right here in Vancouver.

Let’s say you know several people who all have the same problem you do — they can’t afford to buy or build a home in Vancouver.  You may know several hundred people in that boat.

Well, you can all get together and form a housing co-op.  That’s the way I found myself in Wits End Housing Co-op.  The apartment complex where I lived in Kerrisdale was sold and razed to make a much larger, more expensive tower.  Most of us in the original complex could not afford to live in the new building, but we could afford to pool our resources and our time and talent to form a co-op.

It took a lot of time, and much energy, but many of the families from the original complex called Wits End home for years.  It was a good place to raise your children in a nice neighbourhood convenient to transit.

If you go to the Wit’s End web page you’ll see that the charges for housing are quite reasonable, from $782 for a one-bedroom to $1,215 for a four-bedroom unit.  Plus you must purchase shares in the building, costing from $1,600 to $2,400 depending on the size of the suite you want.  That’s very affordable for Vancouver.  But there’s a way to save even more.  In some co-ops you can receive a housing subsidy through the government that will allow you to live in a suite that you might not ordinarily be able to afford.  The subsidy is given to the co-op, and it is limited.  Extremely limited. Check the Wit’s End page and you’ll see that they do not currently have any subsidy available.  Plus all their suites are full and they are accepting names for a waiting list (you don’t have to come up with the share purchase money until you are accepted into the co-op).

If you want to form your own housing co-op, the first step is to contact the CMHC, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and follow their guide to forming and running a co-op. There are also guides specific to the province where you live.

Is it cheap?  No.  There will be lawyers, architects, contractors, inspectors and many more people you will have to hire.  The CMHC can guide you through it. There are guidelines, rules and regulations you have to follow all the way.

Once you live in your co-op you will have responsibilities that condo dwellers do not.  You will have to serve on a committee, you should serve on the board at least once.  And if you choose not to hire cleaning people you will have to do your bit to keep the building clean and safe.

Co-operative housing gives you an instant neighbourhood, a safe neighbourhood for your kids, plus an affordable place to live.

I look back on my co-op years with great fondness.

Our visit to the BC Home and Garden Show

DH and I braved the snow yesterday to take in the BC Home and Garden Show. Thanks to Ian at the Home Discovery Show for the admission!

There were masses of people, lots to see, lots to do, in short, the usual Home and Garden Show.

And there were lots of individual items — and a few over arching trends.

Smaller is definitely in.  We saw a couple of laneway builders — one, My Lane Home, builds the structure off-site and then assembles it on the foundation they put on your property.  We had a nice chat with them. A lot of the regular design/build/renovate exhibitors were also displaying info on building laneways.

Small is also in with the furniture exhibitors.  We saw very few big pieces, and we saw two exhibitors with credenzas that made into full-size dining tables.  Like this:

Credenza1 Credenza2 Credenza3

Plus there were several booths showing beds that came out of cabinets or the more traditional Murphy-bed set-up for transforming spare spaces into guest rooms with the touch of a button. Plus closet systems that made use of every inch.

The furniture was also sleek and functional looking — nary a curve or a piece of extra ornamentation to be seen in upholstered or hard furnishings. And it really was about doing more with fewer pieces.

Window coverings were also more in the “blinds and shades” family than opulent draperies — and there were no prints except for a few geometrics. When I remember the meters and meters of cabbage roses we used on every upholstered surface in the 70s and 80s!  They are totally out of style now.

The finishes were the ones we’ve seen before — hardwood and engineered floors are still the most popular, there isn’t anything new there.  The counter tops were either quartz or what I came to think of as “novelty” stones, like marble with swaths of green running through; plus lighter granites than the blacks and dark greys we’ve seen in the past few shows.

There was a clean aesthetic when it came to all the decorating. The only place I saw texture was in the walls.  Bathroom and kitchen tiles often had designs incised into them — one booth had sheets of tempered glass with colours and textures embedded in it.  For myself, I would never put anything like that in my home.  How many homes have baths installed in the 1980s?  You can tell because of the florals in the tiles, something that is completely out of style now.  Tiling is something you only want to do once — don’t put anything up that is so very ….. dating.

Saving energy was a definite theme when it came to the doors and windows on display.  Plus there were lots of home security exhibitors, so it seems that putting in a security system is no longer an option but a necessity.

Taking it outside, I was surprised to see how much concrete was being used, often in interested ways.  And outdoor fire pits and fireplaces were everywhere.  “Outdoor rooms” are taking over from “yards and gardens”.

Of course, there were lots of booths selling things, mixers, knives, nozzles and ladders — I saw one man carrying a huge box containing a super-duper car seat cushion.  Luckily we were travelling by transit and had no way to get a lot of “things” home, and of course, no where to put them when we got there!  So we saved a fortune.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? And how many?

I ran across another great article on Life Edited, this time on household size.

All along I have touted laneway homes as a good method to increase the densification of neighbourhoods without changing their character.  These houses, by nature of their small size, will only house one or two people each.  What about the housing density of the rest of the neighbourhood?

Not this kind of housing density.

Not this kind of housing density.

We tend to frame the density issue in terms of housing size, because it’s easy to understand that big homes, as a rule, reduce overall density. But there is something else, just as important as housing size, that must be factored in to understand how density works, and that is household size.

The article quotes a paper in the online journal Population and Environment.  Looking at the population/housing ratio in the past 400 years,

the number of households grew faster than population size in every country and every time period. These findings suggest accommodating housing may continue to pose one of the greatest environmental challenges of the twenty-first century because the impacts of increased housing present a threat to sustainability even when population growth slows.

There are fewer people being born per capita, true, but

Progress made in curbing population growth, however, has not translated into reducing human
consumption of natural resources and impact on the environment.

Yikes!  Why?  Of course there are lots of reasons, and it’s not just because people are building larger homes (McMansions) for their smaller families.  People are also moving out of the family home at an earlier age.  The trend during the recent economic downturn for people to move back in with their parents after college is an anomaly, and probably will not be continued after the economy picks up again.  Also elderly people stay in their own homes longer rather than moving in with their families.  Plus they remain in their old family homes longer rather than moving to smaller ones.  There are other factors as well

The rising incidence of divorce also encourages increased household numbers. In the United
States, 15 % of all households had divorced heads in 2000 …. Although remarriage is common, the relatively high percentage of divorced households persists, and divorced households are 27–41 % smaller than married households

And that means?

From a more simplistic perspective, declining household sizes, from over 5 to approximately 2.5, will mean approximately twice as many houses will be needed per capita in any areas of the world yet to undergo the shift in household size.

Assuming that each of the additional households occupies a 210 m2 house (the average US
house size in 2002) (National Association of Home Builders 2004), then an additional
185,800 km2 of housing area would be required. This estimate may be conservative because land
area for household-related infrastructure (e.g., roads, yards, and retail) can require 2–4 times as
much land as the actual land used for the home …. Each of those houses would demand more household products and have lower efficiency of resource use per person because fewer people share goods and services in smaller households.

That’s why urban sprawl — taking more land to build more houses — will not solve all the problem.

One small caveat by Life Edited shows a glimmer of light in the tunnel of doom:

As a small space design blog, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the amount of sprawl (i.e. the 72K sq miles) they calculate is based on a house size of 2509 sq ft–McMansions for all.

So smaller houses will help the problem well into the future.  And they give us a couple of options,

  1. Let things remain the same. Encroach on undeveloped lands and deplete all natural resources until the planet’s homeostatic environmental mechanisms are irrevocably destroyed.

  2. Reverse demographic shifts away from industrialization, the desire for privacy, divorce and so forth.

  3. Rethink housing. Adjust housing style to meet demographic shifts. Have smaller, more efficient houses with shared amenities. Creatively subdivide existing housing. Mitigate sprawl by keeping density high, even outside of major metropolises, permitting walk/bike/public transportation-friendly living.

That last choice seems the best to me.

Itty bitty bedrooms

Our builder is back today, finishing up (we hope) the last bit of work before the room is absolutely complete (no pix till it’s perfect).  The bedroom is definitely the smallest one I’ve ever had in a home — just wide enough for our queen size bed plus one small chair.  But I think it’s the perfect size for us — we love it. And we’ve even included some kitschy 50s-style touches to make it completely our own.

I’ve always known that other people have small bedrooms, and I’ve wondered how they managed.  So off to Apartment Therapy to look at what others have done with their tiny sleeping rooms.

First, some parameters, I was interested in areas that could sleep two adults — I know you can tuck a child’s crib into any corner, but that wasn’t going to help me.  Plus, it had to be set off from the main living space in some way, not just part of a studio apartment.  And I found some real winners — and inspiration.



This all-white room still manages to get that punch of colour with the wall-papered back wall.  And the kitchen cupboards set high bring in more storage while not intruding.



This all-white room grounds itself with the darker bedskirt — and brings texture in with that lovely heirloom coverlet.



This room is really tiny, but the high ceiling could make you think you’re sleeping in the bottom of a box!  It’s the light walls and minimal textures (just the brick wall) that make it a comfortable space.





By keeping the accessories in this room light and bright it manages to look cute but not cluttered.  And the shelf beside the bed means no need for a nightstand (spoiler alert–that’s what we did in our room).

But just because a bedroom is eensy doesn’t mean it can’t be dark and dramatic.



This narrow room has the bed pushed against one wall as we’ve seen in some of the other rooms, and thus has gained space for an unobtrusive night table.  But it’s that bright pop of wall colour repeated in the coverlet and that dramatic light fixture that makes it special.



The dark colours in the wall really bring the drama to this small bedroom.  Very clever use of colour, see how the ombre wood of the bed is picked up in the mustard tones of the wall-sized painting?  Plus the little punch around the white pillow also picked up in the quilt hanging over the foot of the bed.  Even the window trim is that same tone.  Very clever.

And as we have seen, even the smallest spaces can be dramatic.



This home is basically a studio apartment, but the owner has taken what might have been left as storage space and managed to fit a bed into it.  what makes it a bed ROOM is the dark blue wall colour, so different from the light tones of the rest of the space.  Here’s another look at it:



Glossy wall paint reflects the overhead bulb and the wall-mounted bed lamp.

Lots of ideas that show that clever always trumps large when it comes to decorating — and small is beautiful.

Five Reasons Why Family Day Really Was “Family” Day

Monday, February 10, 2014 was the very first Family Day here in British Columbia.  I really wanted this day to be something I could plan and everyone could enjoy. With everyone so busy I didn’t want to add to their plates by saying “Entertain Me!”  I wanted everyone to just show up and have a good time. You may think that has nothing to do with laneway living, but actually it fit in perfectly with our new way of life.

1. It’s all about “Experience”

We won’t be buying much new stuff.  And for everything we bring into the laneway, we have to take something out .  Instead of stuff, we want to spend our time and energy on having new experiences.  And that means

2. Getting Out of the House

In the past I may have been tempted to just make a nice dinner and have our family (two kids, two kids-in-law, one grandchild) over and then we would sit around and eat and then everyone would get up and go.  But we don’t have room for that anymore, and though we will certainly be sharing lots of communal meals, the small size of our place means that if we are planning an event we will need to be outside of the laneway.  That could mean out in the back yard at a barbecue, but in the winter it usually means inside somewhere else (the weather is so iffy, it was supposed to snow but instead it rained buckets).

3. Finding Family Things to Do

The fact that it was Family Day gave me a bit of a kick in the pants.  I haven’t thought much about entertaining children (well, child) for a while.  Plus I wanted something everyone would enjoy, so it had to be more than visiting McDonald’s or dragging the little darling around Science World (she’s a bit young to take it all in).  I just poked around the internet and found Family Day activities at Burnaby Village Museum.  The museum would be closed, but the Carousel would still be open, and they would have fun things for little kids. It’s close to everyone, and not too expensive.  We started off with brunch at a restaurant, then went straight to the museum, and “Carousel, Carousel!” (Only not in that Logan’s Run way).

4. Unplugging

I admit that I like sitting and watching Disney movies with the little girl on the TV or computer.  But for this I wanted a more….analog experience.  Going out and doing real things in the real “meat world”.  Touching and holding hands and walking and playing with plastic frogs.  Riding a real carousel horse (twice).


5. Building memories

It doesn’t take too many family dinners until the memories all melt together.  Especially since we usually do the same dishes for special occasions.  And that’s good.  It’s so nice to look back on all those Christmas dinners at Grandma’s and the Angel Food cake your Mom always made for your birthdays.

For this Family Day I thought I would be building memories for the little girl — her first ride on a real carousel.  But of course, I was really building memories for myself.

This memory especially


Organizing? Or ?

We are still in the process of a) getting rid of stuff, and b) finding places for the stuff that we need.  We want to downsize our rented storage space this month with the goal firmly in place of getting to the point where we don’t need any exterior storage space at all.

So I am doing my part by sitting down with a cup of coffee and my laptop and perusing stories on organizing.  Thanks to Apartment Therapy for giving me “101 Organizational Helpers” with “stylish storage options”  and tips like

Even when your contents are stored and labeled, it means nothing if they’re not accessible. Stacking a group of boxes and storing them on wheels is a great way to utilize the back corner of a closet. When you need a particular box, out rolls your storage cart for easy access.

That is a good idea.  Also

consider repurposing a few things from the kitchen to help you straighten up your sleeping space. Silverware and ice cube trays can be used to sort jewelry and dresser drawers,

But then I ran across another article that reminded me of what it is all about.

Life Edited asked the musical question “Is Organization A Sham?

The article quotes The Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus from their book “Everything That Remains” 

Discussing how to get rid of our stuff answers only the what side of the equation, but not the why; the action, but not the purpose; the how-to, but not the significantly more important why-to. In other words, the what is relatively easy. We all know instinctually how to declutter–how to get “organized.” But that’s just one part of the larger issue. Instead of “get organized,” I’ve decided I need to start thinking of organizing as a dirty word, a sneaky little profanity who keeps us from really simplifying our lives.

You see, our televisions would have us believe there’s a battle being fought on the consumption continuum, a battle between messy hoarders on one side and spruce organizers on the other. And from our couches it’s hard to see who’s winning. I’d like to posit, however, that these two sides are actually working together, colluding to achieve the same thing: the accumulation of more stuff. One side–the hoarders–does so overtly, leaving everything out in the open, making them easy targets to sneer at. Face it, we all laugh and point and say “I’m sure glad my house doesn’t look like that,” every time we see them on TV. But the other side–the sneaky organizers–are the more covert, more systematic, when it comes to the accumulation of stuff. Truthfully, most organizing is nothing more than well-planned hoarding.

Who among us has not glanced at one of those hoarding shows, shocked and yet fascinated, like staring into the abyss that our lives could spiral into if we weren’t ever vigilant.  Those hoarders, those poor, pathetic people, don’t think they are hoarding.  They know that they might need that thing, that old magazine with that article, that pair of shoes that just needs new soles, that pot that might come in handy.

All around us we see constant reminders that we NEED MORE STUFF.  The answer is not to find more places, more attractive containers and more efficient ways to hang onto it.

It’s important to see that the final goal is not to find places for everything we own, it’s to get rid of everything that doesn’t fit into our lives any more.  That will give us more time and energy to concentrate on what is really important.

New idea? Old idea! Micro-apartments

As cities throughout the globe find that micro-apartments are a great way to create housing for one-person households, we look back at ways teensy apartments fit into the housing mix decades, even centuries ago.

Often these smaller quarters were built that size, but sometimes they were made from larger ones, splitting one apartment into two.  Or in this case, making an apartment out of an old porter’s office and washroom.

But these are not new ideas.  People have been building apartments for centuries.  This complex in the Yemen desert looks quite modern.


But a closer look reveals it is made of mud walls.

Good protection from marauders as well as an efficient use of space.

Or this micro-apartment from 12th century China:


Quite a popular idea back then.


Maybe it’s these ancient micro-suites that inspired a modern-day architecture student in China to design this 75 square-foot home:


See more at this link.

The growing housing market? Or the housing growing market?

I’m sure you have a friend who quit smoking and then turned into the world’s biggest anti-smoking fanatic.  Sometimes I feel I’m turning into THAT PERSON about living in a smaller space — I love it and it’s such an improvement in our lives.  Let me proselytize a bit, I’ll probably calm down in 20 or 30 years.

Now that I’m a confirmed believer that small is the new black (should I get that on a T-shirt?  No, maybe not) I am on the lookout for stories that others are joining the movement, buying and building smaller houses.  There’s the Tiny House Movement and for a while it looked like housing in the US was getting smaller.

The median size of new homes built for sale peaked in 2007 at 2,295 square feet, then fell to 2,159 two years later, after the housing crisis hit.

But it looks like that trend is over — in fact

the appetite for ever-larger homes has returned: In 2012, new homes reached a new peak of 2,384 square feet and, according to the National Association of Home Builders, some 41 percent of new homes had four or more bedrooms, up from 34 percent in 2009.

Those quotes are from a story in the New York Times about how the recession-led reduction in the size of new homes was just a blip on the radar screen.

“The housing market is being driven by the move-up buyer, the luxury buyer,” said Brad Hunter, chief economist and director of consulting atMetrostudy. “And those who have strong incomes, secure jobs, their stock portfolio is doing well — they are able to buy whatever they want. And what they are buying is larger houses.”

The New York Times is also the paper that tells of the jobless recovery and the shrinking middle class, so I’m guessing these mega-houses are out of the question for most of the population.  But some people feel they are entitled to buy huge homes.

Maybe it’s sour grapes.  But this seems out of line to me.

This six-bedroom house, which has six full and three half bathrooms, measures about 9,000 square feet, including the basement. … added a wall of windows to the basement and furnished it with a pool table, a media room, a wet bar, a home office and a suite for their youngest daughter to use when she was home from college. …

That’s right, this 9K square foot home is for two people.  Sure it has everything they ever wanted in a home, but did it really take 9,000 square feet to indulge their every whim?

Media rooms, sunrooms and in-law suites can be added to standard models. Some customers are even opting for a so-called dirty kitchen, a separate galley off the main kitchen that is used to prep food. It keeps the dirty work of cooking hidden so it doesn’t sully the increasingly large kitchens that have morphed into granite-slathered family gathering spots.

It’s not just schadenfreude to think that these people will very soon become used to living in such, let me say it, excessive luxury.  It’s human nature to forget the joy of possessing something new and shiny, and to want something newer and shinier.  It’s called the Law of Wealth’s Diminishing Returns.  The reality of maintaining that huge house, vacuuming and dusting all those extra rooms, mowing those acres of lawn will take over and you’ll find that the property owns you, not the other way around.

And let me tell you something you probably already knew.  When you have more space your stuff expands to fill it.  There’s some kind of law of physics that explains it, but to put it in layman’s terms you have something, it wears out, but you keep it because you think you might use it sometime, it cost you something to buy, and YOU HAVE THE ROOM TO STORE IT.  So you do. And your stuff increases exponentially.

And lets not forget the cost of those homes.  There’s the larger mortgage which is easily absorbed when it’s 1 or 1.5% but could really get ugly if the rates go up even as high as 7%.  (I’ve seen rates as high as 12% but then I’m a little old lady).

And the enormous amount of power and resources it takes to build and run a home of that size.  It doesn’t help that your refrigerator runs on less p0wer if you have three of them.

This is not likely to become a big problem in our neck of the woods.  For one thing the costs of these homes is quite modest when compared to Vancouver prices.

Affluent buyers have been flocking to real estate, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, with applications for home loans of $625,000 to $729,000 up 56.7 percent from August 2012 to August 2013. Mortgageapplications for more than $729,000 were up 41 percent.

As I say, this is still a relatively small market.  This “trend” won’t ever have the devastating effect on the subprime mortgage crisis did.  But it still makes me uncomfortable.

I don’t understand why people can’t be happy in less space – happier than they would be in a large house.  With more money to spend on travel and fun experiences.

My Pain, My Life, My Struggles, My Fight

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