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Learn more about building Laneway Houses from the experts!

If you are interested in building a laneway house on your property, or if you are just curious about the process, then you owe it to yourself to attend a presentation on Laneway Houses on Wednesday, March 12.

A panel of experts will be there to answer your questions and provide information:

Ralph Case, President of the Real Estate Action Group – Investment benefits of laneway housing
Jake Fry, President/Owner of Smallworks Laneway Housing Inc. – Designing and building small
Colin Lawrence, VanCity – Financing made easy
Richard Bell, LLC – How to share title

Date: Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Where: University Golf Course
5185 University Blvd (10th ave. west of Blanca)

Time: 7:00pm – 8:30 pm

BTW, that address is quite accessible by bus, if you would like to go but don’t have an automobile.  But there’s lots of parking there if you want to take the car.
If this is something you think would be of value to you, please attend.  It’s the best way to get expert advise I’ve seen so far (other than reading this blog, of course!)

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.

witsend

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.

News from down the alley and around the town

DH and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather a couple of weekends ago to walk over to Commercial Drive and shop in some of the little stores that line that avenue.

We started off our stroll by walking down the alley for about five blocks — and we found a laneway home on every block.  All new, of course, all built under the former design rules with one-and-a-half stories and no outside parking pad, all looking very nice….and all looking very much the same.

I can’t blame people for wanting to avoid the extra cost of designing their own laneway homes.  And the Craftsman style that predominates is certainly handsome.  But I am glad that some of the local builders are including new and innovative designs in their catalogues.

Smallworks got lots of press this past week with their brand-new design for a glass-brick house.  The whole house is not built of glass brick, but the all four walls have a cheery glow:

GlassHouseThe design has got lots of attention.  I read about it in The Vancouver Sun, VanCity Buzz, Curbed, and Eater.  There was even a letter to the editor in the Sun that worried about the house contributing to light pollution. That’s more fuss about one laneway house than I’ve seen since the early days (oh, those pioneer days of laneway housing — two years ago).

I like the design, there are two versions of the plans, and I think it would be a welcome addition to any block.  And, as I said, I am happy to see a different and innovative look available without a custom design.

I don’t think I could live there (for one thing there is my proclivity to throw stones, and you know what they say….) it’s a little too bright — on a sunny day the light would pour in.  But it’s a handsome house, a good use of space, and a nice different design.

Congratulations, Smallworks.

On another note:

Laneway housing might be coming to the Queen City.  New Westminster Council is currently discussing

 the interest and feasibility of introducing laneway and coach houses similar to those allowed by the City of Vancouver.

Affordable housing is a problem throughout the entire Lower Mainland, not just in the city of Vancouver, so communities throughout the area are looking into a variety of solutions, and laneway housing is just one of them. New Westminster Council is discussing whether to go ahead with laneway housing or to wait and make it part of a much larger neighbourhood planning process currently planned for two years down the road.

The more the merrier, say I.  I believe fervently that laneway houses has a place in the mix of housing in any community.  It’s true that they don’t dramatically reduce the need for affordable housing but they do relieve the under-supply of homes in the area.

Fingers crossed the plan goes ahead.

Pushback on small apartments in Portlandia

It’s no secret that the rental market in big cities is crazy.  Crazy as in bad.

This article in the New York Times explains how the people who are being badly squeezed by the rental shortage are those on the bottom of the economic pyramid.  New rental buildings are going up — but only for renters who can afford at least $1500 a month.

Many of the worst shortages are in major cities with healthy local economies, like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington. “We’ve seen a huge loss of affordable housing stock,” said Jenny Reed, the policy director at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “We have lost 50 percent of our low-cost units over the past 10 years, and at the same time, the number of high-cost apartments, the ones going for more than $1,500 a month, more than tripled.”

Everyone is suffering from the rental crunch.  As accommodations get scarce they get more expensive.  It’s bad for everyone, but for the people who don’t make much money it’s far worse. The people who make our lattes, who deliver our papers, who serve us our lunches are all hurting for accommodation they can afford.  So are students, and retirees who don’t own their own home.

And it’s just going to get worse.

Seattle has followed other American cities in allowing (even encouraging) the construction of Micro-suites.  AKA aPodMents.  I’ve spoken of them before.  And other cities in the States are also allowing tiny apartments to go up.

For the adAPT NYC competition, micro-apartments meant an apartment that was between 275-300 sq ft, but these included kitchens and ADA bathrooms. In San Francisco, legislation last year granted an allowance for building dwelling units as small as 220 sq ft, with 70 sq ft for bathroom and kitchen. In Boston, they nervously authorized the construction of 450 sq ft “Innovation Units.” In Providence, RI, they’re making apartments as small as 225 in the Arcade Providence.

But not everyone loves them.  In Portland right now the city government is in the midst of a controversy over a plan to allow these mini-homes to be constructed.

reusable-protest-sign

 The issue, once again, is parking. …The apartments, enjoy a “group living” designation–the same as dormitories, monasteries and convents. As such, they are not required to provide a set amount of parking spaces.

IMHO this opposition is taking is a very, very, very short-sighted view.  Even the most myopic of us can see that having more cars and finding space to put them is not the answer.  Every city planner since Robert Moses has worked to keep cars out of civic cores.  We need them, true, but improved transit and walkable neighbourhoods will serve the entire city (not to mention the planet) much better in the long run.

And let’s look at the market for these micro suites — not every one who rents one will own a car.  Since affordability is the chief attraction of renting one, it’s quite likely that the potential clientèle will use transit or some form of co-op car ownership like Zip Cars or Car2Go rather than tying up money in an automobile.

But even if most of the people in the building have cars, why are the people currently living in the neighbourhood worried about street parking?  Don’t they have garages and parking pads in their yards? And even if they put up “average” sized apartments rather than the micro-suites, isn’t it likely that the tenants will be sharing them, so you end up with the same number of people (and cars).

I’m very much interested in what others feel about micro-suites.  I think there’s definitely a place for them in the housing mix of every large city.

Real life and reel life small apartments in New York

Who hasn’t dreamed of moving to New York, at least for a couple of years?  Pretty much everyone, which is why living space is at such a premium in that city.  And when people pay such a lot for such a little space, they get pretty creative with how they use their limited living area.

A recent discovery of mine, YouTube program SPACEStv brings us this super sleek space-age apartment — completely finished in recycled materials.  Watch this and learn more about it:

Incredible that this space was built by just one guy!  It looks like something from 2001 (the movie, not the year).

And from Inhabitat we see a similar space but a completely different take.  The HBO series Girls features a very home-made looking space-saving studio suite built by and for the character Charlie. As in real life, this apartment uses every square inch for living.

girls-charlies-apartment-leWhereas the first apartment had everything — even the kitchen stove — hidden behind slick plastic and stainless steel, this suite has everything right out in the open. But it feels warm and welcoming.

The space was designed by production designer Laura Ballinger

girls-charlies-apartment-5Surprisingly, I could see myself living in the fictional home before I would feel comfortable in the actual home. There’s something about the “Tron” apartment that looks a little toooooooo white and clean.  But since the builder/occupant is an environmentalist it was important for him to get away from the dirt and the garbage he deals with every day.

Which would you choose?

Wheeling and dealing (with it)

When we decided to move to the east side DH lost his underground parking for his vintage auto.  No problem during the summer when the car cozy he bought kept off the sun’s destructive rays and a few brief showers.  But he knew he had to get it back underground for the winter and he rented a space for it a short distance away by bus and sky train.

Plus he got out his long-neglected bike, got it all serviced up, bought a helmet (after much nagging from his loving wife) and started using it for errands and exercise.  It’s good for him and good for the environment.

So why am I not thrilled?

Because Vancouver is not a bike-loving city.  Not yet anyway.

Watch this short film on biking through the streets of Amsterdam.

Bicycle Anecdotes from Amsterdam from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

See how the automobile traffic and the bike traffic work together to get everyone around?  Did you see the tram stop to let the cyclists cross the road?

Now contrast that with this report from a local cyclist,

In the last six months I’ve been run off the road several times, sworn at, squeezed by buses, been flipped the bird, hospitalized once, and deliberately threatened by drivers too many times to count.

The author, Michael McCarthy, is clear that the most danger to cyclists comes from drivers who give in to their frustrations with acts of road rage.  But it’s also clear that we are not yet the cycling-loving city we want to become.

In Groningen in the Netherlands there has been a cycling revolution.  Between 50 and 60 percent of all trips in the downtown area are by bicycle.  But as one of the commentators says,

“You’re not going to get a cycle revolution by having a few 30-kilometer an hour streets, you’re not going to get it by building just a few cycle paths and you’re not going to get it by traffic calming in just a few streets, either.  You have to do everything and you have to do it everywhere.  You never have to ride more than a few hundred meters from your home in the Netherlands in order to find yourself on a facility of such quality that you’ll be happy to cycle on it and you’ll be happy for your children to cycle on it.”

Groningen is a remarkably compact city even by European standards, originally it was a fortress within walls and it never expanded beyond about 100,000 people, many of whom are students.  Its downtown core was stripped of car traffic simply by building a ring road around the central area and demanding that cars use that instead of cutting across town.

I don’t see that happening here.  Also, Amsterdam and Groningen are, like all of the Netherlands, flat.  Flat like tables.  Flat like nothing we see in our town. Those healthy cyclists riding perfectly upright on their bikes don’t have to strain to make it up Vancouver hills, let alone North Vancouver mountains.

And although I know it rains and snows in the Netherlands, riding your bike a few kilometers in a light drizzle is one thing, but trying to keep your bike on its designated path in a gale is another.  Bikes grow much scarcer on Vancouver streets in the rainy season.

What should we do to increase the cyclability of our town? Because we should increase it.  The automobile is going to become more and more of a luxury — more expensive to run, to keep, to buy.  Gas is never going to be much cheaper and it could be much more expensive.  Transit must be increased of course, but let’s use all our options in making our city more accessible without cars.

In Michael McCarthy’s story, he and his fellow cyclists are reporting road rage incidents to the police.  And so they should.  They are also sharing information with cyclists throughout North America, especially towns like ours — Seattle, San Francisco, Portland.  They are working together to find solutions.

In the meantime, be kind to the cyclists you meet today. You could become one in a year or two!

If it takes a village, well, we’ve got one

Over 1000 permits have been issued in Vancouver for laneway houses.  That means if we were all gathered together, we would have a real village of laneway homes!  A community of people living in laneway houses!

As our mayor says:

“Whether for students, aging family members, or young people looking to live close to home or new job opportunities, Vancouver’s successful laneway housing program is creating more affordable and sustainable housing options in single-family neighbourhoods and contributing significant new rental housing,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson in a news release.

Whether you’re building for family members:

Michael Lyons, vice-president of marketing for Smallworks, a builder of laneway homes in Vancouver, said last year that at least half his customers are building the small houses at the back of their lots for the next generation.Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Vancouver+boasts+more+than+laneway+house+permits/8976018/story.html#ixzz2gX3ercl9

Or for rental

Many laneway homes rent for around $1,500. That is an excellent mortgage helper. Throw in the odd illegal basement suite or two (that are littered all over the city) and you have a house that generates close to $3,000 in income per month.

Laneway homes are proving to be more and more popular.

In fact, Comox is deciding to join the laneway revolution.  But they call their ADUs “coach homes”.

Comox council has passed two bylaws that establish the general guidelines and principles for the development of coach houses in residential homes.

It’s time to embrace the idea of “gentle densification”.  It’s time for a city of laneway houses.

Or better still, a global village of laneway houses. Perth, Australia, is embracing laneway life.

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