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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.


 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:

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.

Laneway Life

We swung by the laneway the other evening to have a look at the developments.  We found Angelito, our builder, patiently revamping the top of the stairs.  The inspector had asked that he change the staircase where it makes a 180 degree turn — from the landing just inside the garden-side door at the top of the first run to where it enters the kitchen part of the upper storey.  Apparently the way it was originally built it would not pass code.  I asked Angelito if these were the same stairs that the same inspector had been climbing every visit for the past six weeks.  He paused and said yes.

We then chatted about the next steps and how soon everything will be coming together.  Of course, to us, things are moving maddeningly slow.  We can’t always see the subtle but important steps that lead to the final product.  Angelito assured us that by the time of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation tour the place will be substantially finished.  That means exterior Hardie siding, insulation, drywall, painting, floors, cabinets, and lighting will all be done within the next couple of weeks.  We should see the home bloom before our eyes, as we did in the first weeks when the footings and foundation appeared to spring from the earth.  We are very excited, but I find I am a little anxious.  There is still so much to be done to get us ready for the move!

Every time we leave the laneway we walk down the lane, noticing yards where another laneway home could be built, adding to the lane community and to the ambience and livability of the lane.

We are very happy to be part of the laneway renaissance movement.  You don’t think that’s a real thing?  Thanks to This City Life, we know that cities around the world are taking back their alleyways, embracing them, repairing and renovating them.

Like in Seattle:





Here in Vancouver Livable Laneways is an organization

dedicated to transforming the overlooked laneways and alleys of Vancouver into pedestrian-friendly civic spaces.

They recentlyheld an event in association with The Mount Pleasant Business Improvement Association.  There was music, vendors, food, and even a lovely art piece made out of a fire escape:

LeeBuildingArtpieceMore events are being planned for the future.  On the North Shore, an organization called More Fun Alleys had a contest to re-name an alley in North Vancouver.  The winner:  LoLo Lane.

Alleys can be wonderful places.  And they have great acoustics:

Acoustic of a saxophone player in Vancouver’s back alley from Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier on Vimeo.

What should we name our lane?  I think Penny Lane is taken.

Densification. How is your city doing it?

Let’s face it, cities are running out of affordable housing.  To spread out into more and more far-flung suburbs is very expensive.  You need more amenities, schools, parks, hydro, sewers, transit lines and on and on.  It makes more sense that people fill in the existing neighbourhoods so more people can live there.  One of the answers is laneway homes but it would be too simplistic to suppose that it’s the only answer.  Other means of densification must be found.

the future of Vancouver?

the future of Vancouver?

Let’s look at the facts.  As we know, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.  As this article in the Tyee shows, the current “trend” toward stabilization in the housing market in Vancouver is actually a continuing crisis.

In Vancouver, nearly half of us (46 per cent) are paying more for lodging than we can afford, at least according to the official definition. But some analysts warn that even these numbers could be understating the problem.

The statistics that lie to us are questionable because

the elimination of the mandatory long-form survey dealt an insurmountable blow to accurate data collection.

So when some people refer to Vancouver housing prices, they actually mean

everything from West Vancouver to Langley and all the way down to White Rock.

But here in the City of Vancouver we are running out of affordable housing.  Fast.  And densification seems the logical answer.

But while many people complain about Vancouver’s expensive housing, to just as many “density is a bad word,” notes Anne Mullin, president & CEO of the Urban Development Institute (UDI), which represents Canadian developers. “But it’s an important discussion to have.”

She’s alluding to neighbourhood uprisings that have blossomed across Vancouver against city hall’s efforts to boost density. Marpole residents, for instance, blocked a “thin streets” proposal to allow more houses per lot. Grandview-Woodland neighbours became incensed at the idea of high-rise towers being added to the bustling transit hub at Commercial and Broadway.

The answers are out there, let’s take a look at what’s happening in other cities.  Both are sea ports.  Both are first world communities.  And both are facing the same kind of problem as Vancouver is — a lack of affordable housing.

In Sydney, Australia, families are turning away from condos and

 $2,000 a quarter in strata fees, with remodelling, pet ownership and even visible decor frequently regulated.

In Australia properties are sold in auctions, and you can bet the prices get pushed up on attractive houses, even tiny ones.

Over 70 people turned out for the auction of a one-bedroom house on a 114 square metre block in Darlington, which fetched $951,000 — well over the suburb’s median house price of $757,000.

That’s about 1225 square feet in size.

The listing for a 139 square metre space in Balmain, which sold for $825,000, suggested that buyers could maximise the floor plan by building a second level.

A 300 square metre fibro cottage in Annandale, marketed as needing “a major overhaul”, sold for a cool $900,000.

Those are Vancouver prices!  And it doesn’t really add to affordability in neighbourhoods, rather is makes it worse by driving up the prices of the homes that are available.

In Seattle some developers are building “APodMents” — rooming houses with tiny apartments and shared amenities

One aPodment development, the Solana, has units that average 170 sq ft according to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has expressed his support of the developments (some units in other building are as small as 100 sq ft). The units come furnished (with no murphy beds so far as we know) and have their own bathroom and shower. Instead of a proper kitchen, they feature a fridge and microwave, with available communal kitchens. All utilities including wifi are included.

To say these buildings are experiencing push back is a gross understatement.  People owning houses worth millions are suddenly findings these developments sprouting up along their blocks.  And they are not happy.

Anyone who can scrape up enough money for month-to-month rent can live there…I don’t think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it.

But in reality, tenants are not the usual SRO crowd

 The various articles we scanned reported of young Microsoft employees, recent college grads and divorcees on a fixed income occupying these apartments–not thugs looking for launchpads for heists.

Once again we see that if we are going to offer affordable housing for the people who pour our lattes, sell us our groceries and our clothes, teach our children and attend our universities, we are going to have to accept higher densification in all neighbourhoods.  Can we really say “Not In My Back Yard”?

Would you like to live in a laneway house?

Seriously, would you like to try it?  One of the great things about laneway homes is that people can build them on their property to rent out.  To you????

Reading the Vancouver Sun online,  I saw this story on laneway homes available to rent in the city of Vancouver, including one in our very own neighbourhood.

RenfrewLanewayThese are all nice homes, well-built and well-designed, comfy and yet with enough storage for most people.  They range in price from $1100 (for less than 500 square feet) to over $2,000 (for 700 square feet or more) which may seem high for a lot of people, but the rental situation in Vancouver means that these homes are quite reasonably priced.  In the larger homes, two bedrooms mean that two room mates can split the rent.

A detached home in this town comes at a high rental price.

Is laneway living for you?  Would you like to give it a try?


Rue Britannia?

I embrace the idea of living in a small home — I’d be an idiot not to, when I’m going to be moving into less than 50 square metres of living space in a few months.

I don’t pretend it’s for everyone, but it’s perfect for me and mine and for many others.

So I was quite surprised when I read several articles from British newspapers disparaging the trend for smaller houses, calling them “rabbit hutches”; and decrying the decreasing size of houses and apartments in the UK.

According to this Guardian article by Penny Anderson,

The UK has the smallest new-build houses in Europe

a situation she called a “crisis”.  I could almost see her point.  Although her OpEd piece is rich in hyperbole and short of actual statistics, according to her anecdotal info many homes are too small to live in.

miles of single-fronted new-builds with awkward open-plan kitchen/diners/spare rooms/lounges, almost entirely free of storage. Then there are converted homes in older buildings situated in desirable areas where the market is febrile, which are often the worst low-space offenders, with bathrooms or even kitchens, squeezed into what used to be cupboards, and the original bedrooms sliced in half.

Apart from giving me a new word (febrile = feverous), she paints an ugly picture indeed.  Rapacious builders squeezing every square inch of living space out of small plots of land “to maximise profit”. “Bedrooms … as cramped as prison cells”.

Even the hard facts in this Telegraph article seem to bear her out.

Of the 2,500 owners of private new homes who were questioned, 57 per cent said there was not enough storage space, 47 per cent said there was not enough space for furniture and 35 per cent said there was not enough kitchen space for appliances such as toasters and microwave

Newer houses are definitely smaller than the traditional detached home, as Simon Bowers says in The Guardian:

In 1920, the average semi-detached new-build had four bedrooms and measured 1,647 sq ft, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Today’s equivalent has three bedrooms and is 925 sq ft. Typical new terrace houses have shrunk from 1,020 sq ft and three bedrooms, to 645 sq ft and two bedrooms.

But is the problem size?  or design?  I know that our North American ways are not theirs.  As Anderson says

add in the need to dry laundry inside when it’s raining, with one or more adults working from home and you have a problem.

because in Britain very few homes have clothes dryers, an appliance we take for granted.  Take into consideration other specifically British realty idiosyncracies

unlike other countries, houses in the UK are sold on the number of bedrooms rather than square footage…. The result is a lot of small rooms. And UK consumers like gardens, which leads to smaller houses.

The rise of solo living is another factor. People wanting to live alone trade space for having their own flat.

OK, I’m beginning to see the problem here.  I’ve been to Great Britain, and I know that I was surprised at the housing there.  People seem to either live in detached or semi-detached homes, or in massive blocks of flats (these are often in the less-desirable sections of large cities).  To me, a Canadian used to very wide very open spaces, I was amazed that they could fit so many people into such a tiny area without resorting to a) Hong Kong style apartment houses reaching to the sky, and b) vast housing tracts despoiling the English countryside.

But I think those days of “and Englishman’s home is his three-bed and two-bath castle” are through.  It’s time they faced up to some hard facts.  Brits can no longer expect

enough room for a two-, or even a three-seater sofa, a dining table with chairs, and a little space for those things you can’t bear to part with.

Instead, they will have to accept some compromise.

The UK has a housing crisis. A shortage of homes has pushed prices out of the reach of many hoping to get onto the ladder. But once they get there, they may be disappointed – the UK has some of the smallest properties in Europe.

Many of the problems cited (lack of storage, fitting furniture into open plan spaces) can be overcome with good design.

Happily living in a small home is first of all about psychology, says Hannah Booth, homes editor at Guardian Weekend. “You can live without much more than you think.”

Apartment dwellers in New York and Japan know the secrets of this lifestyle, she says. “They’re the masters, they eat out a lot, spend a lot of time in the park. In the winter your home can be a nice little cocoon.”

I get the impressions that these new, small homes are still following traditional building styles, separate living and dining rooms,

All of us who live in areas where building space is at a premium are having to change the way we live — not just our domiciles.  Some people are sharing gardens.  Many are using dual-purpose furniture to get the most use out of the least amount of space.  Everyone is carving storage out of spaces they never thought of before.

And we are living with less, certainly fewer of “those things you can’t bear to part with”.

But what is the alternative for British homes? How are you going to fit more people into that extremely finite space?  They can either accept living in smaller places…..or ????

Just one more quote, from Quentin Crisp:

The British do not expect happiness. I had the impression, all the time that I lived there, that they do not want to be happy; they want to be right.


Put it in a box and put a ribbon on it — container homes

As soon as I heard about people using a shipping container for the shell of a small house I had to say owchamagowcha — what a great idea.  No surprise that seaport cities have led the way — in Vancouver and Seattle people are finding new uses for these sturdy structures that can be used singly or in combinations–the containers are literally thick on the ground around here.

In Seattle,

The first two cargo homes are being built at the ShelterKraft location in Ballard and set up on Whidbey Island. And, like a boat, they can easily be picked up by a boom crane and transported using a flatbed truck to a different location if needed.

“It’s the ultimate in reuse,” says Amy Gulick, an author and photographer, who purchased a Cargo Cottage with her husband, Chris Gulick. “I love the idea of taking a perfectly good steel structure and making it into something great instead of discarding it into a waste yard.”

Who can argue with recycling, it’s just the size of the tin cans that has changed.

In Vancouver in the heart of Gastown,

The 12 shipping containers on Alexander Street near Jackson Avenue have been converted into apartments by the Atira Women’s Resource Society, which bought a lot on the block in 2009. The first shipping container was dropped on the lot at the end of November, and each unit cost $82,500 to build.

Some of the homes will eventually be occupied by women over the age of 55, who will pay $375 a month in rent, while other units are intended for younger women, who will pay about 30 per cent of market rent.


Wow, said I, I would like to know more about how container living 24-7 — it’s so interesting.  And I found the source to find out more about living in containers, the blog My Home In A Box is a great way to follow the movement.

Small is beautiful!  Pass it on.


Although we are preparing to landscape our property at our laneway house, and that includes planting attractive plants alongside the lane in “front” of our new home, the lane itself will remain as it is.

Kind of ugly.

There’s pavement down the entire width of the lane, with people’s garages backing onto it.  No one really pays much attention to how the lanes look.

But at one time they did.  According to this story in the Vancouver Observer, at one time long ago (2002), the city wanted to countrify our city lanes.  As illustrated by the blog This City Life and the National Post article they quoted, laneways can look almost…bucolic.

laneWouldn’t that be lovely?  To step out of our front door into a grassy walkway?

Let’s hope this experiment succeeds, and block by block we reclaim our laneways. The city should be paying attention.  As the Vancouver Observer oberved:

How is that not awesome?

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