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Getting around with an ELF

I get around most of the time by transit — I don’t like to drive (and DH does not like me to drive his vintage auto) and I don’t like to ride a bicycle. In the rain.  Uphill. And I’m not ready for a motorized wheelchair, although my Dad loved tearing around the streets of Nelson on his Rascal.

I work too far away to ride a bike to my job, and if I want to go shopping there is a strict limit on how much I could carry home.

But what if there were another way of getting around?

Meet the ELF

elf-2

It’s a trike, so it’s more stable than a bike.  It can hold a lot of cargo (up to 350 lbs, according to Life Edited). It’s got an electric motor so you don’t have to pedal all the time.  It’s solar powered.

And it’s so darned cute!

Check out the website for Organic Transit — the people who make this adorable little transport.  It’s a great idea, maybe a game-changer for traffic-congested cities.

I don’t see me driving down the main byways of Vancouver in one of these — and riding a bike or a trike on the sidewalk is not allowed.

But if they can knock down the price from five grand American, if they can get a few communities to adopt them, I think we have a fighting chance to replace cars for zipping around the immediate neighbourhood. After all, if half of all car trips in the US are three miles or less, this could revolutionize how we get around.  With our aging population (and rainy weather), bikes are not always feasible.

The ELF could be the answer.

But isn’t that what I said about the SEGWAY?

Who gets to live here?

It’s no secret that I’m a real fan of any housing that lets people live in the city of Vancouver.  Houses, duplexes, condos, rental suites, basement suites, laneway houses.  Bring them on, in greater numbers.  I think that anyone who wants to should live where they want, in the city that has won the Best City in the World award and offers everyone the joys of living in a big, cosmopolitan, multicultural metropolis such as this.

Vancouver hasn’t always been such a “cosmopolitan” place.  We’ve always been a railway terminus and a seaport, a place of sawmills, stevedores and gandydancers, hard-working blue-collar workers.  And for many, many, many years, these people have ended up in the Downtown East Side (DTES) when they couldn’t work any more because of age or injury.  That neighbourhood has been the skid road — a term that started in this town when the corduroy log-paved roads would be greased to allow logs to slide down them to the sawmills — of Vancouver.  It’s a district of Single Room Occupancy hotels, where the sad and the broken live.  There are drugs, drug users, drug sellers (they don’t have to be pushers down there, just vendors). There are people struggling — and losing — with substance abuse of every kind.  There is prostitution.  There are the mentally ill. And there are also the agencies and organizations who help these people through their struggles. It’s a tough neighbourhood — but caring.

So in the middle of this vibrant town, full of life and activity and fun, there’s a place of shadows and sorrow.

Right next to this area is Vancouver’s Chinatown, a cultural treasurehouse. But it is also feeling the pressure of urban development. 

The property these areas sit on is becoming more and more valuable; development is pushing into it, squeezing the “have-nots” into a smaller and smaller area.

 Now maybe the city has found a solution to the squeeze.

From the Vancouver Sun comes this story of a new revitalization of the downtown east side and its centre, Hastings Street.

Today, Hastings is the heart of the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s most troubled neighbourhood. Hastings has become synonymous with drugs and poverty, an internationally-known eyesore.

But change may be around the corner. The city of Vancouver has spent the last couple of years going through a new Downtown Eastside local area planning process (LAPP), in tandem with many of the neighbourhood’s most vocal anti-poverty activists.

And therein lies the secret to this plan’s success.  Lots of times experts and pundits and caring folk from all around the city will try their best to solve the problems of civic blight.  But it’s only because they have pulled in people who live and work and advocate here that I think that they might have a chance to make this work.

If the Downtown Eastside plan succeeds — and that’s a big if — much of Hastings between Clark Drive in Strathcona and Abbott Street in Gastown is likely to be replaced with new developments. Taller buildings filled with single room occupancy hotel rooms, known as SROs, around Hastings and Main will probably survive, but most everything else is up for grabs, unless it is a designated heritage building or existing social housing.

There will be condos allowed in the five blocks between Clark and Heatley, as well as in the two blocks from Carrall to Cambie. Any new development will have to include 20-per-cent social housing.

The condo-free zone between Heatley and Carrall is called “Hastings Central.” Maximum heights range up to 12 storeys, although pure social housing projects can apply to go higher. All new projects in this zone have to be at least 60-per-cent social housing.

Overall, the plan calls for 4,400 social housing units to be built in the Downtown Eastside. Most people think this is the rough patch around Hastings and Main, but the city plan defines it as a much larger area that includes surrounding neighbourhoods like Victory Square, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona and Thornton Park.

Is it going to work?  Who knows?  It’s a noble effort, there are lots of people who are fighting it — well-meaning people with good arguments against it.

I’ve had some spirited discussions with them.   Why should developers buy into this plan?  Why should we, the lucky ones, bother with these people, drug addicts and the like?

Because, that could be us.  One or two mis-steps.  Age.  Illness.  Injury.  We could be there. According to counsellor Andrea Reimer:

She figures fewer than a hundred of the Downtown Eastside’s 18,000 residents are involved in the street disorder that goes on. Most of them just “fell through one crack, and then another.”

“How many times did I meet guys who lost their job, got divorced, had gambling addictions, were injured at work and were on pain medications they couldn’t get off of. People with brutal childhoods. It’s amazing that some of them are still walking around, right? And some of them aren’t.”

I want it to work.  I want the people who live in the DTES to have clean, safe, pleasant homes to live in.  And I think it could work if those homes were a mixture of those who have and those who have not.

I want it to work because I think the true measure of a society is how they care for those who cannot take care of themselves.

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.

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).

Whee

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

Whee2

Affordability? It’s a relative thing.

The news this week is that Vancouver housing prices are the 2nd most unaffordable in the world.  The prices are not necessarily the 2nd most expensive in the world, just when compared to what you could earn if you move here from another large city.  We are hit with the double whammy of pricey real estate and lower wages.  Or, as Tsur Somerville of the Sauder School of Business at UBC says,

“Places that have a lot of amenities and are places that people really want to live, pushes up house prices, but also lowers wages, and employers are paying people less who are willing to take a lower paying job to be there. So you get a higher price-to-income ratio.”

I don’t ski on the local mountains in the winter, I don’t wake board in the local waters in summer.  I live in Vancouver because my family is here.  So I’m paying for those amenities that draw people to the area even if I don’t use them.  But we have found a way to live in a comfortable home — our laneway house.  It’s the smallest place we’ve ever lived in, but for us it’s a perfect solution to the dilemna.

I don’t expect you to wander the streets until you find a nice yard and ask the people if you can build a laneway house in their garden — laneway living is one solution, it’s not the only solution to the housing squeeze in the Metro Vancouver area.

The sad truth is that if you move to Vancouver you are going to be paying more — maybe a lot more — for housing than you would in another city, which means you will probably have to downsize (one bedroom to studio, etc.).  But there are still ways to make an attractive and comfortable home with less space.

Today we have a few ideas for living comfortably in a studio apartment.  They are sometimes called bachelor suites — another term for a separate dwelling with its own bathroom and kitchen facilities, but no separate bedroom.

If you’ve some funds, you can get some swell built-ins to add to your space. From Life Edited, here’s a suite in Warsaw, Poland for a mother, her son, and a dog. It’s just 237 square feet.

Small-apartment-Warsaw-living_1

Small-apartment-Warsaw-closet

the suite has “normal” height walls, it’s great to see someone doing something up high in that limited space.

In Barcelona, this bachelor completely built-in his life into this 258 square foot suite:

With bachelor suites you may not want to hide your bed away, but rather make it a focal point:

ManhattanBachelor

See the rest of this sweet suite at Apartment Therapy.

But Isabelle LaRue completely transformed her studio space with some clever hacks:

Isabelle is loaded with talent that way — check our her blog at Engineer Your Space.  But you could incorporate a lot of her ideas into your studio even if you are not as handy (maybe you have a few handy friends?).

Here’s another way people divided their space to get a private bedroom:

how-to-divide-living-room-into-bedroom-1

There’s more ideas on fitting a bedroom into a living room here.

The lesson I’m trying to jam down your throat here is that even if living smaller is not by choice (if, for example you have to live in a city with a tight housing market — I’m talking to you Hong Kong!) — you can still find a way to live comfortably in less space.

As I repeat — Small is the new Black.

Tests, trials, and inspections

Even though we had moved into our (tiny, perfect) home at the beginning of the month, the house having passed its Safety Inspection, we actually hadn’t had our FINAL final inspection.  The inspector arrived a couple of weeks ago, and (spoiler alert) we passed!  So now we are very happy and secure that our house is all legal and everything.  **whew**

But that wasn’t the only test we had to pass.  To be deemed energy efficient, we had to have an Energy Efficiency Evaluation.  A qualified energy advisor has assessed the energy efficiency of our house by using Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide Rating System procedures. That involves some test, including a Blower Door Test.

energuide-label

The rating goes like this:

New House build to building code standards 65-72
New house with some energy-efficiency improvements 73-79
Energy-efficient new house 80-90
House requiring little or no purchased energy 91-100

Our house got an Energy Efficiency Evaluation of 83!

The evaluation also included a report on how much we can expect to pay to heat the house — combined electrical and natural gas costs of $942.19 — a year!  Along with telling us how much we can expect to pay each month that also gives us a base amount of what we should be spending, so we can see how much our electrical devises/gas stove and barbecue/do-dads and gee-gaws are costing us to run.

And that great score means we can apply for some PowerSmart Rebates.  DD is working on that.  She and DSIL have to apply, as the home owners.

To help us keep track of power usage we might get a Neurio device next year.  A local invention,

Neurio is a home intelligence™ technology that makes your ordinary appliances smart and your home more efficient. Using a WiFi power sensor and a cloud service with some smart pattern detection algorithms, Neurio monitors your home’s electricity to figure out what your appliances are up to – without the need to install sensors on every device.

It’s pretty space age-y, and a great idea to help conserve. If everyone cuts back on the power they use we can all save in the long run.  Here in BC we expect cheap electricity, just like we expect cheap, clean water.  But with more homes being built, more people moving here, we will need more power.  And that means more dams because we just haven’t caught on to the idea of wind farms (even though there’s a big honking windmill visible from Downtown Vancouver).

windmill

Dams are way out in the mountains, far, far away.  But they are super expensive to build.  And the people who own the land way out in the mountains may not be crazy about the idea of, you know, flooding it.  And they were here first.

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!

It’s a laneway house world!

It’s that magical time of year again!  It’s time to get your tickets for the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Laneway House Tour!! We always support this effort to expose everyone to the best of laneway living.  But this year (and for the only time!) we are part of it!!!  No wonder I’m going crazy with the exclamation marks!!!!

The city is bragging about how many laneway houses are being built. It’s a movement that is taking hold.

The Huff Po is asking people to rent laneway houses.

And Global TV pointed out where laneway houses work for the increase of affordable housing in Vancouver — and where they don’t work.

And the Vancouver Sun mentioned our project (and my name!!!!!)

Maybe it’s the time of year (or as Joni says, maybe it’s the time of man) but the focus right now is on laneway homes.

We are SO PROUD to be part of this movement.

Shelley Fralic pointed out the one problem with laneway homes

Laneways are a good idea, especially as a means of increasing urban density and affordable housing while discouraging demolition. They provide rental income, and accommodation for university students or family members who don’t want to leave a cherished neighbourhood and their local support systems.

But here’s the problem with laneway houses.

They are built on lanes. Right on lanes. Which means, not to put too gritty a point on it, that when you live in a laneway house, you become a resident of a back alley, which is not always the most savoury of locales in which to spend your golden years.

True dat, Shelley, we will definitely be looking at the alley.  But, unlike our alley-facing condo where we lived (happily) for 13 years, we will have a south-facing laneway view — sunnier than where we lived before.  And as the TV story said, having eyes on the laneway will increase the security for the whole neighbourhood.

Are laneway houses the answer for affordable housing in Vancouver?  Of course not.  But they are part of the answer.  Co-op housing. low-rise condos, high-rise apartments, rentals, basement suites, are all part of the solution.

We are part of the solution.  And it just feels right.

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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