Laneway housing divides city council

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Cheryl Rossi
Van. Courier

Laneway houses under construction in the 4600 block of West 11th Avenue have angered neighbours, but the city’s policy on the issue remains unchanged. Photograph by: Dan Toulgoet, Vancouver Courier

The city’s policies for laneway housing remain unchanged as of council’s Nov. 2 meeting.

The Vision-dominated council asked staff to study how to make one-storey laneway homes more viable, and to consider a discretionary approach to one-and-a-half storey homes.

Eighty-three per cent of the laneway homes approved as of July are one-and-a-half storeys high with traditional pitched roofs.

COPE Coun. Ellen Woodsworth had called for a four-month moratorium on new laneway homes so concerns expressed by the public could be addressed, but her bid for a breather was rejected. Nearly 200 laneway homes have been approved by the city in the last year.

Residents have complained to the city about seeing big laneway houses go up and not learning they were approved for their neighbourhood until builders broke ground.

NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton had wanted staff to consider allowing laneway houses to be only one storey, instead of up to 20 feet tall, or six feet taller than garages.

“If they all looked more like garages and fit into the landscape in the same way that garages have formerly fit into the landscape, I don’t think people would have cared at all,” she said.

Brent Toderian, the city’s director of planning, said owners building laneway homes tell the city the second half storey is critical to make units livable.

But Anton doesn’t buy it.

“You can get 500 square feet on a single storey on a 33-foot lot,” she said. “A 500-square foot unit makes a fairly reasonable one-bedroom unit. It makes it more suitable for elderly people, people with any kind of disability.”

Staff will explore allowing single-storey laneway homes to extend a few feet into backyards.

“We don’t want to go too far in that direction because it’s very important to us to keep the backyard for both livability reasons and urban agricultural reasons,” Toderian said.

Staff will also report back to council about the pros and cons of making one-and-a-half storey laneway homes a discretionary approval.

“On the one hand, it would give slightly more design review,” Toderian said. “On the other hand, it could add significantly to the process and thus the cost for laneway housing and that’s been a constant balance we’ve wanted to strike.”

Staff will consider reducing the maximum unit size of 750 square feet, which doesn’t include garage and storage space.

Staff will also consider delaying the requirement of sewer separation for laneway homes until the principal house is redeveloped. The city required separate sewers to avoid overflows, but delaying the requirement could save homeowners $6,000 to $8,000 in city fees and even more in excavation, piping and landscaping costs.

Toderian maintains most Vancouverites are pleased the city has allowed the housing option, which can’t be strata-titled or sold. “It’s a rental supply option. It creates a much more adaptable and nimble single-family housing form and we constantly hear stories about how it adds flexibility to peoples’ lives from a mortgage helper perspective or a caregiver perspective or an aging member of the family perspective,” he said.

Staff will report back to council on the height and size of laneway homes next year. They’ll also report in 2012 after final inspections on 150 units are complete.

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