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Laneway housing takes off in Vancouver, but is a tougher sell in other Metro cities; Coach houses catching on as a way to densify single-family neighbourhoods

Vancouver Sun * Mon Aug 9 2010 * Page: A4 * Section: Westcoast News * Kelly Sinoski 

There was no way Allan Bernardo could afford to buy his own home in his east Vancouver neighbourhood. But thanks to the city's laneway housing policy, he's going to have his own "Fonzie suite" in the family's backyard.

The new bachelor pad, which is under construction, is one of 111 laneway projects -- the initial quota for the city's pilot project -- being built across Vancouver, while another 45 applications are in the pipeline.

The applications have been coming in at such a steady pace that staff will provide a review of the project to council on Oct. 19.

"It's popular with the market that we expected. ... These are regular lot owners and citizens, not developers," city planning director Brent Toderian said.

Laneway housing, also known as coach houses , granny flats or garden homes, are popping up across Metro Vancouver as cities aim to densify their single-family neighbourhoods to provide affordable housing for a growing population.

Surrey and Langley Township have allowed the small one-and-a-half or two-storey units in certain areas of their municipalities for years, while North Vancouver City, Maple Ridge and Coquitlam have recently approved policies for the units in their communities.

The units are typically built above or next to detached garages and can only be rented -- not sold. Most of them must include at least one parking space.

The idea is for the homes to work as "mortgage helpers," rental opportunities or a cheaper way to house elderly parents, young adult children or other family members.

"This isn't anything new; the Fonz in Happy Days lived in a unit over the Cunninghams' garage," Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said.

"The unique single-family home was built in the 1950s and '60s; they need to evolve."

Coquitlam, which is considering a subdivision development involving coach houses, is pushing laneway housing as an alternative for empty nesters who don't want to leave their homes and quarter-acre lots when they downsize.

Mat Turner, a partner in Lanefab Design which custom-builds the units, said he's getting more orders from empty nesters who are opting to move out of their family homes into a laneway house in the backyard. Lanefab's laneway houses, ranging from 800 sq. ft to 1,200 sq. ft, cost $210,000 to $260,000 to build.

Although they are more expensive in terms of construction and servicing than a secondary suite, Turner said, many people choose them because they don't want to live in a basement suite.

Bernardo, who's living in a basement suite now, is one of those people. His new home, being built by Smallworks, allows him to stay in the area. "We decided instead of me moving out of Vancouver to build a laneway house," he said. "I can't afford to buy a place in Vancouver and I'm used to living in the location we're at."

But while the laneway housing concept is taking off in Vancouver, it's a tougher sell in some of the other municipalities.

Turner said he's received a lot of interest from Burnaby homeowners who would like to build a coach house in their back yard but that city doesn't allow it.

And while North Vancouver City allows coach houses across the city, Mayor Darrell Mussatto said it hasn't seen a "big rush but people are certainly looking at them."

Unlike Vancouver, which allows homeowners to have three suites on a property, North Vancouver restricts homeowners to either a secondary suite or a laneway house -- a policy Mussatto would like changed. "We do need housing and it's a way of providing affordable housing out there," he said.

In Port Moody, council will consider expanding its laneway housing policy across the city as its current policy, which only allows laneway housing to preserve heritage homes, has not "yielded any results," according to a staff report. It says the units are too costly to build and would require steep rents to pay for them.

According to the report, which cites Lanefab Design, an average 875 sq. ft coach house at $210,000 would mean the homeowner would have to charge $1,700 rent to get an eight-per-cent return on their investment.

"This may be achievable in many parts of Vancouver but it's above the rents of most apartments and townhouses and even some single-family homes in Port Moody," the report states.

It suggests owners of older homes would find it more economically viable to rebuild their homes with both a secondary suite and a laneway house. Council will consider a draft bylaw this fall to expand the options for laneway housing across the city.

Peter Simpson, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association, said he's pleased the laneway housing concept is starting to catch on, noting "there was always resistance but that is slowly being overcome."

He noted it's not without its problems: the cost of servicing is often high. And some areas, such as Surrey's East Clayton neighbourhood, have issues with parking. But as more municipalities get on board, he said, the more support the program will likely receive.

North Vancouver's Greg Cormier said laneway housing is an attractive option. Although it would have been cheaper to build a basement suite, he applied to build a one-and-a-half-storey "coach house" behind his heritage home at 736 East 3rd Ave. because he wanted to keep it separate from the main house.

"We didn't want to put in a secondary suite," said Cormier, a woodworking teacher who plans to build the coach house himself. "[A coach house] works better for our home and our situation. It's going to be more desirable but it'll be small. It's going to look like a tiny little house."

ksinoski@vancouversun.com