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The little Victorian house nestled directly behind Peter Prince and Helga Martens’ Mount Pleasant home is one of Vancouver’s first laneway houses, circa 1890.

The house needs work: the roof is multilayered and moss covered, and one side of the house still has the asphalt tile siding from a misguided effort at sealing up the leaks many decades before. It sits on posts and beams, with only a crawl space and small attic for insulation. But it is charming as an oversized dollhouse – and a reminder that, despite all the fuss, laneway houses are nothing new to the city. They’ve just been enjoying a revival these past five years.

And as they did at the turn of the 20th century in Vancouver, they are again serving to provide affordable housing in economically challenging times. Coach houses, laneway houses and infill housing – all those seemingly progressive new initiatives to promote density, walkability and more affordable housing, are at least 100 years old.

“It’s an old idea that’s come back,” historian John Atkin says. “Back then, if you were going to be building a house and you weren’t making a hell of a lot of money, you may as well max out your property.”

Martin Knowles

Turn-of-the-century property owners would build a mini house at the back of the lot first, save up some money, and then build a bigger one at the front of the lot. And they’d always keep the smaller house because it was a great mortgage helper. As well, they sometimes didn’t bother legally subdividing large properties and wound up building several houses on one lot. It wasn’t until the 1920s when the city started regulating such haphazard development, says Mr. Atkin.

“That idea of infill and almost density-by-default that we think we’re inventing, well, we’re not.”

Martin Knowles

The house is on Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Laneway House Tour this Oct. 25, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For the first time since the tour was launched five years ago, the Foundation is including a heritage laneway house on the tour. Of eight houses, it’s also including architect Paul Merrick’s 1,600-square-foot design on the west side, which was built in the 1980s. Otherwise, the tour will consist of the usual modern laneway houses that have been built at the back of historic properties.

The idea is to show how heritage retention and densification are not mutually exclusive. We don’t need to bulldoze our historical homes, and in fact, can drastically boost their value with infill.

The little Victorian, which is 960 square feet, has been used as a rental property for most of its 124 years. Despite the drafts and crooked floors, the average tenant stays about five years.

“They don’t want to leave,” Mr. Prince says

It’s not currently rented out because they are doing some maintenance, and one day they plan to completely upgrade the building. Co-owners Mr. Prince and Ms. Martens purchased the property from the Davis family in the 1980s. The Davises are well-known heritage preservationists in the Mount Pleasant area. When the Davises heard that the little coach house might get torn down to make way for a garage, they purchased the house and looked for a buyer who was interested in saving it. They found Ms. Martens and Mr. Prince, who have been restoring the two houses on the property ever since.

“The little house was on death row,” Mr. Prince says. “They were just happy to find someone who didn’t want to immediately raze it.”

The main house, a duplex where Ms. Martens lives, is lovingly restored. Mr. Prince, who lives elsewhere, has a cavernous, fully equipped basement workshop in the main house that is a carpenter’s dream.

There are numerous historic laneway houses throughout the city, several in Mount Pleasant and Strathcona, including cowsheds that have been converted. At one time, it wasn’t uncommon to keep a dairy cow and maybe a horse in the backyard. The city started restricting livestock around 1910, Mr. Atkin says.

Laneway houses were often created before any lanes existed. In the case of the Victorian on W. 11th, the owners speculate that it was originally located as a principal dwelling on W. 12th Avenue – mostly a dirt road at the time – and relocated using horses and logs to where it sits today. Back then, says Mr. Atkin, they moved houses “all over hell’s half acre.”

According to the research, the first owner, a man named Ed Coombs, sold the house to a grocer and land developer named John Jackson, who lived in the little house until he built the big house in 1910. Mr. Jackson, according to the records, worked at the Hudson’s Bay Co. until around 1920.

Mr. Jackson bought several houses and was constantly on the move, Ms. Martens says.

“He moved around so much it’s crazy. He kept moving. At the very end, he was living in this house again,” she says, standing inside the empty living room of the Victorian cottage. “How can a married man move that much? Who would put up with that?” she says, laughing.

By 1935, around the time the lane was put in, it went from coach house to laneway house, says the Foundation’s executive director, Judith Mosley.

“The 1890s is really old for Vancouver,” she says. “There were probably quite a few laneway houses at that time. And there are still a few survivors.”

The sun shining through huge picture windows with rippled single-pane vintage glass brightens the interior and makes the house feel bigger than it is. The original ceilings were 11 feet, but have been brought down to about nine feet in most of the rooms. It has a walk-in closet, fireplace, painted floors, bay windows and its own little porch. When they first bought it, Ms. Martens says, the toilet was caving into the wall and raccoons lived in the attic.

“It’s basically held together with paint,” she says.

It’s no wonder that laneway houses have made a comeback. They are a method of home ownership in a city where it’s difficult for the average person to buy a house. Jake Fry, small housing advocate and builder of laneway houses, has two houses on the laneway tour, which he also sponsors. Although he started out mostly building on the west side, he says that the majority of his clients are now on the east side of the city. Many of them are retired people cashing out of the west side and moving to areas like Mount Pleasant, where their money goes further. And more than 75 per cent of his clients are young professionals who want to build a laneway house on a relative’s property, usually belonging to mom and dad.

It’s one way to get into the real estate market. They pay for the house, which costs, all in, around $180,000 to $220,000 for a 400-square-foot cottage, or $280,000 to $320,000 for a two-bedroom home. And by adding the laneway house, they have increased the property value. It’s a win-win for everybody, Mr. Fry says.

3050 Maple St., a 1,600-sq.ft. laneway home built by Paul Merrick in the 1980s. Photo by Maple Street Productions

“Sally and Peter live in the backyard and maybe have a baby or get a golden retriever. And they can afford the mortgage, no problem. But mom and dad have given up the garage.”

Mr. Fry’s company Smallworks always has a house on the go. It starts about three houses a month and takes about 18 weeks to complete each house. However, the permits can take several months.

“We are struggling with heritage retention,” says Mr. Fry, who lives in a character house. “Initiatives like [the laneway housing program] are the carrots. This is a way to get more value out of your property than just tearing it down.”

Editor's Note: The size of the home built by Paul Merrick was incorrect in the original print and online versions of this story. This online version has been corrected.

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