When we signed the contract with a local company to design and build a laneway house in the yard behind our 1909 Edwardian, so that my husband’s daughter and her husband could have a place to live in Vancouver that wouldn’t bankrupt them or us, they had one child.
By the time Ariel and Brad moved in last October, there were three children.
It was almost five years to the day after I wrote the first $10,000 cheque. Four-plus years of going through city hall hoops and hurdles, sliding down the snake and going back up the ladder, and then eight months of construction. And now the former toddler was in Grade 2, heading off to school with a backpack.
People like my husband and I are increasingly common in Canada’s expensive cities: rookie private developers who don’t really have a clue about what we’re doing, thrust into a strange new world of construction management as we try to find new housing in the city for children, parents or even ourselves.
City politicians are encouraging that more and more in high-cost cities, campaigning on promises of allowing more leeway for people who own single-family homes to add basement suites and laneway houses. In some cases, they’re encouraging owners to demolish the old place and build a duplex, a fourplex or even, in Vancouver, a sixplex – if Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s latest initiative ever gets traction.
There’s a reason for this sea change from what it was 30 years ago, when basement suites were controversial. In a city with a housing shortage and constant pressure to create more, it’s attractive for politicians to encourage homeowners to become the developers themselves instead of having the pros do it. We amateurs can make a personal plea to have others on the block support their development application.
So I’m here to tell you what that is like exactly or, at least, what it was like from our end of the telescope.
I’m sure that people on the other end – experienced builders or experienced city-hall building-permit issuers – will roll their eyes at parts of my tale. “How could she not know that!,” they’ll say to themselves. But that’s the point.
We didn’t always know and we often couldn’t have any clue what was going to happen next, because it was our first, and likely only time, through the process. We don’t get to learn from project to project, the way professional builders do.
Things that might seem completely obvious to someone used to reading plans or negotiating construction budgets or complying with city processes were not at all obvious to us. (“Oh, this line here is a property line on the plan? I didn’t know that,” is just one of the many dippy things I said at various points.)
So this story isn’t just for you future rookies to educate yourselves before you jump off that cliff. It’s also for the people who are frustrated with us at the other end, because you have to deal with us when we’re confused and sometimes angry and sometimes clueless.
I’ll kill some of the suspense here and say that, in the end, we have a completely lovely house and that we think our construction manager was a hero. But...
So here is how it started.
When my husband’s daughter and her family moved back to Vancouver, after eight years away in the east, it didn’t take long for us to register the fact that it was going to be difficult for them to buy anything to live in. They were making more than the region’s median income between them as swim coaches, but that wasn’t enough.
Because I’ve worked as a reporter covering Vancouver city hall for more than two decades, I’d covered the city’s many efforts to find ways to create more housing. The laneway house program had officially kicked off in 2009, so I thought I knew the concept.
We had a special reason to be interested in laneway houses, because of the particular zone that our house is in. Most people who want to build laneway houses in Vancouver are restricted to about 750 square feet for a standard 33-foot-by-120 foot-lot. But our 1909 house is in an older neighbourhood of Vancouver, Mount Pleasant, where the zoning is different from the standard residential one that covers most of the city. It is one of several older neighbourhoods that ring the downtown where there are a fair number of early-20th-century houses.
In an effort to prevent the demolition of the older Craftsmans, Edwardians and occasional Victorians, the city started a program in the 1980s that would allow owners to add fairly large infill houses in return for an agreement to preserve the older house. It had been quite successful in Kitsilano, where mini-me houses sprouted in side and backyards. It was less common where we were.
But, as the price of housing started going up precipitously, a few owners in our area started using that program, often called “heritage light” or a Heritage Revitalization Agreement. We discovered we appeared to be eligible and that we could build a house of 950 square feet or more.
So I wrote the cheque in October, 2015 to a company called Smallworks, whose owner, Jake Fry, pioneered laneway housing in Vancouver. We signed a design-build contract for what stuck in my mind as “a laneway house that will cost $350,000,” and we set off.
The first thing you learn is that it takes almost a year of having your builder/architect negotiate with the city before you even apply for a development permit.
In the early batch of almost 300 e-mails that are in my files, we hacked our way laboriously through the dense undergrowth of early planning. We had the site meeting (in November), then some conferencing with the-then company architect over what his early conversations with city planners had established about how much square footage we would be allowed (December), then more meetings to come up with a preliminary design (January), then the developed design (February) and then the updated floor plan (March).
But things slowly ground to a halt at the city. At first, it seemed like just a small glitch; a new rule requiring 12-feet of clearance from main house to side property line. That kind of clearance was something that didn’t exist anywhere in the neighbourhood I lived in, because the big, old houses were built so close together.
Others in my neighbourhood were running into the same problem. “We also were broadsided by this reversal in city policy,” was one post on the Facebook group from “Rob” in our area. “I was quite far along on an infill proposal until I recently met with a city planning staff and got shot down.”
But, it turned out, that wasn’t the worst. Soon, the news started trickling out that some senior planner at the city thought there were too many of these HRA infills starting to pop up. The rules were too variable. Or something.
By late 2016, we were at a complete standstill. “Any clue for us what is going on?” was the subject line on Dec. 16.
This is the first of a four-part series.