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Vancouver takes backdoor approach to rental housing

VANCOUVER, Aug 26 (Bernama) -- Vancouver is taking a backdoor approach to addressing its housing shortage, reports China's news agency Xinhua.

In Vancouver proper, home to about 640,000 people, according to a 2010 British Columbia Statistics estimate, essentially there is no land left on which to build. Aside from a few pockets of vacant land, there is nowhere for the Canadian city to expand.

Vancouver has yet to resort to land reclamation from the sea, a practice popular in Hong Kong and Singapore. Instead, growth in Greater Vancouver, home to about 2.2 million, is mainly in the surrounding suburb cities.

With Canada taking in about 250,000 immigrants annually, and with many of them taking up residence on the country's west coast, Vancouver in 2009 became the first city in North America to allow the construction of lane housing to address its housing need. The move could potentially add 60,000 rental units around the city.

Two years later, the concept is starting to catch on. Today, an estimated 300 to 500 lane houses have been built around the city that boasts the highest property prices in Canada.

"Business has been really booming since the city started allowing these secondary suites in the space where a garage used to typically go," said Michael Lyons, vice president of sales and marketing for Smallworks, a designer and builder of laneway housing and studios.

"A lot of residents have been taking us up on this possibility to add more living space or more revenue from the property that they already own."

Pointing out the features of a soon-to-be completed 73-square-meter "Edwardian House" at the back of an old house on a standard 10-meter-wide lot on Vancouver's west side, the country's most expensive address, Lyons said the new addition would cost about US$192,525, taxes and permits included.

For the price, the property owner is getting about 50 square meters of indoor living space over one and half floors, the maximum height restriction. It includes one bedroom and one and half bathrooms in the compact space. There is also another 22.5 square meter enclosed garage -- all lane houses must have at least one parking space -- that could be converted into additional living space.

Lyons expects the property owner will get US$1,773 monthly rent for the unit. Bigger units with two bedrooms -- 100 square meters is the maximum indoor space, including the parking space -- are going for about US$2,028 a month.

Jake Fry, who started Smallworks six years ago, said the company built about 20 lane houses and studios last year. Currently, it has 12 projects on the go, four of them custom designed.

He says the company does nearly everything, prefabricating walls and roof panels, floors and stairs at its workshop, and can put a house together in about four months.

Fry said Vancouver had been set up much like a small town.

"So as the city grows and becomes more urban and much more dynamic, people have to learn to live in the space a little differently," he said.

"At the same time, people really enjoy having their own house, and having their own backyard and living in a very quaint environment. And the city is ideal for this because the houses have so much room between them. So to actually put a small, separate home between two main homes doesn't really compromise anybody's living standard."

Fry said the beauty of a lane house is that it adds a lot of equity to a property without much cost. While it increases the value of a property, it has little bearing on property taxes. In addition, a lane house has a separate address from the main house and its own billing for monthly expenses such as water, gas and electricity.

"These properties have proven popular among young people, those who are just married who have the opportunity to build their own home in a neighbourhood setting rather than a condo in town," said Fry, adding they had also struck a chord with seniors looking to downsize and new immigrant home buyers.

"(For) a lot of Chinese people who move in, especially as their children get older ... this is a great opportunity for them to start their own family or to have their own independence while still being able to be close to the family and enjoy the equity of having a more significant home on the property."

Just around the corner from a project being put up by Smallworks, Thomas Frauenberger is three-quarters finished on a one-bedroom lane house he's building with his company, Lanecraft Lane and Coach Houses.

With the house sitting on a prime corner lot, the unit has a bedroom, toilet, shower and laundry facilities on the main floor with a spacious open-area kitchen and living space above. All told, the house, which includes a large balcony area, is about 100 square meters with the enclosed parking space.

With design, permits and taxes, Frauenberger said the eco-friendly building would cost about US$227,990.

"By their very nature, these buildings are environmentally friendly because they are using existing infrastructure, being built on land that has already been developed. And so you are developing it further, just intensifying the land use and densifying it," said the 30-something architect.

"We're seeing many people want them (built) either for elderly parents or for their teenagers or for rental. So you create income from them. Most of them, if you look at them financially, renting it out, you're cash-flowing from day one. Soon as you start renting it out, you're covering your costs and then some.

So I think in terms of investment in Vancouver, it's a no-brainer."



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