This is the way the single-family neighbourhood ends – with neither a bang nor a whimper but just a stroke of the pen, following the decision, in July 2009, of the Mayor and Council to rezone residential Vancouver. Thus, in one instant, the single-family neighbourhood became or acquired the permission to become the triple-family neighbourhood. Each lot (33 feet or wider) can now contain three residences: the principal house, an enlarged rental suite in that house, and, where the back yard used to be, a Laneway House. This is densification on steroids, with all the hazards that artificially induced growth threatens and entails. No other city in North America has similarly decided to destroy one of its most treasured and long-standing assets – the single-family neighbourhood, with its values, traditions, and ambience, all supported by tax-paying homeowners. Toronto, for example, experimented with Laneway Housing, but, after the construction of approximately 200 of these structures, decided that continuing the program would be counterproductive and imprudent.
Unfortunately, instead of the prudent and balanced evaluation displayed in Toronto, the handling of Laneway Housing by City Council in Vancouver shows undue – one might even say reckless – hastiness. Calls for a moratorium emanating from one dissenting member of Council were rebuffed, as Council refused to consider any delay in the implementation of its extremely controversial and potentially ruinous policy. In place of due diligence, Council’s preferred administrative tool is the battering ram. In addition to overruling calls for prudence from one of its own members, Council ensures that input from residents is both thwarted and ignored. No process for collecting neighbourhood opinion has been devised, and therefore no attention or weight to neighbourhood opinion can be given. With respect to specific development projects, Council at least goes through the motions of garnering neighbourhood opinion by holding meetings. But consistently the opinion thus solicited is ignored, while the clamouring of property developers is heeded. Indeed, the City Planning Committee, which advises Council on developmental matters, would be better named the City Cramming Committee, as it unfailingly favours developers and dismisses the impassioned objections of residents.
The Eco-Density Charter, approved by Vancouver City Council on June 10, 2008, epitomizes the battering ram approach to city cramming or densification. But here the battering ram is concealed in a velvet glove of manipulative rhetoric designed to break down resistance and opposition. This manipulation takes two forms: false promises and misleading descriptions. With respect to false promises, the Charter assures residents of full access to “consultation . . . engagement and dialogue with all voices” accorded representation, whereas, as already noted, no such access is available, and no interest in it on the part of Council has been displayed. Instead of consultation, there is conning or the deliberate attempt to placate opposition through the use of misleading and patently false characterizations. The very term, “Eco-Density,” constitutes a false characterization, designed to clothe the wolf of densification in the sheep’s clothing of eco-trendy jargon. Eco-Density is an oxymoron – a yoking of contradictory terms. There is nothing ecological about densification that, by cramming more people into the same space, unduly stresses and pollutes the environment, both natural and human. False promises abound in the Charter, ranging from assurances regarding restrictions on shadowing to “respect for authentic neighbourhood values, context, character, and identity.” The rows of towering two-story masses entailed in Vancouver laneway housing, hideously exemplified in the 4600 block of West 11th Avenue, spread darkness and congestion, where once there was light and space – and relative privacy. Further proliferation of such structures throughout the city will only aggravate the problem.
The jarring contradiction between what the Eco-Density Charter says and what laneway housing construction actually entails suggests that the text of the Charter at best constitutes political sloganeering and at worst involves a deliberate attempt to mislead, deceive, and lull into acquiescence. In short, to my mind, the Charter appears to be a document in bad faith – proposing one thing, while enabling the implementation of something quite different. A particularly glaring example of this tactic concerns the claim that laneway housing introduces nothing more than “invisible densification,” easily absorbed by neighbourhoods, with no alteration of their familiar and cherished environment. This is a blatantly false assertion. Densification by means of laneway housing is no more invisible than Pinocchio’s nose after he tells a series of lies. The implications of this fact should be recognized. Laneway housing is a Trojan Horse. To invite it into our midst is to threaten the single-family neighbourhood with abolition and destruction. In a laneway housing neighbourhood, there will be no more backyards. In place of backyards, there will be rows of laneway houses, separated from the principal houses by secondary lanes – smaller versions of the primary lanes from which the term, “laneway house,” is derived. Moreover, in a laneway housing neighbourhood, there will likely be increased crime. For increase in crime rates has been empirically linked, by the Calgary Police 2008 Environmental Scan (a document available on the Web), to increase in densification and to increase in the ratio of tenants to homeowners.
There is a further danger to recognize. As formulated in Vancouver, Laneway Housing is not a stable policy. Nothing prevents the Mayor and Council from further altering residential zoning at any time. First this zoning was changed to permit construction of laneway houses, but with requirement that each laneway house be owned by the owner of the primary house whose backyard it occupies. Next policy will likely be changed to permit laneway houses to be sold separately, without linkage to the primary home in front of them. At that point, laneway housing will be ready for stratification – division, that is, of each laneway house into a collection of condominium apartments to be sold individually.
A policy as contentious and invasive as Laneway Housing should obviously be subject to public debate and ultimate referendum. But Council prefers to press on with its own agenda, regardless of vehement opposition, encouraged by the salivating support of developers who build the structures and bankers who peddle mortgages for such construction. Yet support for Laneway housing comes from some residents too, not just commercial enterprises that profit from it. Residents supporting Laneway Housing rely on one main argument. It concerns access to downsized housing in the neighbourhood either for themselves after they retire or for aged or infirm family members whom they want to care for in a convenient location. Those taking this position forget that Laneway Housing has very little to do with residents already living in the neighbourhood concerned. Instead, it entails the proliferation of secondary structures intended to house tenants from other parts of the city or from outside the city – tenants whose only relation to the owners of the principal houses is the cash nexus based on payment of rent. The result of such densification is obliteration of the residential environment invaded by Laneway Housing. In my view, to support Laneway Housing, for whatever reason, is to endorse destruction of the environmental character and function of the neighbourhoods concerned. It is to invite increase of congestion, crime, vermin (due to additional garbage), and environmental stress.
Eric P. Levy
Dear Mayor and Council:
The Vancouver Courier (June 22, 2011) reports Councillor Heather Deal’s concern that public opinion be carefully canvassed before any decision regarding the removal and relocation of the message-festooned plywood panels, covering the vast stretches of broken windows following the Stanley Cup riot downtown, is taken.
Unfortunately, neither Councillor Deal nor any other member of City Council displays similar concern that public opinion regarding Laneway Housing – a more insidious, but more permanent form of neighbourhood destruction – be carefully canvassed and considered. Indeed, far from showing concern for public opinion, the Mayor and Council have allegedly displayed the intention to manipulate and mislead public opinion, through disseminating the Eco-Density Charter – a document that relies on deception and false assurances in order to placate and soothe opponents of Laneway policy.
I addressed these tactics of deception in my earlier e-mail of May 18, entitled “Laneway Lunacy,” to which no member of Council responded.
Eric P. Levy
About This Website
Irresponsible haste to realize the Laneway Housing concept has started to create many problems in Vancouver and will only lead to more as 1.5 story (up to 20 feet high) Laneway Houses continue to spring up throughout the city. This website will attempt to highlight the situation so that 1) The Mayor and City Council will take responsibility and amend their lack of reasonable building standards, public notification, and proper planning, 2) unsuspecting neighbourhoods might prepare themselves for a sudden decline in their standard of living and 3) if you’re also concerned please write City Council and join our group to see what we can do to change the current Laneway Housing guidelines allowing 1.5 story laneway homes.
The Good aspects of Laneway Housing:
For homeowners wishing to build a 1 story laneway house, this type of Eco-densification fits into the ‘Good’ category. According to the City of Vancouver’s EcoDensity charter Commitment #3, laneway housing is to be ‘hidden’ so the 1 story laneway homes can be categorized as such. However, the much larger and intrusive 1.5 story (up to 20 feet) homes (as some have called McMansions) do not fit into this definition – and these are the laneway houses that comprise the majority of current permit applications and will continue to do so as long as City Council allows this.
The Bad and the Ugly aspects of Laneway Housing:
Virtually all single-family residential areas (RS-1 & RS-5 zones) in Vancouver have been rezoned to permit the construction of a Laneway House as well as a rental suite in the main house. (Approx. 65,000 lots) – with such a massive re-zoning, why was a referendum not done to see if the majority of Vancouver home owners wanted this?
Neighbours have absolutely no say and are not given any notice prior to construction.
Serious concerns about the 1.5 story (up to 20 feet high) Laneway Houses are:
- The impact on privacy – the size and location of windows are left up to the builder’s discretion
- Any concerns from neighbouring properties are not considered by the Planning Department
- Increased shading of neighbours’ yards which then negatively impacts the growth of gardens and overall enjoyment of one’s yard
- Increased noise levels – many laneway homes are being built with balconies facing into the lane
There is no limit to the number of Laneway Houses permitted on a given block. If you want to see a perfect example of what can happen in your lane, visit the lane in the 4600 block of West 11th Ave. where a series of row laneway houses have been built (plus they have two other laneway homes in that very block bringing the total to 5).
Only a single off-street parking space is required for a lot. Garages only need to be 2.7m (8’-8”) wide. This is too narrow to accommodate, and exit from, an average sized vehicle. Why are some homeowners putting in large windows and heated flooring in the garage of their laneway homes? It would suggest that this allotted parking space will not be used for a car but rather for living or storage space. So if a home with a basement rental suite and a two bedroom laneway house has an average of 4 to 6 cars associated with it, you can expect them to be parking in front of your house.
Other issues we can anticipate from the increase in development of Laneway Houses:
- Likely all lanes will have to be paved as many lanes in Vancouver are still unpaved.
- Likely street lighting will be added to the lanes for safety reasons
- Annual street parking permits will be required by residents
- Increased pressure on community services such as schools
Vancouver taxpayers can expect to see many of these costs passed onto them.
Vancouver is identified as the most liveable city in the world according to the latest annual ranking compiled by the Economist magazine. The Economist emphasizes “Cities that score best tend to be mid-sized cities with a relatively low population density.” The Economist goes on to say that Low density often fosters a broad range of recreational availability without leading to high crime levels or overburdened infrastructure. Low density in Vancouver will not be the norm for long. This is because city council has rezoned 94% of Vancouver residential properties to allow for the construction of laneway housing and over time this will significantly increase density while destroying single family neighbourhoods.
Please see the Dunbar Residents Association newsletter that highlights the death of single family neighbourhoods.
In 2006, Toronto ceased their laneway housing program (except under special circumstances are permits given). All of our concerns are the same concerns listed in the Toronto Staff Report that led to the end of their Laneway House program as their City Council could see the inevitable problems. Somehow our City Council doesn’t want to open their eyes to our concerns so please join us in getting that message to them.