Devious Council Desecrating our City

Dear Mayor and Councillors,

As immigrants who long ago chose Vancouver as the best place in the world to live, and who have invested in housing as we have worked our way up the property ladder, it is overwhelmingly disappointing, in our retirement, to witness the manner in which this municipal government is moving to desecrate the city.

Using the Eco-Density Charter as a subterfuge, council has dishonestly characterised the laneway housing initiative to deceive residents into not massively opposing the 2009 approval by council.  Such a cynical and devious approach might be expected in Moscow or Caracas where there is little pretence of a democratic process, but to see this happening in this great little Canadian city is a bitter pill to swallow.  To read the current one-family zoning descriptions with the addition of the laneway housing and other densification allowances on the website, and to observe, in contrast, what is being built, is to understand the extent of the deception still being wrought on Vancouver residents with every relevant building permit that is issued.

Perhaps the most invidious and cynical features are the promises to consult the community.  In fact there is no effective consultation process, and residents in any of the overwhelming majority of the city that allows laneway housing are powerless to influence any development in their neighbourhoods or even next door to them.  Even were there to be an effective consultation process it would likely be window dressing by council, as so startlingly illustrated by the last hearings on bicycle lanes, when construction of the lanes was fully organized and procured for a well-prepared start the very morning after the last “hearing”.  That was dishonest and cynical behaviour.  The laneway housing issue is far more important and council is even more devious on the issue.

As laneway housing is currently being practiced, large parts of the City of Vancouver will eventually deteriorate into areas teeming with people and vehicles as opposed to desirable peaceful law-abiding residential neighbourhoods.  Those who have invested in good homes in good neighbourhoods over long periods will have their property values decimated.  Additional costs for the city associated with this densification will probably offset potential tax-based benefits and so will achieve nothing more than the despoiling of a great city.  Council under Mayor Robertson will go down in history as the architect of the decline of the city they serve.

Nearly all property owners in Vancouver will now have four choices.  The first to tolerate the uncertainty and losses associated with laneway houses being built adjacent to them or in their neighbourhoods, the second and third to build laneway houses on their own property then stay or sell, the fourth and most likely to simply sell up and move out of the city before laneway housing and its effects do too much damage.  And all this in the name of Ecology.

This Laneway Housing Program should be cancelled immediately.

Sincerely,

John and Susan Willson

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10 Responses to Devious Council Desecrating our City

  1. Michael Lyons says:

    Willson’s,

    If the Eco-Density Charter was subterfuge to pass laneway housing, what do you think the real reason for allowing laneway housing actually was? If you answer, “to line their own and the big developers pockets”, then point to ONE, anyone, who has benefited from this apparent conspiracy.

    What’s the evil agenda?
    – it’s not property tax revenue, they’re barely affected as these laneway houses are treated like traditional accessory structures, such as garages and studios.
    – it’s not to appease the puppetmaster developers, as it’s primarily homeowners adding these to their own properties as a rental or family space. And all combined, the aggregate cost/revenue from building all the laneway houses so far is smaller than a single downtown tower. It’s relatively small potatoes.
    – … darn, I can’t even think up another!!

    And I have to say that I take offense when you say that your low density neighbourhood is full of law-abiding citizens and mine is not… although I now live by City Hall, I have at one point in the last 40 years lived in each of: the West End, Coal Harbour, Gastown, Yaletown, Kerisdale, Kitsilano, Cedar Cottage and Fairview slopes and I found all of my residential neighbours to be law-abiding citizens.

    By the way, the agenda was this:
    – provide more rental units to a city in desperate need of them (hence no stratification or subdivision allowed)
    – invigorate neighbourhoods whose density has gone from something like 4.5 people per household to 2.5 in the past several decades (this keeps schools open/full and justifies greater transit services, supports local shops and restaurants, etc…)
    – allow families to earn some much needed revenue from their property, and therefore not lose them!
    – provide more family space on existing properties without having to tear down perfectly good smaller main houses to do so (although some lovely houses are demo’d each year, the rate of this has not changed since laneway housing).
    – provide greater possibility for more Vancouverites to enjoy these law-abiding neighbourhoods, not just the rich or house-rich fortunates who managed to buy a long long time ago.
    – and, wait for it… to provide housing for our growing population (like it or not) closer to where they work, play, shop, get an education, rather than forcing them to contribute to grid-locked freeways and the related emmisions because they had to buy/rent further into the Valley, contributing to the decimation of our Agricultural Land Reserve … Eco-Density.

    And a second by-the-way: property values are generally increased by laneway housing, not “decimated”. Vancity has done many before-and-after appraisals and done right they generally add more value to the property than the cost to build it and provide positive cash flow on day-1! As a result, Vancity lends at their best rates and gives cash back to anyone contemplating a laneway home.

    There have been highly attended public consultations and subsequent reviews of laneway housing in Vancouver during which anyone and everyone was provided time to speak their mind to mayor and council. You just don’t like their subsequent decision and therefore don’t feel listened to, when the opposite is quite true.

    Shame on you for your uninformed, personally-biased and borderline offensive rant.

    I am Michael Lyons, lover of my City of Vancouver, environmentalist, business man, active in my community and am highly informed on this particular subject because I am currently involved with Smallworks Laneway Housing (who would not condone this post, as it is somewhat provocative, not likely to change your position and not generally in keeping with the image of the brand… I write for myself only and those few readers who almost thought you might have a point).

    • Linda MacAdam says:

      Mr Lyons:
      I disagree with some of your comments, and question others.
      1. Perhaps the appraised values of properties with a laneway house increase, but a Dunbar realtor has told members of the Dunbar Residents’ Association that new houses in Dunbar with laneway houses are difficult to sell, because the wealthy buyers want a garage for their expensive vehicles. In fact, he told us that the first new house with a laneway house to be built for sale in Dunbar sold for not much more than it would have sold for without the laneway house.
      2. Regarding the positive cash flow you say laneway houses generate: I understand laneway houses in Dunbar are costing somewhere between $250,000 to $300, 000. At VanCity’s current lowest mortgage rate of 3.5% over 25 years, monthly payments would for $250,000 would be $1,248.15 and for $300,000 be $1,497.84. For a credit line using one’s house as collateral,and paying interest only payments, monthly payments would be about $900 (when I last inquired) for a $300,000 loan. Insurance, maintenance costs (painting, roofing, gutter cleaning, etc.), income tax, allowance for vacancies, etc. will increase the monthly cost further. A couple of months ago laneway houses on Craigs’ List in Dunbar were posted for $1500 to $1600 per month, although I see some now asking for close to $2,000 per month. So a laneway house may have positive cash flow, but how much? Enough to give up the home owner’s privacy and yard? Enough to take the risk of having a bad tenant living a few feet away? And it takes only 1 bad tenant to take away the profit for a few months, or to make the home owner’s life miserable. Mr. Lyons, please enlighten me on this.
      3. During the public consultation on laneway houses (at which I spoke to council), by far the majority of the speakers spoke out against laneway houses, and for good reason. They can cause overshadowing of neighbouring yards, affecting their ability to support gardens, they usually overlook neighbour’s houses and yards, and they will usually result in a lack of street parking. The only people who spoke in favour of laneway houses were people who planned to profit from them: developers like you or homeowners who wanted to build them. Yes, we were listened to, but then completely ignored. The subsequent “review” of laneway houses, after which Brent Toderian said laneway housing is a “success” did not use input from any neighbour of a laneway house. The review was thus very obviously slanted in the city’s favour, making Mr. Toderian’s remark disingenuous at best.
      4. Most laneway houses are too small for families, so many singles and couples who move into them will be looking to move in the future, probably to larger accommodation, when they have children. And where will they go? To somewhere affordable, like the Fraser Valley, resulting in the potential loss of more agricultural land.

      Laneway houses create a win-lose situation and win-lose situations always cause unhappiness. The people who build them “win”, and the people who live near them lose. I have spoken to two Dunbar residents who have laneway houses near their house: one next door and one across the lane, and both are furious. And one of those residents told me a few days ago that her friends built a laneway house, and as a result (and to their surprise) all of their immediate neighbours have stopped speaking to them.

      We cannot continue to keep cramming more and more people into a fixed size area without negatively affecting the lifestyles of the people who live here and the environment, in spite of what environmentalists and developers say. “Increased density improves liveability”, we are told. For whom? For some of the developers of this density, whose profits enable them to live in large properties.

      • Michael Lyons says:

        Response to your points Linda:
        1) You are talking about the ‘opinion’ of one single Dunbar realtor. I know a great many realtors, actually was one for 2 years 10 years ago, and I know that when I ask 5 realtors a questions I will have as many differing opinions – some of which will be just plain incorrect. Regarding ‘wealthy buyers’, they can have a garage for their expensive vehicle and a laneway house on their property. Every property must retain a parking space and laneway houses are built with the garage integrated. On a 40′ lot or larger, there is enough space for an interior garage and one exterior space. On a 60′ lot or larger, since we’re talking about ‘wealthy buyers’, they could have a laneway house and a 2 car garage.
        2) If a homeowner is trying to maximize the differential between rental income and their mortgage payment, then Vancity’s 3.5% 5yr 35yr term mortgage is $1029 p/mo. That laneway house in Dunbar will rent for $1800-2200 p/mo. No maintenance to speak of for many many years, insurance increase of about $25 p/mo, and income tax is only on profit! That is enough positive cash flow for almost every homeowner to deal with a tenant and risk a vacancy (like any other rental) – as they already do in almost every home in the neighbourhood living directly below in the basement suite. At that monthly rent and that proximity to the landlord, tenants are NOT a risk.
        3) Oh, so now there actually were public consultations at which you were heard? You folks need to get together on this one. Of course the people who spoke for them were people who wanted them and people who spoke against the were those who didn’t. Please stop calling me a developer. We build for homeowners, your neighbours, at their request, with their funds for their purposes. That is not a developer and that is 95% of all laneway housing purchases. But it’s funny how the word developer has a dirty connotation from people like yourselves – unless they’re developing something far from your neighbourhood. You say that the review was slanted in the city’s favour – well who is the city but the people who live here and the elected mayor and council that were chosen by the people by majority vote to make these decisions on their behalf. They wanted your input too and got it and it weighed in the review, but it was not a vote nor should it be. They’re not elected to hold a referendum on every issue that comes up or to side with you against the city’s greater interests at large.
        4) You want them to move into a big house in the Valley before they need to? That single professional should move into a 3,000 s/ft house and commute daily in anticipation of having a family years in the future? By your argument, every condo in the city is a waste because people may outgrow them. And you forget that most laneway ouses are not rental units, but additional family space: next gen, older gen, homeowner downsizing (making the main house available for those families you speak of).
        Linda, we cannot let urban sprawl continue unchecked. If you like the wide open space that living in a major metropolitan centre does not afford, perhaps the very beautiful Fraser Valley is for you, not them.

  2. Brian says:

    Ah, “highly informed” Michael “lover” of Vancouver once again being dismissive of legitimate questions about laneway housing. We’re all environmentalists now Michael, the term is quickly becoming the last refuge of green-washing scoundrels. My God, even Toronto stopped laneway housing!

    It’s a scandal that there no restrictions on campaign financing of BC City councils. As a result, and Vancouver is no exception, most are effectively pimps for development.

    Anyone who has followed the sham of “public consultation” (we’ll listen and then we’ll ignore you) practiced by Vancouver’s lack ‘o Vision council when it comes to any development in the city can see that.

    After seeing what the city is allowing to happen on Cambie between King Ed and Marine, it’s crystal clear that rapid transit is simply another tool for development. (People east of Cambie, anywhere near Broadway and 10th get ready for the same kind of block-busting destruction of neighbourhoods that Cambie is seeing.)

    Laneway housing is just yet one more symptom of how the quality of life is being degraded the same way as unsustainable growth is destroying the whole planet.

    Argue that we should have another million people in the Lower Mainland if you want Michael, just please don’t pretend it’s “love” or “environmentalism”

  3. Eric Levy says:

    The Willson’s have written an excellent letter against Laneway Housing – the most destructive initiative ever foisted upon this city by its own government. Regarding the eco-density excuse, even City Council admits that eco-density is a false claim. In her e-mail to me of July 11, 2011, Councillor Reimer both repudiates the eco-claims in the Eco-Density Charter and supports the densification that those false claims seek to justify: “I don’t believe that density is inherently ’eco’ and in fact there is evidence that suggests it can make things worse for the environment without strong, specific environmental plans.” For further discussion of the crass and blatant spuriousness of eco-density claims, see my “Laneway Lunacy,” posted on this web site.

    Eric Levy
    Vancouver Resident

  4. Michael Lyons says:

    Why don’t you post the whole email Eric?
    Still waiting for anyone to come up with a plausible agenda for the passing of laneway housing, other than abiding by the wishes of the vast majority of Vancouverites who have spoken positively about it for years and the improvement of the city in terms of invigorating neighbourhoods, adding rental suites, adding family space, reducing freeway clog-up, relieving urban sprawl out into the Valley…
    What is the evil agenda you keep hinting at? Perhaps laneway housing was passed just to spite you 7 or 8 people who write again and again saying it’s bad for Vancouver. You might as well be writing that climate change is not real and the world is flat.
    You’ve been heard, and your arguments against laneway housing are just not as compelling as the reasons for it. Luckily, you own multi-million dollar homes, you do have options.

  5. Over the past two years laneway houses have often not been welcome additions in Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Nearby residents have told Council of their concerns about the adverse affects on their privacy and on-street parking, as well as a variety of other concerns. However, Council has chosen to ignore their concerns.

    In addition to improving laneway housing’s standards and guidelines, during the election as a Council candidate I called for an immediate moratorium of future laneway housing development permit applications pending the implementation of the results of a thorough review of those standards, guidelines and approval procedures.

    As an architect I know this is necessary now because of the very evident negative impacts these new homes as they are being built are having on their neighbours. Additional developments will only increase those neighbours adversely affected.

    In a nutshell here are the principle concerns:

    1) The 1½, really 2 storey, laneway houses are an unacceptable neighbourhood fit because of privacy intrusions, inadequate street parking, especially for narrower lots, and a significant change in neighbourhood character.

    2) There are some neighbourhoods where this concept has been generally accepted, and there are others where it is not. Individual neighbourhoods should have a say in whether laneway houses are for them or not.

    3) The current approval process is too complex, and uncertain. It also takes too long and is too costly.

    For these and other concerns Vancouver needs to look at how this housing type is being done in other cities such as Seattle. If laneway housing is to continue in Vancouver we need to improve the end product because what is happening presently is not working and not acceptable. And, those affected by these developments must have a say in whether or not they want them in their neighbourhoods.

  6. Michael Lyons says:

    Bill,
    Respectfully, you were not voted in. The people have spoken. But to your points:
    1) They are called 1&1/2 because the second level can only be 60% of the main level and because you must live inside the sloping roof line, no attic. There are strict rules about massing (such as setting back the upper floor away from neighbouring property lines) and privacy (such as very limited windows upstairs and balconies can only face the lane or a side street). If you were told you could build a 2 storey house but they imposed those rules, you would complain that it’s only a floor and a half, and you’d be right!
    2) There are neighbourhoods where it is popular and those where it is not. Dunbar is by far the most popular neighbourhood for laneway housing in the entire City of Vancouver. I find it amusing that this should be an argument you would use to help these Dunbar residing opponents. Having neighbourhoods have a say in it by referendum is a costly way to find out what we already know after 2 years of this program.
    3) The current approval process is simple and straightforward and certain. Every homeowner can understand it. RS-1 or RS-5 lots over 33′ width can add 12.5% of their lot size as living space up to 750 s/ft. You must have a firefighter pathway and 16′ separation between the structures. If you meet those requirements you are certain of approval. ‘Uncertain’ would mean requiring neighbours to approve, or if the living space came out of the property’s FSR. And you say it takes too long and is too costly. How long is too long and how much is too costly? Those are issues for each homeowner to decide for themselves. But it only takes 2.5-3.5 months to plan a laneway house and get a building permit, and the only major expense imposed by the city is a $12.5K water/sewage/storm connection that is the same for building any house. The price of the house is dictated by the cost to build it and the heavy competition in the market. Neither you nor I nor the City can control that.
    Except on this particular blog, to which I and a handful of others subscribe, the program is very well received in Vancouver. It is evident by the uptake from homeowners in the market and the relatively small opposition. Council has not ignored the concerns of these opponents, the people of Vancouver have. This was the one platform issue that anyone knows Bill McCreery for and he was not voted onto council. If sentiment were otherwise, so would have been the result. 2 NPA candidates were elected, however, and one of them has a Smallworks laneway home.
    I apologize if I insult by going on and on, I simply mean to point out that the city has spoken, time and time and time again. It’s time to accept that, for the very most part, people like laneway housing in Vancouver.

    • Respectfully to you too Mr. Lyons, the reasons for my not being successful had nothing to do with my position on laneway housing. Rather, it was a result of Vision offering their recycled ‘Greenest City by 2020’ dream and the NPA offering ‘common sense’. In additon, Vision had voter ID’ed 60k while the NPA only had 30k, and Vision had a better, in many cases paid and union ‘volunteers’, election day team.

      Your suggestion that 1 1/2 storeys is really not 2 storeys is nonsense. The floor to floor heights of the 1 1/2 storey laneway is the same as typical residential construction at +/-9′. The overlook into adjacent back gardens is the same. The shadowing is a bit less, but in either case the net effect is the same. If you asked the average person on the street how high a 1 1/2 storey laneway house was they would say two storeys.

      Apparently there are neighbourhoods where the current version of laneway houses are more accepted than in others. And if that’s in fact the case, if you read what I’ve said, that neighbourhood can have laneway houses, even 2 / 1 1/2 storey ones if they’re OK with them. Please do not distort my position to suit your own. My position unequivocally is that neighbours must have a say in what the zoning regulations are in their own neighbourhoods.

      Can I suggest that your arguments are tainted because of your involvement with a company who is building laneway houses. Wouldn’t that be known as a conflict of interest. My position comes from my training as an architect and more than 40 years of practicing that profession. The current laneway regulations result in unacceptable privacy concerns and a serious parking shortfall as well as other deficiencies. As an architect, it is irresponsible to continue to propagate a solution with such significant shortcomings. You will note that my position on this has not changed from before the election. As opposed to you, I stand to gain nothing at this point from continuing to support a moratorium, proper fixes and giving neighbourhoods a choice other than it’s the right thing to do and i’m a community oriented kind of guy.

      I have spoken to and know of others who have been through the City’s current approval process who do not share your successful experiences. I put my concern #3 forward in part as a suggestion in an effort to help company’s such as yours as well has laneway homeowners.

      You suggest the programme has been well received in other parts of Vancouver. And, you cite Councillor Ball’s laneway house at the corner of 23rd and Columbia. Elizabeth has told me her neighbours are Ok with her laneway house, however, I note there are a number of complaints about laneway houses from nearby neighbours posted on this blog. It may be that not all the neighbours are as happy as you seem to make out.

      My bottom line is that the zoning regulations in a particular neighbourhood should reflect the values and priorities of the majority of those in that community. In Dunbar for instance, a great number of people are avid gardeners. Their back garden is their sanctuary. What zoning allows to be built should reflect those values.

      • Michael Lyons says:

        I mentioned that 2 NPA candidates did get onto council to show that NPA candidates with the right message and support from community had as much chance as anyone. To imply you didn’t get in because of anything other than 1) having the wrong message, or 2) failing to do all necessary get your message out there, is just not taking enough responsibility.
        You are also implying, when you sat that as an architect you cannot responsibly support this program, that all other architects are acting irresponsibly and by supporting laneway housing. Perhaps all of them feel differently than you and you are the one who is acting irresponsibly to the long-term interests of our city.
        I got my job in laneway housing partly because I was already championing laneway housing in Vancouver while a director on the executive committee at the BC Environment Industry Association. That assn is made up of government, education and business leaders that either work in environmental remediation, sustainability, remediation, planning, engineering, research and technologies. My day job at the time was as President of the Canada Export Centre where among other things I was advocating more sensible and environmentally friendly trade (such as reduced trade in goods to regions already producing those goods locally) and transport (such as large ships while in our harbour requiring shore or alternate power rather than running their deisel engines). I am also a member and/or supporter of the Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives, Sierra Club, WWF, Greenpeace, David Suzuki Foundation and several others. So no, no conflict of interest that I am ‘still’ advocating laneway housing now that I work at Smallworks.
        Please fire back if you are inclined, but for my part anything else I say shall likely only be a repeat. I thank you for the lively debate.

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