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Vancouver takes backdoor approach to rental housing


17:02, August 25, 2011

VANCOUVER, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- Vancouver is taking a backdoor approach to addressing its housing shortage.

According to a 2010 British Columbia Statistics estimate, about 640,000 people in Vancouver are in need of housing, however, there is essentially 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 had to resort to land reclamation from the sea, a popular practice in Hong Kong and Singapore.

But with Canada taking in about 250,000 immigrants annually and many of them taking up residence on the country's west coast, Vancouver has looked at other ways to free up space. In 2009, it became the first city in North America to allow the construction of laneway housing, a move that could potentially add 60,000 rental units around the city.

Today, an estimated 300 to 500 laneway houses have been built around the city and, as a result, boosted property prices.

"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 Fry, 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," he said.

Pointing to 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 district, Fry said the new addition would cost about 190,000 Canadian dollars (192,395 U.S. dollars), including taxes and permits.

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

Fry expects the property owner will get 1,750 Canadian dollars (1.772 U.S. dollars) a month renting out the unit. Bigger units with two bedrooms -- 100 square meters is the maximum for the indoor space, including a mandatory parking space -- charge about 2,000 Canadian dollars (2,026 U.S. dollars) a month.

Fry, who started Smallworks six years ago, said the company built about 20 laneway houses and studios last year. Currently, it has 12 projects on the go, including four custom designed. He said the company did nearly all the work, prefabricating walls and roof panels, floors and stairs in at its workshop, and could put everything together in about four months.

Fry said the city had been set up like a small town but, as more people moved to the city, people had to change their attitude to space. "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 laneway house was it added a lot of equity to a property without much cost. The addition increased the value of a property, but had little bearing on taxes. In addition, a laneway house had an independent address from the main house and separate bills for monthly expenses, such as water, gas and electricity.

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

"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 near a project being put up by Smallworks, Thomas Frauenberger has finished three-quarters of a one-bedroom laneway house he's building with his company, Lanecraft Lane and Coach Houses.

The house sits on a prime corner lot and 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 is about 100 square meters, including a large balcony and enclosed parking space.

With design fees, permits and taxes, Frauenberger said the eco-friendly building will cost about 225,000 Canadian dollars (227,986 U.S. dollars).

"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 trained architect.

"We're seeing many people want them (built) either for elderly parents or for their teenagers or for rental," he said. "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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