By Alyse Nelson
Akua Schatz and Brendon Purdy’s dream was to live near relatives, but they couldn’t afford a home in Vancouver, BC’s Dunbar neighborhood. Instead of moving to the suburbs, they decided to build a 500-square-foot laneway home in Brendon’s parents’ backyard.
A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been an option for the young couple. Rules for laneway houses, as these backyard cottages are called in Vancouver, were adopted in 2009. Laneway homes are small backyard cottages that face alleys in traditional single-family neighborhoods. The density is hidden from the main neighborhood streets, leaving the appearance of Vancouver’s single-family neighborhoods intact. But while you might not see this hidden density, it could have a huge effect on the number of people able to call Vancouver home – nearly 70,000 single-family lots are eligible for an additional dwelling unit.
The Vancouver regulations allow a one-bedroom 500 square-foot laneway house on 33-foot by 122-foot single-family lots. The larger 50-foot wide lots can have a two-bedroom 750 square-foot cottage.
As homeowners build small dwellings, they provide lower-cost housing within the existing fabric of their neighborhood, with no government support necessary. Vancouver’s planning director, Brent Toderian, sees this as the essential value of the trend towards small homes: “[It’s] about ordinary people. Thousands of individual homeowners can do it, one by one by one. It’s publicly propelled, not corporate-propelled densification. It’s gradual. It’s discrete. It’s green.”
Small homes combat neighborhood decline brought on by shrinking household sizes. Adding people can revitalize a neighborhood, allowing schools to stay open, giving neighborhood businesses more customers, making transit service cost-effective, and saving on infrastructure costs. Infilling neighborhoods with backyard cottages helps add more people to a neighborhood, without altering its character.
In a city where the average home price is $725,086, laneway homes can cost between $185,000 for an average home and $340,000 for an up-scale laneway dwelling.
Schatz and Purdy spent about $280,000 to build their one-bedroom laneway home. Their home may be small, but it is only a 10-minute bicycle ride to Schatz’s office. When choosing between their backyard cottage and a larger house in the suburbs, it was a no-brainer: “You’re looking at three-hour commutes, and I just don’t want to spend my life doing that,” she told the National Post.
There’s another plus to their backyard home: Schatz and Purdy recently gave birth to their first child and have babysitters just feet away from their front door. Their eventual plan is to switch places with Purdy’s parents and live in the larger home as their family grows.
Schatz suggests redefining success: “It’s really a North American concept to have success tied to moving away or distancing yourself, so maybe we’re reinventing what it means to be successful, and that means keeping family close.”
This post is adapted from a full article published here: http://daily.sightline.org/2012/12/20/tiny-homes/
Bio: Alyse Nelson is an urban planner for a small town in Kitsap County, Washington. She is a Writing Fellow for Sightline Institute.