March 6, 2012

Victoria Policy Encourages Urban Density

Above-ground version of ‘granny suite’ provides homeowners with extra income and eventually a place for them to live


A basement suite is no longer the only option for those wanting to accommodate extended family or earn extra income from their properties. Building a legal backyard garden suite has become a viable alternative for many homeowners looking to house their parents, adult children, grandchildren and even themselves when the time comes. In the meantime, the self-contained suites can be legally rented.

The City of Victoria’s planning department is fielding at least a call a day inquiring about its recently passed garden suite policy, which has identified more than 7,500 properties that can potentially house a garden suite. Other local municipalities are watching Victoria closely with an eye toward enacting similar bylaws in their jurisdictions.

Vancouver has seen close to 500 so-called laneway houses built since its policy was passed. In Greater Victoria, projects are just getting off the ground, with two in Colwood and one in Victoria. “There have been a few bumps along the road,” says Jen Young, marketing director for Westco Construction, which has built all three homes. “Although there have been a lot of inquiries, the process can be long and daunting for those first applicants. It can be a scary road with a number of unknowns.”

The biggest deterrent in the city of Victoria is rezoning, says Young. While the city has identified the properties eligible, property owners must apply to have the lots rezoned. The process can cost an applicant thousands of dollars, with no guarantee the proposal will pass the program’s numerous requirements. The rezoning process can take between six and eight months.

“To be fair, Victoria is approaching it very conservatively,” says Young. “In Vancouver, where there is no rezoning requirement, just a building permit, you hear stories about people complaining about loss of privacy and lack of consultation.” Doug and Lynda McDougall spoke to their neighbours before they went ahead with their 645-square-foot garden suite.

“There has been a high level of interest from the neighbours,” says Doug, who is retired from BC Transit. “They were interested in why we were doing it, as well as the benefits of the project.” Despite its compact dimensions, the one-level home has two bedrooms and an open plan that combines the living room and kitchen. It has a full bath with a heated floor. It is home to the McDougalls’ daughter Randi and their grandson, Alex, 8.

“While it is serving one use now, I can see other uses for it in the future,” Doug says. “When our daughter moves out, we can rent it. Eventually, my wife and I may even live in it, and rent out the main house.” Doug and Lynda raised two girls and one boy in the property’s main house, a four-bedroom built in the 1970s in Colwood. The maximum floor area of a garden suite is calculated based on a lot’s total area.

The McDougalls’ property (65 feet by 140 feet or 9,100 square feet) is larger than most lots in Victoria because houses in the Western Communities were designed to accommodate septic fields in the backyard. That’s why in Victoria, garden suites must be smaller — usually only about 400 square feet — than the ones available to Colwood or Langford homeowners.

The garden suite cost the McDougalls about $130,000 with all the necessary permits. The structure alone was $94,000 before the finishing costs and appliances. Garden suites are a good way to increase urban density, say residential designers. “It’s where we have to move to get the extra density,” says John Gower, owner of Gower Design Group, who helped design one of the homes.

“It is a viable alternative for homeowners who want to add living area without having to raise a house [to put a suite in the basement] or build an addition with a common wall.” He says that good designs that respect the privacy of neighbours in adjoining properties will go a long way to making garden suites acceptable to everyone. To those who have already taken the plunge, it has been a win-win solution so far. “My daughter and grandson now have a decent place to live,” says McDougall. “It looks after my kids now and, in the future, may be where we will live. That’s a good investment,” he said.

Victoria Times Colonist

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