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Another Thing Canada Does Better

Vancouver shows how cottage laws can ease a crisis.

An aerial view of laneway homes in Vancouver


An affordable housing shortage. Skyrocketing prices. Wealthy foreign investors. Sound familiar? Vancouver once found itself in a similar predicament to the Bay Area’s current one. But there, a government-backed affordable housing push a few decades ago—centered in part on adding ADUs—has led to a boom in affordable rental units. Known as laneway homes because of their proximity to the city’s numerous alleys, such units are now found in more than one-third of new homes in Vancouver—up from 5 percent in 2000.

Some experts think the Canadian city could serve as a model for the Bay Area. Just like here, many of Vancouver’s ADUs were built illegally years ago without permits and were once seen as a nuisance. But by the 1980s, the city had decided to flip its stance by helping homeowners to permit existing structures and encouraging them to build new ones. By 2004 they were permitted citywide; a 2007 eco-density initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gases partially through denser land use; and in 2013, the city allowed the construction of secondary homes up to 940 square feet in size.

City planners there say laneway homes have helped curb sprawl by encouraging dense growth on land that’s already developed and near existing city services. By comparison, single-family neighborhoods in California have seen a loss in density over the last four decades, says Michelle Frey of the Urban Land Institute.

Though few experts think that ADUs will solve all of the Bay Area’s housing woes, a Vancouver approach could put a meaningful dent in the affordable rental crisis. At the very least, ADUs could help recalibrate single-family-home neighborhoods for today’s household sizes, which are typically smaller than they were a generation ago. “It’ll be going back to the density of the 1970s,” Frey says.

Read More About the Granny Flat Explosion:
Grannies Gone Wild: A guide to going big by building small.
New Kids on the Lawn: Three companies trying to crack the cottage code.
Cottage People: Five homeowners who've made room for granny.
The Granny Whisperers: Designers, builders, and expediters of backyard flats.


Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco 

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