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Wednesday
Mar262014

Golly, I wish I had a smaller house.

I'm pretty set on adopting a dog. I check the SPCA website every week and fantasize about after-dinner walks and a happily wagging tail. The main roadblock right now is that my apartment is not dog-friendly. It's also way too big for my partner and I who have an aversion to acquiring what just ends up as “stuff.” 

So that's what got us on the apartment hunting circuit. And boy, is it a bummer. Anyone who has looked for an apartment, let alone a pet-friendly one, will attest how onerous the process can be. A few times, we have become so discouraged with the rental options that we've considered buying. Even when we play make-believe and ignore the pricetag, this has presented its own challenges. We cannot find a high-quality (as in you get what you pay for, not a bunch of particle board trying to pass as solid wood) home in a walkable area that is small enough for our liking. 

I'm not talking uber small like the tiny house pictures you have likely seen shared online (Exhibit A: Pinterest). I just mean under 1000 sf. We don't need more than that and with a smaller square footage, we could afford to invest in higher quality build and some solar panels.

In North American cities where land is not the limiting factor, developers build such that more money gets you more space. But increasingly, a large segment of the population would rather pay more money for more place. If we’ve got parks, restaurants, plazas, and workspace we can walk to, why would we need to build those amenities into our homes? In my city, our downtown has the place aspects that we’re looking for, but the housing options leave much to be desired.

Wander with me for a moment.

I'm currently drafting a discussion paper on age-friendly communities in our region of Atlantic Canada. What immediately comes to mind at the words 'age-friendly' is senior friendly. In reality we know that communities with universal design to accommodate the elderly, children, and people with disabilities, for example, are more liveable for everyone. So age-friendly really just means people friendly.

One of the best recommendations I can make for an age-friendly community is permitting accessory dwelling units (ADUs). For the unfamiliar, ADU is planner-speak for an extra housing unit, be it basement, driveway, loft, or garage added to an existing property (Check out some beautiful examples). But in shorthand, I'm going to refer to these as granny flats because what a fun term, right?

It would seem like pure logic to promote granny flats. Assuming it's actually your granny or parents or child living in the granny flat, there is a level of social safety net built in there. Multiple generations can live happily on one property and take care of each other without feeling invasive. If you get along with your family, is there any better way to age in place?

Even if you are not related to the dweller of your granny flat, these are a gentle, incremental way of adding density to a neighbourhood. They can provide that critical mass to justify urban amenities like a corner store or more bus stops. They are dignified small quarters, and mesh well with our cultural preference for home-ownership.

Finally, they are not just great for students and grannies. Demographics are changing so that we'll have one heck of a lot more grannies soon, but there's also my generation just nearing homebuying age. 

Let’s go back to my dilemma of picking between: a) bad rentals; or b) oversized homes (if you have a household of 1-2). If I ever buy a house, it'll be a small house and I won't settle for anything more. But where would we put our small house?

Goodness knows a Strong Town wouldn't build a Tiny House Crescent far out in the boonies without the infrastructure to support it. But I would sure love to make my small house a granny flat in your laneway.

Vancouver has legalized just that. As a result, new developers have sprung up working specifically in laneway construction. Yes, Vancouver has some of the highest land values in the world, but that's kind of the point.Jessop House by Lanefab, Vancouver

If we treated our urban land like it was worth something, we wouldn't make huge parking minimums and ban beautiful, affordable, socially beneficial housing? And yet, many city zoning codes prohibit granny flats. There are certainly areas in the city where granny flats would not be appropriate, so why not let each neighbourhood decide for themselves? 

Property owners could gain a way to keep multi-generational families together. Or they could split their property tax with someone like me. Young people who do not want a big house or a crummy apartment could afford to build or buy a small house in an existing walkable location.

So on the topic of what we can actually do to build Strong Towns (started by Andrew Burleson here), my personal suggestion is to lobby with our neighbours to allow granny flats in our backyards.

I believe if we want a fairly quick, decentralized way to balance housing demand and boost supply of affordable housing, we need to legalize and normalize granny flats. For me, for you, and your grandma too.

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