Thin houses making news again

12th and Cambie


I know this question has no doubt kept you up at night: What exactly is a “thin house?”

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Sounds like it could be a title to a long lost Dashiell Hammett novel, doesn’t it?

Alas, it is not.

A “thin house” is a term the City of Vancouver uses to describe, well, a thin house — a thin house, that is, built on a lot less than 7.3 metres wide.

Apparently, there are about 60 in the city.

I’m telling you about this because owners and potential purchasers of such houses have called city hall with complaints about an amendment council made in 1989 to the zoning and development bylaw.

I know, 1989, right?

Anyway, the complaints are all related to the city’s Board of Variance and how it complicates matters for these people.

Some background: Council made the amendment back in 1989 because neighbours were freaking out over the size of these houses and argued they weren’t compatible with standard single-family homes.

What that amendment also did was prevent the city’s director of planning from granting authority to property owners wanting to redevelop or build on the narrow lot.

So that meant the applicant had to seek approval from the Board of Variance.

The problem with that?

In a word, certainty.

I’ll let a staff report from Jane Pickering, the city’s deputy director of planning explain:

“In the last year, staff have received a number of calls from owners and potential buyers of ‘thin houses’ expressing concern about whether or not their home could be reconstructed in the event of a fire because the outcome of an appeal to the Board of Variance is by no means certain,” Pickering wrote.

Other concerns had to do with paying higher insurance premiums, problems with re-sale and difficulties related to mortgage insurance and disclosure requirements, she said.

And here’s a concern that no doubt warmed the heart of Mayor Gregor Robertson and his affordable housing campaign: “Staff also note that some of the potential buyers mentioned that their interest in purchasing a ‘thin house’ was because they were a more affordable option compared to single-family homes on regular size lots.”

So, all that said, council is expected to get rid of that clause where owners have to go before the Board of Variance.

The new clause calls for the director of planning to relax minimum site width provisions so an owner can build on a property that has or had a thin house.

Or, as Pickering said: “The amendment will provide owners and potential buyers with certainty in regards to obtaining city approval for reconstruction of homes damaged or destroyed by fire or for repair of older thin homes in poor condition.”

Oh, and not to forget the biggie here: It “aligns with council’s affordable housing initiatives.”

Very interesting.

Which makes me think you may want to stay tuned on a potential follow-up to this entry titled “Return of the Thin House,” with a foreword by the mayor.

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