Time for micro-lots?

When they couldn’t sell their large lots for mansions in the 1910s, early real estate land developers in Vancouver’s Grandview “suburb” split them into smaller lots, and sold them to workers to build their own homes.  

Today, these lots are smaller than the legal norm in Vancouver of 33’ X 122’.  Many are 25 X 90.  Some are 30 X 60; there may even be some smaller ones.  Most have homes on them larger than what would be allowed today—they nearly fill the lot, offering only a tiny back yard or patio.  But over the decades these houses on small lots have allowed people who otherwise couldn’t afford a home in the area to enter the housing market (my husband and I included).   They also helped create the higher density of people per sq. mile that supports the vibrant retail and restaurant scene on nearby Commercial Drive.

You would have a hard time getting City Hall to approve sub-dividing properties into lots this small today (assuming you could assemble a few bigger ones, and then re-divide them). 

But maybe smaller lots are what we need, with houses that nearly fill them—and not just in Vancouver.  I suspect similar issues exist in the older neighbourhoods of other North American cities where there is growing demand to live there and prices are rising because it`s hard to increase supply.

Small homes on small lots also suit the lifestyle preferences of many people today, including the generation x and y urban “workforce” who are not that interested in keeping up a yard.  They’d love their own outdoor space, but maybe more of a patio that requires minimal maintenance. They might prefer to go to a larger park when they want grass. 

This attitude toward spending less time on home maintenance is partially what’s driving the condo-living boom.  But not everyone who doesn’t really enjoy yard work wants to live more than 1 storey off the ground; what options do they have if they cannot afford a detached single family home?  Even those in townhouses (or condo towers) sometimes find strata rules and councils frustrating and even intrusive.

Solution:  why not detached homes on very small lots?  For example, what about having 1000-1200 square feet of house, on a 33’ X 40 foot lot—likely in 2.5 storeys. There’d be enough outside space for small patio, or tiny garden or yard, whatever the home owner wanted.  Basically it would be a small townhouse, but “fee simple” –you own the land and the house–and you could get three such properties on corner lots where today currently one house stands.  This adds density, which is great for amenities, keeps in the low-rise character of an area, and adds housing that is more affordable than a single house or duplex on a lot.

In the 1910s, somehow lot owners were able to subdivide lots to create workforce housing.  Creativity came into play when the mansion-sized lots proved to be too expensive for ordinary folks.  Although there seem to be many willing to pay over $1,000,000 for a home in East Vancouver, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to what worked in the past to create less expensive housing that more people want and can afford.

So tell me, where do you know of where you can buy new homes on tiny lots with no strata council?

I’ve heard of one such project in Victoria, and that it has been very popular with the strata-fatigued, but would love to learn more about it and other examples.

5 comments

  1. Charlie says:

    I suspect similar issues exist in the older neighbourhoods of other North American cities where there is growing demand to live there and prices are rising because it`s hard to increase supply.

    There certainly is, but minimum lot and home sizes and setback and parking requirements conspire to prevent what would otherwise be a naturally occurring process of land subdivision. This artificial scarcity of land naturally inflates housing prices.

    Hoboken, NJ, for instance, has some lots of 15x50ft. with 3 bedroom, 2 1/2 story attached rowhouses that are going for over 700,000 USD apiece. This format, with no setbacks on narrow streets, can produce over 36 units/acre of gross density, and 118 bedrooms/acre (comparable to Manhattan densities). And yet everyone can have both a 15×15 foot backyard patio (and roof deck if they please)! If this arrangement were more generally permissible, I think your instincts are exactly right that it would meet a receptive market.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    Thanks for the tip on Hoboken NJ. I’ll have to find some photos as it sounds like a really great area and a good example for lots of cities.

  3. Daniel Hake says:

    Hoboken sounds more like the typical European residential lot, that allows both outdoor life and a density that supports services. My home in Leiden, the Netherlands, is a row house on a 17 x 50 lot directly on the street, and that’s quite sizeable for the city I live in. The trend here in recent developments is for even smaller lots and larger houses. Owners and landlords of older, smaller, houses often build extensions into the garden to get more square footage. National deregulation means you can cover half your garden with a single story extension, without needing a permit!

  4. A timely article; my husband and I are looking into purchasing a 24′x60′ lot on which we want to build a 3 story (3 bed, 2.5 bath) townhouse with a footprint of 16′x52′. The issues we have run into include city ordinances that require parking for two vehicles, deed restrictions that eliminate several feet on each side of the lot, and the potential ‘deal breaker’: an electrical line that runs the length of one long side. Federal and state safety laws will not allow a construction worker to come within 10 feet of the line, even though a house is technically allowed to sit as close as 5 feet away. This ‘catch-22′ situation is presenting a very difficult challenge that may prevent anything from being built there.

    While Houston is known for suburban sprawl and even the urban lots are quite large, this lot is a rare opportunity for us to get into an affluent neighborhood we otherwise could not afford. The trend is to take a single lot and re-plat it into two lots, but even then, the property and the enormous homes that are built on them are still expensive. I would love to see more affordable options for the area, and that means smaller lots and smaller homes.

  5. James Skinner says:

    According to http://www.lda.gov.uk/Documents/London_Housing_Design_Guide_interim_August_2010_9460.pdf the minimum floor space for a 3 bedroom, 3 story house in London is about 1100 sq ft… so the house itself would take up around 15′ x 30′ or so. In fact 1100 sq ft is the average house size across the UK for 2+ person dwellings, so your figures seem perfectly plausible from here in London :)

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