Walking up the sidewalk to Richard Nault’s front door in Edmonton’s Old Glenora neighbourhood, even in the dead of winter, is much like walking up the path to any family home in a well-established neighbourhood. A large, dark spruce that’s been there for decades skirts the sidewalk and provides privacy to a small patio that fills the yard. A front door to one side of the building is modern and in keeping with the narrow, two-storey upscale design.
Inside, the main floor boasts a long, open-concept space where the comfortable sitting area morphs into a good-sized dining area, which then transitions to a large modern kitchen with all the bells and whistles. There are three bedrooms upstairs, another in the basement, along with a fantastic movie room, and four well- appointed bathrooms.
At about 17-feet wide, this house doesn’t have breadth of more traditional homes but it doesn't feel squished either. A detached garage sits behind the home, along with a nicely landscaped patio anchored with a large elm tree. The builders took care not to damage the tree and it gives the space the feeling that is has always been like this.
Filling a Niche
At about $850,000 for a national award-winning 1,900-square-foot home within minutes of downtown, this is not a starter home. Nor is it cheap. And even if it was more affordable, it's not for everybody, because as letters to the editor will attest, not everyone is in favour of so-called "skinny houses," which have sprouted in several neighbourhoods since the city passed a bylaw half a decade ago allowing the subdivision of wide residential lots. Some people hate them, but Nault is OK with that. For him, as a young man looking to the future, it all makes perfect economic sense.
“When you look at it, it is about the city growing up and becoming more urban,” he says. “Had this bylaw allowing these homes not come into effect, a lot of these derelict houses would simply have been torn down and you would have been waiting for someone to build a McMansion that cost $1.3 to $1.4 million and up.
“The market that they would be building to, how many people can afford that? It just slows down the revitalization of the city. More and more houses get torn down, more and more houses sit driving down property values. And all of the amenities - whether it is schools or coffee shops - they are not being utilized as much because the density is not there.”
Nault is the marketing and operations manager of UrbanAge Homes. Since its inception five years ago, the company has developed close to three dozen narrow lot homes in addition to more traditional homes in some of the city’s more far flung suburbs. He is a big proponent of mixed housing. He understands the desire for big yards and houses. He knows some people may prefer condos and rentals. But for a smaller segment of the housing market, there is a demand for infill homes on narrow lots.
“Some people don’t want a duplex or row housing, they want independence,” he says. “These are almost like a condo on steroids. In a condominium, you have shared walls or people living above or below you but no maintenance. You have a desirable location with walkability, bikeability, transportability and stuff like that. This is like that, but you still have the independence and less maintenance. You don’t have that same yard to rake and that walk to shovel in winter months.”
Built on a 25-foot-wide lot, Nault’s house sits next another so-called skinny house next door, the other half of this particular narrow lot development. His home is aesthetically different, certainly, but not necessarily out of place in diverse Glenora, with its century-old mansions, renovated family homes, pristine showpieces and neglected homes destined for the wrecking crew, sadly beyond reasonable repair.
Upgrading the Neighborhood ... Or Not
“You have got a lot of these properties with derelict houses that have not been kept up,” Nault says. “They get past the point of being renovated. That’s what happened here. When we purchased this land the first thing we did was canvas the neighbourhood. People knew our plan, that we were going to subdivide, they knew what we were doing.
“We were surprised because a large number of neighbours on this block asked how quickly we could tear down the house that was here because it was transient. It was trouble. It was an eyesore. That kind of caught us off guard. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are still people out there who are naysayers.”
In fact, letters to the editor pages have been full of them, often citing issues such as aesthetics or fears of smaller lots driving down neighbourhood land prices.
Sometimes people are surprised at the cost of a home on a narrow lot – after all, if you get half the land shouldn’t you pay half the cost? This argument is flawed, and Nault cautions people about labeling any new home in expensive neighbourhoods such as Glenora as affordable. It is all relative.
“It’s more affordable than the $1.5 million new home (on a traditional Glenora lot),” Nault says. “But it is still not affordable to everyone. A price of $700,000 to $900,00 is not affordable. But when you compare it to $1.5 million it is, so now you have a wider part of the market that can move into these areas.”
Demolishing a derelict home in an established neighbourhood and then subdividing the lot to build two new single-family homes is a long, complicated process. It’s also not cheap. There are often unseen surprises. A house like his in a more distant suburb could cost 40 per cent less mainly because of land prices, he says.
So, who buys skinny homes? Generally, it's people or young families with good incomes who want to live in desirable neighbourhoods close to downtown and other core amenities, Nault says. Purchasers also include downsizing neighbourhood residents who can sell their existing traditional home for more, and pocket the difference without saying goodbye to their neighbourhood.
According to the most recent city statistics, 220 lot subdivisions for detached homes were approved in 2017 for core, mature and established areas. The neighbourhoods with the most subdivisions included Inglewood with 20 new lots created, Westmount with 18 new lots and Glenora with 14 new lots.
Edmonton councillor and former city hall columnist Scott McKeen says while there is no doubt skinny houses will always be controversial with some residents, they do bring economic efficiencies to mature neighbourhoods.
“People talk about the dreaded skinny homes, but I like to call them narrow lot homes,” he says.
“The city did a study on this about eight to 10 years ago because the older mature neighbourhoods had way less population density than the newer neighbourhoods. I didn’t realize that a lot of lots were given to veterans and they put a small house on a big lot, so you really felt like you were getting something.”
Increased density can help these older neighbourhoods thrive. Infill also cuts down on sprawl.
“I mean, lets try to save some parkland,” McKeen says. “I think it's important to show people why increasing density through infill is more efficient. It can reduce taxes over time, make better use of infrastructure, create communities where people are more likely to start businesses, keep local schools open.”
Increasing Tax Revenue
Adding homes to neighbourhoods also adds taxpayers.
“If we can double the density in a city block, we’ve got way more people paying taxes to cover the costs,” McKeen says. “It makes sense for the city to try to get more money from more density. If you have a really low-density mature neighbourhood and you bring in more density - more families - you get more revenue.”
However, the options to attract density are few. Row housing and high-rise condominium projects may be acceptable very close to the commercial core, but not necessarily along all the leafy streets of upscale communities such as Glenora, or Belgravia, near the University of Alberta.
“People were OK with more density in mature neighbourhoods, but they wanted single family homes and they wanted them detached,” McKeen says. “You could build a duplex, that is one option. Or you could subdivide the lot with two narrow lots. So that is kind of why we ended up with skinny homes.”
For whatever reason duplexes are not always popular in Edmonton, perhaps because of their often-mundane designs or the social connotations associated with detached home ownership. Nevertheless, the city zoned lots for duplex development for many years before it allowed subdivision for narrow detached homes.
“But then you put in skinny homes and it’s like facts don’t matter,” McKeen says. “People get emotional about it and I am not claiming to be right emotionally, but I want people to appreciate that governments are cautious.
“We try to find that socio-benefit sweet spot. If you divide a 50-foot lot, you have limited options. Basically, you can build skinny homes. A skinny bungalow would be quite small and that’s why you see them going taller.”
McKeen says he supports preserving heritage homes and mature trees in neighbourhoods, though in Alberta, cities have no control over trees on private land as they do in places such as Toronto. As a result, in some early infill developments lots were often clear cut.
“But you have to get a permit to knock down your house,” he says. “What if you had to get a permit to take out a tree? If you have a problem tree, then it would be all right to take it out, but what if you just want to remove it to put in something new? You might not get the permit. I mean what if it a beautiful 80-year-old majestic tree that adds character to the whole neighbourhood?”
He never expects to see rows of skinny houses, but more likely a few here and there sprinkled throughout more mature upscale neighbourhoods of a certain age.
“We talked to builders and the answer was that doing infill is hard,” McKeen says. “It takes a lot of time, effort and money to do. If they build in the right higher-end neighbourhood, they can get their money out of it. The reason that they seem to cost so much is that when they buy a chunk of land it takes three to five years before the product is turned over. All those interest charges on the land have to be covered.”
“So skinny houses became the most publicly accepted form of infill housing in certain neighbourhoods. And then we added that you can create an in-law suite in the alley. What that is saying is that some people don’t want to live way out in the suburbs. They want to live in mature areas, but they can’t afford it. And they don’t necessarily want to live on the fifth floor of a condo building.”