5 years in, Edmonton is buying into skinny homes

Skinny homes are becoming commonplace in communities like Glenora, Westmount and Inglewood, a few years after long-time residents decried them as ruining the feel of their mature tree-lined neighbourhoods.

Higher demand for skinnies reflects shift in acceptance and lifestyle

The demand for skinny homes in Edmonton's mature neighbourhoods keeps rising, realtors and builders say. (UrbanAge Homes)

Skinny homes are moving up in Edmonton.

The narrow houses, typically two storeys tall and 17 feet wide, are becoming commonplace in places like Glenora, Westmount and Inglewood, a few years after long-time residents decried them as ruining the feel of their mature, tree-lined neighbourhoods.

Sue McCoy, president of the Glenora community league, said most residents seem to accept skinny homes as part of the neighbourhood's modern landscape.

"The assumption is if a house is coming down, two skinnies are going up," McCoy told CBC News. "That's what we're seeing."

The change of perspective is fairly new.

When the discussion on skinny homes started in 2013, the city heard loud and clear from residents of mature neighbourhoods.

Sue McCoy's children pose in front of their Glenora home. Two skinny homes were recently built across the street. (Sue McCoy)

"There was certainly outrage," McCoy said. "There was just definitely people very disappointed thinking that the whole character of Glenora was being destroyed by doing this and that we had a responsibility as citizens to make it known, so they tried and here we are."

Skinny homes are usually built on 25-foot wide lots after a 50-foot lot has been split into two.

Realtors say the older homes are being sold by people with investment properties that have been rented out for a long time and baby boomers looking to downsize or make money by splitting lots. 

Richard Nault is in charge of marketing and general operations at UrbanAge Homes, which has built 32 skinny homes since 2013 and has a dozen more planned.
Realtor Chris Proctor said he sold this skinny home in Glenora for about $900,000. (Chris Proctor)

He recalls residents approaching them at the sites where they building some of the first skinny homes in Glenora.

"They weren't too kind or afraid to tell us their opinion," Nault said. "We would have people literally taking pictures of our vehicles or ourselves, taking pictures of our site, we would have people walking by throwing out cat calls."

Nault says it's now rare to hear such criticism from people in the community.

"Once the two houses are built and landscaped and they become part of the community," he said. "It can actually work and blend." 

Approvals for lot splitting went up more than 50 per cent between 2015 and 2016 after the city started allowing owners to subdivide properties 50 feet wide or larger. (City of Edmonton)

Chris Proctor, a realtor with Maxwell Devonshire Realty, has 10 years of experience selling homes in Edmonton's older neighbourhoods, said skinnies are in high demand. He's noticed the trend building since 2013, when the city first started allowing 50-foot lots to be split in certain residential areas.

The rules were further relaxed in 2015, allowing skinny homes in all mature neighbourhoods.

"That's really when the skinnies took off because it just opened the door to neighbourhoods like Glenora and Westmount," Proctor said. "It has really drastically changed in the last couple of years and it's continuing to change."

He recently sold a skinny in Glenora for about $900,000. 

"Every time one of these tear down opportunities hits the market that's 50 feet or wider, if it's priced properly, it's selling in less than a day and usually way over the asking price."

Glenora, Westmount and Inglewood were the top three neighbourhoods for lot subdivisions in 2016.

'I've shifted my viewpoint'

McCoy said while she didn't like the look of skinny homes at first, she's come to appreciate the ones that are designed and constructed well.

"Some of them are — like they're really sleek looking, they're really clean looking."

McCoy notes younger families are moving into the skinnies, bringing revitalization to the community.

"We need more people engaged and certainly more energy," she said. "I think given all those factors, I've shifted my viewpoint."

McCoy said the city could have communicated the changes better with neighbourhoods when the infill was approved.

The interior of a skinny home sold by Chris Proctor. (Chris Proctor)

Hani Quan, a city planner with the infill department, said the change seemed drastic for people living 30 to 40 years in older areas.

"Some of these neighbourhoods have not seen construction for decades, like literally decades," Quan told CBC News. "They're seeing construction and that means noise, that means impacts on the boulevard and on the sidewalk."

Quan said since the city introduced the infill compliance team in 2016 and developed roadmaps on infill, they've seen "a massive decrease in the number of complaints."

There are several kinds of low-density infill, including duplexes and semi-detached homes, garage suites, secondary suites and row housing.

Infill is meant to accommodate more people moving to the city and an increased demand for living in core neighbourhoods.

Nault is an example of this.

He, his family and pets moved into a skinny home, he said, for a change of lifestyle. 
The dining room in the Glenora skinny home that sold for $900,000. (Chris Proctor)

"We wanted to be in the downtown core. We wanted to be in a mature neighbourhood close to the river valley," he said.

He's also noticed how the new homes in mature neighbourhoods are drawing younger families for the same reasons. 

"You get new businesses and really cool, old infrastructure, so you see trendy coffee shops or clothing stores or restaurants opening up in these existing buildings and they're refaced or renovated," he said. "The culture's really shifted."

The city's next phase of infill will focus on medium to high density projects, like more row housing.

The planning department aims to present the 2018 infill roadmap to the city's urban planning committee before the summer. 

@natashariebe

About the Author

Natasha Riebe

Journalist

Natasha Riebe landed at CBC News in Edmonton after radio, TV and print journalism gigs in Halifax, Seoul, Yellowknife and on Vancouver Island. Please send tips in confidence to natasha.riebe@cbc.ca.

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