Cowichan Valley.

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Josh is one of several Cowichan residents who live in tiny homes on wheels. He built his home himself. Jenny Holden/The Discourse Cowichan

Facing a housing crunch, some choose tiny house living

It's usually against local bylaws to live in them. Advocates are pushing to change that.

Earlier this fall, local mom Tasha moved with her daughter from one part of the Cowichan Valley to another. But she didn’t have to pack up much. That’s because when she moved, her tiny house came with her. “The only way I know is when I look out the window and It’s a different view,” she says. She has been living in her 8.5-feet-by-30-feet tiny house for a year and a half. 

She is one of a growing number of people in the Cowichan Valley who live in tiny homes that are built on top of a trailer chassis. They do it for reasons of flexibility, sustainability, and most of all affordability.

In Cowichan, the story of tiny homes is intertwined with the story of a crisis in affordable housing. In recent years, rents are up and vacancies have plummeted, leaving many scrambling for acceptable housing options. People like 59-year-old Jan MacKirdy, who suddenly found herself without secure housing for her and her dog. She told me that if tiny homes were a legal option, she would build one, park it on a friend’s property and solve her housing problem for good. 

There’s the catch: local governments here currently have no mechanism to permit tiny homes on wheels as permanent dwellings. So while it’s legal to build and own them, it’s almost always against local bylaws to live in them. Advocates are pushing for regulatory change, but for now this on-the-ground housing alternative must remain underground.

Despite this, people in Cowichan are choosing this housing option. I found six tiny home dwellers to talk to without significant effort. And I had leads for about a dozen more. (I’m publishing only first names for tiny home dwellers to minimize the possible risk that their housing could be jeopardized as a result of speaking with me.)

There are a couple of tiny home manufacturers based in the Cowichan Valley, and it’s not hard to find tiny homes for sale on online marketplaces. By all indications, this form of alternative housing isn’t going anywhere, and governments have yet to figure out how they might be regulated.

What is a tiny house?

“A ground-oriented permanent dwelling that is detached, movable and non-motorized, small in size (less than 500 square feet) and uses a compact design.” That’s the definition used in a joint presentation last month by BC Housing, Light House and the BC Tiny House Collective at BC’s Affordable Housing Conference.

Most local tiny homes are between 200 and 300 square feet. They are quite narrow, typically 8.5 feet wide, because that’s the maximum size they can be towed without requiring a permit for an oversized load. The maximum towing height is 13.5 feet, which means that, when the trailer and roofing materials are figured in, the interior height is usually a little less than 10.5 feet. Beyond that, there is little uniformity because most tiny homes are custom-designed.

“There’s some misconceptions about tiny homes … being just like a wild, wild West kind of thing. Whereas when people come and actually see our homes in person, they realize like this is built exactly like a residential house, just smaller and on a trailer. It’s meant for full-time living and for lasting for a long time,” says Jessica Whelan, who started Rewild Homes in Cobble Hill with her husband in 2012. The company builds more than a dozen custom tiny homes each year, and they mostly end up on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, she says.

“A tiny home has every ambiance and feeling of being in a house,” Tasha tells me. “I don’t even remember that I’m on wheels.”

Who lives in them?

Jay Shafer, who formed a company to build tiny homes in 1999, is often credited with kickstarting the tiny house movement. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 tiny homes in the U.S. There is no good estimate of the number in Canada. 

There is a perception that it’s primarily millenials who are choosing to live in tiny homes, says Anastasia Koutalianos, co-founder of the BC Tiny House Collective. But while that segment appears to be growing, she says the most typical tiny home dweller, according to surveys, is a single woman over 50. “Building a tiny home ain’t cheap. … It also has to be roadworthy.” 

Whelan of Rewild Homes says that about half of their clients are young professionals, and the other half are retirees looking to downsize.

The tiny home owners I spoke with were mostly women, and ranged in age from young adult to senior. They describe a variety of motivations for moving to a tiny home. These include being closer to nature, living in line with their values, personal freedom, community, and being squeezed out of the housing market. For more on why they choose the tiny home life, and how they like it, check out this profile of three of them.

Tasha lives with her daughter in a tiny house in the Cowichan region. Jenny Holden/The Discourse Cowichan

How much does it cost to own a tiny home?

The three local tiny home dwellers we profiled paid $63,000, $70,000 and $100,000. Tiny homes listed for sale online on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland range between $40,000 and $150,000. Most of the homes built by Rewild Homes cost between $95,000 and $105,000, Whelan says. 

She acknowledges that people who build it in their backyard and source all their materials second hand can build a tiny home for as low as $30,000. But she explains that in addition to rising steel and lumber prices, Transport Canada-certified trailers cost about $15,000. There are also the costs of Canadian Standards Association certification for things such as the electrical system, Whelan says.

She adds that while people can get a personal loan or a line of credit to buy a tiny home, they generally can’t get a mortgage because tiny houses on wheels aren’t considered a fixed asset. 

Where can you live in a tiny home in Cowichan?

“We always caution our clients to find land first,” says Whelan. She adds that the hardest thing for people to find when they’re looking for places to park is septic, which is why about 95 per cent of Rewild’s homes have composting toilets. Their website features a list of B.C. landowners willing to have a tiny home on their property. Whelan says that most of her clients are interested in parking their tiny house legally.

But in B.C., and the rest of Canada, there are very few places where it’s legal to have a tiny house on wheels. The national and provincial building codes do not yet have a classification for them. 

“It’s not that we don’t want to allow tiny homes, it’s just that we can’t permit them as per B.C. building codes,” says CVRD spokesperson Kris Schumacher. “Until we can figure out a way for them to become legal as per the building code, it’s not something that can happen right now.” Essentially, until the regulatory issues are dealt with at higher levels of government, the CVRD says its hands are tied.

However, some local governments in B.C. are looking at creative regulatory solutions. In March 2018, the City of Grand Forks in the West Kootenays amended its official community plan and bylaws to allow tiny homes on wheels. The decision was made in the wake of catastrophic flooding in the area. Applicants must submit requests for temporary use permits. So far, at least one tiny home owner in Grand Forks has been granted a temporary use and development permit.

Earlier this fall, a tiny home hotel opened in Fernie, after the municipality rezoned an RV lot. Tiny houses are available to rent in a “micro village” outside of Terrace, where the regional district permits CSA-certified tiny homes. And a private recreational property east of Hope called Sunshine Valley is able to sell lots for tiny homes because the property is exempt from regional bylaws and zoning. 

A number of local governments in B.C. are exploring the tiny house question, including the City of Victoria and the District of Squamish.

What’s the B.C. government doing?

B.C.’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told me in a statement that tiny homes are fine, if they can meet existing regulatory requirements.

“The British Columbia Building Code does not prohibit tiny homes. A house can be as small as possible provided it meets the Code objectives of safety, health, accessibility, fire and structural protection, and energy and water efficiency. Mobile or manufactured homes are regulated by the Manufactured Home Regulation and must meet federal standards (CAN/CSA Z240-MH). People interested in building a tiny home should contact their local government to find out what land uses are permitted and the type and size of buildings and structures that may be constructed.”

Basically, tiny homes must meet housing codes designed for traditionally built or manufactured houses. But in reality, tiny homes tend to have attributes that make them non-compliant with those regulations, says Whelan of Rewild Homes. These include narrower doorway and hallway widths, smaller framing stud size, the existence of lofts, and a lack of secondary exits.

“Mobile home certification can be a good option for single-storey tiny homes, with the primary downside being no lofts and that you will have to have land that is properly zoned for adding a mobile home to your property, which of course is the hard part for most people,” she explains. “There are usually foundational requirements for mobile homes as well as anchoring, skirting, etc.”

While BC Housing hasn’t promised new rules for tiny homes, it is looking into it. The agency is working with Light House and the BC Tiny House Collective on a report examining the viability of tiny homes as a housing alternative. According to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, “The final report will include findings and recommendations for addressing planning regulations, warranty provisions and cultural aspects for implementing tiny houses into new or established B.C. neighbourhoods. The report is expected to be released in early March 2020.

A tiny house on display built by Rewild Homes, a company based in Cobble Hill. Photo courtesy of Rewild Homes.
A tiny house built by Rewild Homes, a company based in Cobble Hill. Photo courtesy of Rewild Homes.

What about other options for tiny homes? 

Rob Conway, the director of planning for the Municipality of North Cowichan, says that they get a lot of inquiries from residents about tiny homes. He told me the same thing: tiny homes must meet existing building standards. “North Cowichan is entirely supportive of small housing so if somebody wanted to build a tiny home in North Cowichan. … You can do that, but it would need to be on a foundation and comply with the building code requirement,” he says. “It has to have basic sanitary facilities and washroom and cooking facility of sorts but could be a very compact unit.”

However, most people who want to live in tiny homes aren’t interested in putting them on a foundation, says Marian McCoy, a spokesperson for the Tiny Houses Advocates of Vancouver Island. Advocates are pushing for new rules that accommodate tiny homes as they are being built and used today, on trailers so they can be easily moved. “Our focus is on movable tiny homes, the ones that are on wheels. We’re not really talking about small houses on foundations,” she says. “If at a national level or at least at a provincial level we could develop some kind of a certification around tiny home construction and what it means, that would be a huge step forward.”

Tiny houses can be constructed to meet certification requirements for recreational vehicles. But that doesn’t help with zoning, according to local officials. RVs are not considered permanent residences and typically aren’t allowed to stay in one place for an entire year. 

It’s also not an approach favoured by many in the tiny home community, according to McCoy. “A tiny house is built to far higher standards than an RV. A tiny house is built like a conventional wood frame house. So, to meet the RV certification, it’s almost like an insult to builders because RVs are vinyl, plastic, they’re designed to save weight,” she says. “It’s a stopgap measure; it’s not a solution.”

For now, options are very limited in the province for living legally in a tiny house. 

What is the future for tiny houses?

Koutalianos of the BC Tiny House Collective suggests that other local governments follow the lead of Grand Forks. She says that while temporary use permits are not the ideal solution, they are a way for local governments to circumvent the lack of provincial standards for tiny homes.

Locally, the CVRD and the Municipality of North Cowichan are not currently working on the tiny house issue. But both expect it to come up during the process of developing new official community plans, which they are each actively working on. Conway explains that North Cowichan’s council has made it a priority to look at innovative housing types that can address the affordability and availability crisis. He adds that even if tiny homes become a legal option, it may be difficult for many of the tiny homes currently flying under the radar to be certified retroactively, because they likely won’t meet all the building standards. 

John Horn, executive director of the Cowichan Housing Association, says the group has been talking with various parties around the community about tiny homes and their potential as an affordable rental option. “Is there a way to create really small dwelling units that can be made available at a cost-recovery basis that yields an affordable rent? That’s the formula we’re exploring,” Horn says. He notes that tiny homes don’t provide as much density as apartments and can have a higher cost per square foot due to the need to insulate and weatherproof four walls.

In the meantime, interest in tiny houses continues to grow. McCoy of Tiny Houses Advocates of Vancouver Island says that more than 500 people attended the group’s May showcase, which included her tiny house on display. “The municipalities know we’re out there. So we’re just trying to do what we can to help move the whole process forward,” says McCoy, who is also on the board of directors of the Tiny Home Alliance of Canada.  

Both the CVRD and North Cowichan say that bylaw enforcement regarding tiny homes is typically done on a complaint-driven basis. However, Schumacher of the CVRD says it’s important for owners of tiny homes to know that bylaw enforcement officers have the ability to proactively seek out bylaw infractions that pose a health or safety issue.

Tiny home owners, meanwhile, express frustration that their choice of housing is not a legal option. “I haven’t really had a lot of fear about it getting taken away from me because I will fight,” Tasha says. “This is something that’s mine, that is rightfully mine. … It shouldn’t be any different than living in a trailer or a modular home or a shipping container or living on boats. … We have a right to build our own homes.”