When it comes to the housing crunch, tiny homes have their place

As more people across Vancouver Island turn to tiny house living, here’s what’s needed and what’s next.

This story is part of our solutions series on rental affordability, Making Rent. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for the latest updates on this reporting.

For the first few years that Nicolas Rhodes lived in his Nanaimo-based tiny home, there were no problems and it was a great, affordable alternative to traditional rentals, he says.

After getting the home built in 2016, a friend allowed Rhodes to park it in the large backyard of the home he owned in Harewood. As a musician, Rhodes split his time between the East and West Coast and was only in Nanaimo part-time. When he was away, he rented it out to friends.

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“I didn’t have any problems when I was living in it, everyone was cool. The neighbours were cool, my landlord was cool,” says Rhodes.

Over the years, the demographic of the neighbourhood began to change and more money was coming into the area, he says.

“There was a neighbour that moved in who was picking apart everyone’s backyard, and filing all these complaints,” he says. “Then I got a letter basically saying I had 30 days to evacuate, like no one could be in there, basically. They were like, ‘You can’t have people stay in there, and it shouldn’t be there and you need all these permits and whatnot’. My landlord didn’t want any further attention so he basically just asked me—we were friends—he asked me politely if I could move it.”

Finding somewhere else to put it was “an ordeal,” says Rhodes. According to Nanaimo city bylaw, tiny homes fall under the category of recreational vehicles and residents are not allowed to live in RVs for more than 42 days a year.

“I had a lot of people who were offering to let me come and put it in their backyard … but I was definitely really stressed about, if I moved it again, what would be involved because it’s a lot of work setting it up each time,” he says. “My tenant was also a young student, she worked [downtown] and was in the middle of her semester. She was doing exams and fostering pets and meanwhile I had to ask her to move, and I couldn’t even guarantee that I could move it somewhere she’d be able to live.”

He considered moving it somewhere like Errington or Chemainus, but as tiny homes are also not permitted there by regional district bylaws, he ended up moving the home and his tenant to a farm that is close to Nanaimo but not technically inside of city limits, for $500 a month, he says.

For the moment, he believes the home is currently safe from eviction because it is well hidden on a large property far away from neighbours.

“After it happened I started walking around Harewood a lot, as I often do, and everywhere I look it’s like, oh look—someone’s RV, oh look—there’s actually several tiny houses in Harewood that are tucked away in little corners and stuff,” says Rhodes. “It just got me thinking…  like, we’re in this huge housing crisis. It’s kind of backwards, in my mind.”

A large crowd likes up to view Rewild Tiny Homes in a parking lot in Nanaimo with clear blue skies pre-pandemic.
Prospective tiny home buyers line up to view Rewild Homes at an open house in 2017. Photo submitted by Rewild Homes

Could tiny homes be part of the solution to the housing crisis?

Though still a niche lifestyle, factors like a cultural interest in minimalism, a province-wide rental crisis and the rising entry cost of the housing market have contributed to an increased interest in  small home living in recent years

For example, when the volunteer-run BC Tiny House collective did a survey on the topic in 2017, 81 per cent of respondents said yes, they would live in a tiny house.

As defined by the City of Nanaimo, a tiny house is “a permanent dwelling meant for full-time living that is less than 500 square feet and can be placed on a flat deck (trailer) or a foundation.”

Though tiny homes could fall under the category of a permitted carriage home if they were on foundations, proponents of tiny homes say that their mobility is an attractive feature that gives them flexibility.

“I liked the idea of having a house that I could actually move,” says Nelson Brown, an independent business owner who lives in a tiny home he built himself. He says he wanted the freedom to move and take it with him if his business ventures required it.

Nelson Brown built his tiny home, shown, with a bright and functional interior.
Nelson Brown has built his own tiny home and though it is parked on a property in Nanaimo that he owns, he still has fears that bylaw officers will visit and tell him to vacate it. Photo submitted by Nelson Brown

“Brown” is not his real name, but he feels it is necessary to remain anonymous because though he “agrees ethically with the tiny house movement,” he’s concerned about the legal implications of his housing choices.

“People are terrified. They spend all this money, they set up their dream house, they’re living this low-impact, often off the grid life and they just live in perpetual fear because they’re legally not allowed to do that,” he says. 

The tiny home is parked on a property he owns; nearly an acre in Nanaimo with a house he rents out, and which is already zoned for a laneway house.

One proposal Brown says he would like the city to consider is a trial program for tiny homes, where properties like his that already meet the standard for laneway homes can be also allowed to have tiny homes on wheels. 

“That’s an interesting one, and I would have to talk to our current planning team to see what are the pros and cons of that,” says Lisa Bhopalsingh, Nanaimo’s manager of community planning, who points towards the city’s 2019 update to their affordable housing strategy which includes a discussion around the feasibility of tiny homes.

However because the province has yet to make a classification for tiny homes in its building code, which the city is required to uphold, the city could get in trouble for permitting them. “If there was something that wasn’t built to code or standard and something happened, we would actually be remiss, particularly if there was loss of life,” she adds.

“It could be that some [unfortunate] person is renting out somebody’s garden shed, and they’re saying, ‘Well, that’s a tiny home.’ But it’s a substandard housing unit,” says Bhopalsingh. 

“Without knowing the specifics of each person’s case, it’s considering: Is this actually hooked up to adequate services? Is it fire safe? The challenge is, is it adequate housing? And in some cases it is, and in some cases, it’s substandard for their own health and safety. But then the other perspective is, well it’s better than not having that shelter, right?”

Related: Locals choose tiny home living despite legal uncertainty

Can tiny homes be used to help house people without homes?

Bhopalsingh is not the only one who has questions about the logistics of tiny homes and how (or if) they can help with the current housing crisis.

“Tiny houses were popularized by people who were not short on housing space themselves, who were living pretty well, but kind of wanted a change of lifestyle,” says Miles Howard, a Boston-based writer who covers housing issues for a variety of publications.

“The idea of simpler economical living is very much rooted in a kind of privilege where that kind of living has kind of a novelty factor to it. But if you’re approaching it from a perspective of ‘I can’t afford to live anywhere,’ and a city council or a mayor decides, ‘Well maybe tiny houses are right for you,’ I think there’s a problem there in that we’re downscaling the idea of what kind of housing people should have the right to, ultimately.”

Research in the U.S. and Canada shows that approximately 38 per cent of tiny homeowners are over the age of 55 and the most common demographic is single women in their 50s. “This population cohort is typically well educated, has disposable income, and is building tiny as a first-time homeowner, or as a step towards retirement,” according to a comprehensive report on tiny homes recently released by BC Housing. 

Though Howe says he’s not against tiny homes per se, he wonders if advocacy in that direction could serve as a distraction from more wide-ranging solutions such as the large-scale construction of permanently affordable and publicly-owned housing.  

Related: How can we make rent more affordable?

“Yes [tiny homes] have a utility as a stopgap idea, but if you keep putting off the hard work of really trying to push for these more obvious, bolder housing policies, the tiny house risks becoming something that just prolongs that lack of action,” he says. “If we saw a sudden injection of federal funding for acquiring more land or building more traditional, permanently affordable housing I think that would address the problem in a way that tiny homes and [accessory dwellings] cannot.”

That said, Howe adds that there are some impressive cases where tiny homes have been effectively used by municipalities to combat homelessness, like in Seattle, which boasts 294 tiny homes in nine villages, with a future goal to double that number.

In January, the Cowichan Housing Association began helping their unsheltered residents get out of the elements with the introduction of 39 eight-by-eight foot sleeping cabins. Though they lack the space and amenities of an actual tiny home, they are nevertheless fitted out with a sleeping platform, locking door, window, heater, light and electrical outlet. 

Nanaimo city council quickly instructed city staff to also look into implementing a similar program, though no moves toward implementation have yet been made.

In March, Victoria city council unanimously approved a project to build a village of 30 tiny homes out of repurposed shipping containers. The community will function as transitional housing that prioritizes unhoused folks who “require minimal supports and are ready to bridge to permanent housing,” according to a statement from the city.

What is the City of Nanaimo doing to address the legal uncertainty?

Part of the reason Nanaimo has not yet addressed some of the issues that are a barrier to full-time mobile tiny home living is that other housing needs have been prioritized, such as the demand for affordable multi-unit buildings, according to the recent in-depth analysis on tiny homes from BC Housing that includes Nanaimo as a case study.

“Our efforts have currently been focused on really landing the bigger projects with more units, and capitalizing on what we can get from the provincial government in terms of investments. So that’s where our team’s energy has been taken up,” says Bhopalsingh.

“It comes down to a bit of a density game. You can persuade BC Housing or even a developer to get four tiny homes on a lot, but then if it’s in a corridor designation they can go up six stories and have 40 units on the same footprint of land then, it’s like okay, that’s where we really need to—particularly with affordable and supportive housing—get as many units as possible on that serviced land.”

Secondary suites are a higher priority because they are quicker to implement and preferable for families over accomodations like apartment buildings, she adds, though she advises residents to “stay tuned” when it comes to tiny homes because the city is motivated to look at many diverse models of housing.

However homeowners seem slow to get in on the laneway suite game—according to the city’s most recent housing strategy update, just 18 new laneway suites were issued permits in 2018.

What’s next for tiny homes on Vancouver Island?

“It’s unfortunate that so many municipalities around the Island are still quite ‘anti tiny home,’, but we are definitely seeing a shift,” says Jessica Whelan, director of tiny home company Rewild Homes, which she co-owns with her husband Patrick and is based in Cobble Hill. “We’re seeing more and more cities get on board with creating legal circumstances for people to live in tiny homes.”

Tiny home builders Patrick and Jessica Whelan in the Huckleberry tiny home in Cobble Hill in 2018. Photo submitted by Jessica Whelan

In any case, Nanaimo’s affordable housing strategy proposes that the city should encourage the construction of more laneway houses by revising zoning and regulations to allow for more variation in the type of units, density and where they can be accommodated.

Two years ago, the City of Victoria hosted a housing summit during which they identified several key barriers to implementing a tiny home policy. This included zoning (where they’re allowed to go), how to deal with neighbours who don’t like it, how to ensure they comply with building codes, community response and support, and how they would fit within the Residential Tenancy Act regarding ownership and liability.

Despite this, Victoria has moved forward with their support of tiny homes. Their most recent strategic plan advises staff to “allow moveable tiny homes in all backyards that currently allow garden suites, at rents of no more than $500 per month” and also permit tiny homes and garden suites (which are similar to laneway homes) on lots that already have secondary suites or duplexes, as well as explore offering a grant program “to incentivize the creation of affordable garden suites.”

Perhaps the most comprehensive take on the topic is outlined in BC Housing’s recent report on tiny homes.

After three years of research, analysis and interviews with experts in the field, one of their findings is that tiny homes could both increase rental options in the province and help address the “missing middle” in delivering affordable homeownership. 

They also recommend that tiny homes be legalized and included in the provincial building code and official community plans, and that they be explored as an option to both address homelessness and acute housing situations like natural disasters.

All of this bodes well for tiny home manufacturers like Whelan, who says that it’s upsetting to hear about stories of people being forced from their residences simply because they live in tiny homes or RVs.

“With the current housing market on Vancouver Island and the lack of rentals for people who have good jobs, perfect credit, and cash in the bank, I think it’s unlikely that the trend of tiny homes is going anywhere,” she says, and adds that since Rewild started building eight years ago, they’ve seen steady interest. 

“The people who we build tiny homes for aren’t usually deciding to move into a tiny home as a last resort; they are genuinely interested in small scale living, reducing their consumption, and living closer to family.” [end]

This is part of our solutions series on rental affordability in Nanaimo, Making Rent. This original reporting is made possible by the monthly members who support this work.

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