Living small: The prospects for tiny houses as a solution for affordable housing in Vancouver

Vancouver’s micro suites

SamuelBaron

Every second day on his way home Samuel Baron, 29, stops to buy fresh produce and meat to store in his half-sized fridge, and then returns to his suite to make his Murphy bed and fold it back up into the wall. Afterward he does homework, watches TV, or visits with friends on the rooftop patio of the Burns Block, home to Vancouver’s smallest rental suites. Baron’s suite is 248 square feet, and costs him $1000 a month. If that seems a little steep to some for a tiny rental suite, Baron finds it worth it to be so close to downtown.

Like Feenstra, he’s willing to trade private space for easy access to what’s outside his front door. But instead of open fields and landscaping space, his home is surrounded by Vancouver’s downtown urban core. Baron walks to the SFU downtown campus where he’s taking classes, and bikes to Emily Carr where he works. The building is minutes away from a Skytrain station, across the street from a movie theatre, and surrounded by a cornucopia of restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Baron’s barbershop is also close by. “I mean I literally have everything I want within a five-minute walk,” he says. The amenities of the downtown core make it easy for Baron to live smaller, but even Vancouver neighborhoods outside of the core can provide access to cafés, restaurants, barber shops, and public transport. Neighborhoods that offer these amenities—and single-family homes that can accommodate an extra living space in the backyard—are perfect for people who want to live small, in their very own tiny house.

Whether living in a micro suite, or a tiny house, the key to comfort is not just in the outside amenities, but also in the interior design. Baron’s suite came fully furnished, with the bed, a desk, couch and TV. The kitchen table folds out from the underside of the stored Murphy bed—a two-in-one piece of furniture that comes in handy for micro living. Even the bathroom door has a second function, doubling—at its 90 degree open position—as a door to the shower.

MicroLoft_Plan_1
The Burns Block at 18 West Hastings. Image courtesy of Bruce Carscadden Architect.

“Literally every inch has to count,” says Ian McDonald, one of the architects at Bruce Carscadden Architect who designed the Burns Block. He was aware that there’s no room for the superfluous in micro suites. “There’s not room for an extra two or three inches here, an extra two or three inches there, because it all piles up.” That’s why the bathroom door and the inner bathroom wall are glass—using glass instead of plaster saved an extra five and a half inches.

Baron had no idea. “Oh, really! That’s hilarious! I had a friend over last night, and whenever I have a friend that’s a girl over, I actually leave my suite when they go to the bathroom, because it’s sort of transparent. And we were like joking about it … : ‘Why would they make that glass?’ … I guess there’s the answer.”

Baron is doing a Masters in urban studies at SFU, and sitting on his side table is a copy of Jeff Speck’s Walkable City. Speck promotes an approach to urbanism that emphasizes accessible and sustainable communities. In the book he calls on policy makers to create more walkable downtowns. Baron’s experience living in a micro suite has proven to him that the dense, walkable neighborhoods Speck describes are essential for micro living. “This lifestyle would not work if it were not for the way they’ve planned Vancouver, and the fact that it is denser than other North American cities, and that you can walk places,” says Baron.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic about micro suites as Baron. Small Housing B.C.’s Terry Sidhu thinks that the trend is destined to fizzle out. “There’s plenty of advantages to them, like the affordability factor, but there’s plenty of disadvantages. In my opinion, livability is one of them. You’re kind of stuck in a shoebox.” As far as micro living is concerned, Sidhu thinks that tiny houses present a more livable option. “The livability thing is so much more a factor in tiny homes, just because you’re … connected to the ground, and I think in plenty of cases, they tend to come together …. [in] kind of a de facto community,” he says. “So I think that you’re more in touch with other humans, you’re able to quickly exit your house, and access nature, which I think is an ideal of tiny homes.”

Micro suites can pack far more people in a small space than tiny houses. While tiny houses need to be spaced out, and would obviously only exist at ground level, micro suites can be built in towers, allowing developers to build as densely as possible on any given property. In a city like Vancouver, where land is at a premium, the appeal of developing a mid-rise or high-rise tower over a tiny house village is obvious.

But there might still be a place for tiny house villages within Metro Vancouver. In 2013, it emerged that developers were getting tax breaks by hosting community gardens on their vacant lots. When developers turn their empty lots into gardens, B.C. Assessment reclassifies their property from a business lot to a recreation or non-profit lot, saving them tax dollars. If the city agreed to also allow tiny houses on non-profit lots, then developers waiting to start on future developments could help provide temporary affordable housing.

Then there’s one other obvious solution that fits in with existing regulations. “Mobile homes work because there are mobile home parks; … there’s a site that’s as standardized as the building,” says Lanefab’s Bryn Davidson. “There’s no reason that a tiny home park couldn’t function the same as a mobile home park.”

This is essentially how most tiny house villages in the U.S. operate. One of the oldest communities, located in Portland, Oreg. is Dignity Village—a tiny home community that provides temporary housing for the homeless, and that is designated as a temporary campground.