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Municipal Politics

Tiny Homes for Homeless Next to Vancouver City Hall? The Option Has Official Interest

Coun. Pete Fry wants the crisis response studied. A designer offers a plan ready to scrutinize.

David P Ball 7 Oct

David P. Ball is a journalist based in Vancouver, B.C.

Could Vancouver City Hall be home to a “victory village” to house the homeless during our current triple emergencies — pandemic, housing crisis and overdose epidemic — perhaps reminiscent of the Second World War's “victory gardens”?

A village of tiny, semi-detached row houses at the doorstep of city hall may not be a far-fetched idea, according to two experts and at least one city councillor.

In fact Bryn Davidson, co-owner of Lanefab Design/Build, already has a prototype for what he calls “tiny townhouses.” And he admits the notion of imagining the prototype on Helena Gutteridge Plaza at city hall was “cheeky.”

But the imagined location grew on him. "I started off with a cheeky visual, but a hint of reality, to start a discussion," the designer told The Tyee.

The idea of some sort of tiny house cluster gained traction on Tuesday as city Coun. Pete Fry put forward a motion to study the idea, and examine what building codes or zoning would need altering or exempting.

Fry’s motion follows Coun. Jean Swanson’s emergency homelessness motion proposing tiny home villages as part of the city plan, which instructed staff to study the idea.

“Let’s take a practical look at what we can do to make this happen,” Green party councillor Fry told The Tyee in a phone interview. “There are off-the-shelf models available right now.”

And he’s not opposed to it being located at the steps of city hall, but cautioned, “We would have to be very thoughtful around who would be tenanting it and how it would be managed. It would not just be a free-for-all on the lawn of city hall.”

Previous reports in The Tyee have described how tiny home villages have taken root in cities across North America, some offering a fast, flexible response to emergencies of burgeoning homelessness.

A Vancouver city staff report released this week found that current regulations would not support tiny homes as an emergency response, partly citing risks from shared bathrooms during COVID-19, as well as zoning and building codes. But Fry said with the “due diligence” on fire safety and building code, he hopes for a solution — and for Vancouver to join Portland in including such small houses in their housing fixes.

“We have no actual ability within our building code bylaw or our zoning regulations to actually implement things like tiny home shelters or villages,” Fry admitted. That’s why his motion “is really a technical direction to our staff to look at what we need to amend to make it possible to include tiny homes in our housing continuum.”

The proposal is garnering interest from across the political spectrum. It originally was part of Swanson’s amendment. Recently, members of the Non-Partisan Association have started getting on board.

Fry’s motion gained interest from fellow Coun. Lisa Dominato, with the NPA.

“There’s a lot of merit in looking at the idea,” she said. “It’s not something that has been explored by the city before, but other jurisdictions have looked at it, and done it.

“We could use it as a transitional housing option for people. Obviously, ideally we’d rather get people into permanent and supportive housing… but we’ve heard from some residents they’re not comfortable in our shelter system. This would allow a level of independence and self-enclosed units.”

For Strathcona Park tent city resident Kirstine Fermin, the idea is intriguing — especially after her large tent flooded during the recent rainstorm, soaking her mattress and possessions. But it also raises questions about what long-term housing is available and appropriate for everyone on the street.

"That sounds good. It would be awesome as long as there's electricity and heat and you can lock your door," she told The Tyee. "But would there actually be housing available after? What if there's nothing to transition into, right?

"I'd rather see a bunch of us get into a warehouse or a big space for people to gather; it's easy enough to make your own space in a bigger space. I think the city is just going to try to buy an SRO [a single-room occupancy] and slap some paint on it, but that isn't working for anybody now — people are scared to stay in them when they put people in places that are not fit for people to be in."

Scot Hein, the City of Vancouver’s former senior urban designer until 2014 and a registered American architect who teaches at UBC, says there is a need for a “multi-pronged approach” of different housing options for different people’s needs. That can include city-owned facilities, motels or hotels, and other solutions listed in the staff report.

But he, too, wants tiny homes to be added to the list as a quick, relatively inexpensive response to the city’s pressing homeless crisis.

“I’m applauding any initiative,” Hein told The Tyee. “Obviously this is an acute emergency, only exacerbated by COVID. We have to take immediate action here. All options are important.

“Let’s see what we can do. Let’s get as many people into reasonable shelter this winter any way we can. This winter is going to be really rough.”

The tiny homes community site could be next to city hall, but Hein said the city also has many park spaces and properties. Each could accommodate a handful of two tiny home units and collectively made a real dent in sheltering the 750 street homeless people in need, according to city figures.

Critics have warned such small accommodations lacking all the amenities of traditional housing should not be accepted as a permanent solution to homelessness.

Hein agrees. “Portable, movable housing units could be deployed as a seasonal strategy,” he said. He tallies 230 municipal parks city-wide, and notes that if two or three tiny homes were located in each park, “that covers 750 people right there.”

Other sites that might be available include community centre parking lots, or the lots around religious buildings interested in volunteering, Hein noted.

Designer Bryn Davidson’s proposed ‘tiny townhomes’ arrangement sharing a plumbed bathroom. By sharing walls the units significantly conserve heat compared to stand-alone homes. Illustration by Lanefab Design/Build.

For the last decade, Davidson has been designing "small spaces" for living he considers "spacious and healthy." As discussion of homelessness and tent encampments heated up in Vancouver during the pandemic, he hoped to apply some of what he'd learned to that crisis, he explained.

"I really wanted to apply some of that learning to more rapid emergency housing," he said in an interview. "I'm thinking of these as transitional shelter, not any replacement for permanent housing.”

He was inspired by a Portland, Ore. group building they called "pod shelters" to address homelessness there — not as a long-term solution or home, but as a short-term housing fix to address the urgent problems right away.

"They were designed to be transitional emergency shelters, somewhere between a tent and permanent housing," he said. "Something that would just help people get on their feet and eventually transition into something more permanent."

After "chipping away" at the idea for several years, "it seemed the time was right to push on it."

With many SRO hotels closing over the past decade, a "spike of need" for affordable housing, and the pandemic, he said we need a rapidly built, short-term solution before winter, at least for some of the city's homeless population who don't need 24-7 wrap-around supports.

"Along with the anxiety around the existing encampments, we need to do something quickly, which means we have to do something different," he said. "We can't keep relying only on the same solutions which have so far been too slow and not scalable enough.

"I'm hoping we can get in and just start building something as soon as possible, and learn through doing. That's critical here."

Davidson envisions two versions of tiny homes to provide homeless people a warmer and more secure living situation. The first design would be fully self-contained, taking up roughly 200 square feet, and would have its own bathroom and small kitchen.

The second, more minimalist option would provide half that floor space and the resident would use a shared washroom facility.

In either case, a key feature offered the resident is the ability to lock the door. It’s an important aspect for many people who may feel uncomfortable with security or guarding their possessions in homeless shelters. And they could decorate or paint their own space to personalize it, adding a level of autonomy and dignity.

"My benchmark is always, 'Would it be somewhere I'd be happy living in?'" Davidson said. "If these things can be not unlike a little row house — or mews as they call them in the U.K. — I think these really could have the potential to be a nice place to get through the winter months."

Both design options have a bed, an accessible second loft level for storage or a second sleeping area. The homes would be modules that "could be picked up and moved and installed fairly quickly and at low cost."

Davidson pegs the building cost of the more minimal design at $20,000 per unit. But if it required plumbing or more than a hotplate for a kitchen, that could skyrocket the price tag several times over. And if it had to meet building codes fully, it would be at least five times that, said Davidson.

What Davidson is proposing, he emphasizes, is an emergency response quite different from the stereotypical "hipster" tiny houses the rage on Instagram.

"As opposed to typical tiny houses that were always built on trailers and envisioned as standalone little cottages," he said, "I'm imagining these more like a row house, huddled together in a way that actually makes them need a lot less heat in the winter. "I'm calling it a 'tiny townhouse.'”

Research shows that a “housing first” approach — providing safe, secure shelter for homeless people — is a key first step towards stabilizing their lives, creating opportunities for other supports including mental health care and job training. It’s not clear what supports would be made available to residents of the tiny homes communities now being floated as an option in Vancouver.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart proposed a $30-million emergency housing fund Tuesday to address the homeless crisis, his plan targeting "wrap-around services" for housing in multi-unit buildings like SRO hotels. PHS Community Services Society has built its massive housing portfolio on such a "wrap-around" model of supportive housing buildings combined with its pioneering harm reduction programs.

Tiny homes wouldn't be an appropriate solution for every person experiencing homelessness, PHS housing director Tanya Fader told The Tyee.

There must be a range of approaches to meet people's needs, she said. But tiny homes could certainly be part of the "wide variety" of what's available, because people have a "vast array of circumstances" they're living with.

"Trying to have a cookie-cutter solution to something as complex as housing is problematic to say the least," she said. "So any time we look at alternatives and innovation in housing, it's a good thing.

"There's still a very high need for supportive housing that is self-contained,” she said. “Certainly things like encampments or temporary shelters should never be seen as the end game for people. Until we have a range of options for people across the board that address the housing gaps, we will continue to see problems with homelessness and we will continue to see communities pitted against each other."

As Davidson put it, the city has a chance to make a bold move, quickly, before a pandemic winter sets it. Constructing an example of a tiny townhomes village, he said, could be a first step towards learning more from residents about how to best make the model work. Davidson saw that process unfold in Oregon. Homes’ designs were altered after the pilot phase with feedback from homeless residents.

"It's great to see this untapped level of interest from people who want to do something tangible," Davidson said. "I'm hoping to get something together in the next month that can hopefully spur us into action."  [Tyee]

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