The City of Vancouver will construct 10 tiny house structures next to an existing shelter as part of a pilot project to explore whether tiny houses could work as one option to provide housing to people experiencing homelessness.
Council voted to approve the $1.5-million pilot project Wednesday, although two councillors opposed the plan, saying they were concerned about the poor quality of the housing being proposed and the high cost of the pilot project.
Tiny house villages for homeless people already operate in several American cities, and Victoria and Duncan, B.C. have recently built their own versions. Proponents say tiny homes are quick and inexpensive to build and can be erected quickly to provide a safer alternative to tents.
But critics say the small, rudimentary structures fall far below the kind of housing most people expect to live in: a self-contained apartment with a kitchen, bathroom and fire safety features like sprinklers.
In October 2020, Coun. Pete Fry introduced an initial motion that asked staff to explore options for a tiny house village in Vancouver.
The concept staff came back with is 10 tiny houses that will be built next to an existing indoor shelter at 875 Terminal Ave. The shelter is run by Lu’ma Native Housing Society, and that organization will also be responsible for the tiny homes.
The tiny houses won’t have their own kitchens or even bathrooms — instead, residents will get meals from shelter staff and use the bathrooms that are inside the shelter next door.
But with people continuing to live in tents in Vancouver’s parks, Fry argued the tiny homes pilot project will provide a better alternative than living outside. The tiny houses will have heating and air conditioning, and residents will be able to lock the door behind them.
They won’t have sprinkler systems — a fire suppressant feature the City of Vancouver requires for new buildings — but city staff have suggested installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers to reduce the risk.
Vancouver homebuilder Bryn Davidson previously demonstrated what a tiny home could look like by building a 100-square-foot prototype.
A recent court decision found that much of the housing offered to people who are homeless and living in city parks is inadequate or not actually available. Tent city residents have often complained that the housing they’ve been offered by BC Housing and city outreach teams is dirty, infested with pests, unsafe or inaccessible.
Such housing usually means single-room occupancy hotels — old buildings with tiny rooms, no kitchens and shared bathrooms. But residents of SROs have been speaking out about the unsafe condition of their housing.
“Just the dignity of housing, that isn’t provided in a shelter cubicle, that isn’t provided in a lot of SROs,” Fry said. “And we’ve heard the courts say loud and clear that the stuff on offer in the City of Vancouver… through BC Housing, is not substantial enough or sustainable, so we need to come up with other solutions.”
For some shelter residents, the tiny house structures will provide more security, more privacy and will be lower barrier because people can live with their partner and bring belongings inside, Fry said.
“Locking a door is something that we all take for granted, but it really is a pretty significant piece of personal security and security of your stuff,” Fry said.
But some councillors said they were shocked by the $1.5-million price tag to operate just 10 units of housing that won’t even feature a private bathroom. For the two-year pilot project, the city has budgeted $460,000 to build and install the 10 units, $1.02 million in support costs (or $510,000 per year), and $20,000 to evaluate how the project is working.
The funding comes from the Empty Homes Tax, a tax the city began collecting in 2017 on properties that are left vacant for more than six months of the year.
“The two-year, $1.5-million… request equates to $6,250 per tiny shelter space per month,” Coun. Melissa De Genova said. “Can you comment on the cost and effectiveness of that, considering I’m looking right now on Craigslist at condos that are renting at far less than that?”
Bruk Melles, director of homelessness services for the City of Vancouver, said those costs are in line with the cost of operating a homeless shelter, where staff are on site continuously and services like meals are provided.
While Davidson estimated it would cost around $15,000 to build one tiny home, the city is estimating $46,000 per unit.
Coun. Colleen Hardwick said she was initially supportive of the idea of building tiny home villages. But the model she had in mind would have been based inside neighbourhoods and operated by community partners like churches.
Instead of setting up a tiny home village in a church parking lot, Hardwick said she was dismayed to see the city’s proposal to place the structures next to an existing homeless shelter in an industrial area.
“I just wrestle with the details and the money and also looking at the purpose, which I thought was supposed to be finding room for people in the neighborhoods and the communities from which they are been displaced,” Hardwick said.
But other councillors said that while they’d prefer to see people housed in long-term apartments, building enough permanent housing for people who are unhoused will take a bigger commitment from senior levels of government.
“I think everybody should have a good proper home,” said Coun. Jean Swanson. “But given what we’ve got and what our options are, it’s so important to have a chance for 10 to 20 more folks to have a cozy place and a lock on their door.”