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Posted by on Aug 2015 in All Stories, Features, Slider | 0 comments

Emerging forms of affordable housing

tiny homesIn communities across Canada, affordable housing is in short supply. In the private market, the costs of owning or renting a home have increased faster than median incomes.

In Ontario, one in five renter households pay more than half of their before-tax income on rent and utilities, forcing people to make difficult decisions about other household expenses, like groceries, medication, and transportation. This has contributed to longer waiting lists for subsidized housing.

With housing unaffordability on the rise, some households (and housing providers) are looking to alternative forms of housing that allow them to live affordably, in a smaller or shared space.

Tiny houses

tiny house

Tiny home in California. Flickr Creative Commons/Nicolás Boullosa

Most tiny homes are between 100 and 200 square feet in size, and include living and sleeping space, a kitchenette, and a small bathroom. Some tiny homes are built in permanent “villages” with shared community spaces, and others are built to fit on a trailer platform and can be towed and parked wherever there is space, water, and electricity.

Tiny homes can be appealing to young buyers who want an affordable alternative to renting or committing to a decades-long mortgage, to seniors who are looking to downsize from a larger house, and to people who want to live a smaller, more environmentally-conscious life. However, most banks won’t finance the building or purchase of a tiny house and, in many areas, these homes may be illegal due to zoning restrictions.

In some cities, tiny houses are being considered as an option for housing homeless people. In Victoria, BC, the city spends $600,000 a year policing and managing homeless people who camp in the city’s public parks. This spring, the city set up a demonstration microhome outside City Hall and voted to study the option of building a community of tiny houses in a public park.

South of the border, there have been experiments in building tiny home communities for people leaving the streets. In 2000, members of a tent city founded Dignity Village, a non-profit microhome community. According to their Facebook page, Dignity Village “is a self sustaining, membership based non-profit that houses chronically homeless people within structures made of recycled materials.” All residents of the village are required to be on a waiting list for permanent affordable housing. Similar to a co-op, residents are expected to contribute to the costs, maintenance, and governance of the community.

Other examples of tiny home communities include Quixote Village (Olympia, Washington), Opportunity Village (Eugene, Oregon), and Community First (Austin, Texas). Other projects are in the works in Wisconsin and upstate New York.

Infill housing

laneway house

vancouver laneway house. Flickr Creative Commons/Wendy Cutler

One way of creating affordable housing is to allow for added density within neighbourhoods. This can be accomplished by subdividing an already existing building – renovating a basement into an apartment, for example – or by adding more buildings to the property.

A garden suite, or “granny flat,” is a small, self-contained home with a living area, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom. Often, garden suites are built by families to house older relatives who need some care and support. In this arrangement, seniors are able to live close to their families while enjoying privacy and independence.

Another option, laneway houses (“coach houses”) are separate buildings added to a property that face onto a laneway or service road. Popular in dense cities, laneway houses replace garages and offer homeowners a source of rental income. As part of its growth strategy, the City of Vancouver has amended its zoning bylaws to allow for secondary suites and laneway houses. In Toronto, zoning restrictions in single-home neighbourhoods don’t allow for two residential dwellings on the same property, so the development of laneway housing has been slow.

Pre-fabricated homes


Prefab house. Flickr Creative Commons/jingdianjiaju1

Moving home construction from the build site to a factory can net savings for both individual buyers and social housing providers. Pre-fabricated homes are built in sections and then assembled in place. Since most of the work is done in a factory, there’s an economy of scale.

Prefab homes aren’t a new idea. After the Second World War, Britain’s munitions factories were modified to quickly build 150,000 homes in response to the country’s housing shortage. Today, the YMCA of London South West in the UK is building modular prefab homes to provide rental housing for young people priced out of London’s market. Their Y:Cube units arrive flat-packed and, once built, can be placed alongside or stacked on top of each other. The units work well in tight urban spaces, brownfields, and on sites where construction is planned for future years (the units can be relocated). Y: Cube units are about 280 square feet, designed to last at least 60 years, and can be built for £30,000 (about $61,000 CAD).

Mobile homes are another examples of prefab housing. ONPHA interviewed librarian Melanie Gnau who lives with her husband in a refurbished Airstream trailer. See that story here.

Repurposed housing

shipping container home

Shipping container houses in Vancouver.

A 40’ steel shipping container – scrap metal, or the perfect building block for an affordable home? At 502 Alexander Street, in Vancouver, Atira Women’s Resource Society has built 12 affordable homes for women, using 12 shipping containers, stacked three levels high. Completed in 2013, they’re the first example of shipping container housing in Canada.

The homes cost $82,500 per unit, much less than the $220,000 per unit cost of building with concrete. After the addition of insulation, walls, plumbing and electrical, floors, and fixtures, each container contains 280 to 290 square feet of living space. Each unit comes with a kitchen, bathroom, living space, and a European washer-dryer unit. Atira is planning a seven-storey shipping container complex of family-size units on a property it owns in Strathcona.

In other parts of the world, other materials are being repurposed for temporary housing. In Honolulu, Hawaii, retired city buses have been retrofitted as mobile shelters for the state’s homeless. The idea was borrowed from San Francisco’s lava mae project, which converted city buses into mobile shower stations. In Austin, Texas, a university professor traded his apartment for life in a 36 square foot modified dumpster.


Students and recent grads aren’t the only ones choosing to share homes and divide expenses. Unrelated adults are choosing to rent or buy homes together and share costs and upkeep. Cohousing is becoming a popular option for seniors, where each resident purchases share equity in a common home. In this arrangement, residents can provide support and care to each other (co-care) or could choose to hire a live-in or visiting caregiver. Co-housing reduces social isolation and fosters community amongst residents.

In Ontario, Bruce County has elected to explore co-housing options as part of its 2013-2023 Long Term Housing Strategy.

Micro condos

With land and construction costs on the rise in cities around the world, units in multi-family buildings have become smaller. Japan is famous for its small (and now, coffin-sized) apartments and the format has spread to Europe and North America.

In Canada, micro condos are typically 225 to 400 square feet and designed to make efficient use of space, with features like foldaway-beds, European washer-dryer machines, and space-saving kitchens. Because of their lower build costs, developers are able to build micro units in walkable central locations, close to public transit.

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