Demand For Tiny Homes Jumps As Canadians Reconsider Lifestyles Amid Pandemic

A finished 'Coastal Escape' tiny home, built in 2018 by Sunshine Tiny Homes in Gibsons, B.C., is shown in an undated handout photo. Tiny home builder Pamela Robertson said she couldn't keep up with quote requests after the pandemic hit.

VANCOUVER — The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many Canadians to re-evaluate their housing and work arrangements, spurring some to think not big, but tiny.

Pamela Robertson builds tiny homes in Gibsons on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast and said she couldn’t keep up with requests for quotes after the pandemic hit.

“Everybody wanted a tiny home that was built in stock and I build to order,” said Robertson, whose tiny homes on wheels are inspected to meet the Canadian Standards Association specifications for recreational vehicles.

While many people are dreaming of making the move, Robertson warns that building code requirements and regional rules can pose major hurdles.

“There are tiny houses on wheels out there and they’re all living under the fear that somebody is going to call them out.”

Like many jurisdictions, B.C. prohibits year-round living in RVs outside designated parks. Neither the provincial nor national building codes covers mobile homes and they present challenges related to lofts, ladders, small stairs and other features characteristic of tiny homes, she said.

It’s very dire here. It’s basically becoming unaffordable for people, for single people. So, tiny homes are definitely one of a multitude of solutions.Pamela Robertson, Sunshine Tiny Homes

Robertson said her company, Sunshine Tiny Homes, adheres as much as possible to the codes, as well as the international residential code that has specifications for tiny homes, in hopes Canada’s codes will one day differentiate tiny homes from RVs and other prefabricated houses.

She’s advocating for a pilot project that could see tiny homes on wheels temporarily permitted on property that’s already allowed a second dwelling, but the Sunshine Coast Regional District has yet to give the green light.

Robertson is also saving to build a tiny home of her own in the area that she said is hard-hit by low vacancy rates and high rental costs.

“It’s very dire here. It’s basically becoming unaffordable for people, for single people. So, tiny homes are definitely one of a multitude of solutions.”

We’re going to design the very best housing that the world has to offer, but nobody can afford.Bob Deeks, RDC Fine Homes

The Canadian Home Builders’ Association joined calls for a friendlier regulatory landscape for tiny homes in 2017, requesting a number of changes to the national building code related to construction on a chassis or trailer, ceiling heights, stairs, escape windows and other features.

It can take years for code changes to be approved, if at all, said Bob Deeks, president of RDC Fine Homes in Whistler, B.C. He’s been a committee member with the homebuilders association and with Codes Canada, which is responsible for developing the national building code. 

There’s a diversity of perspectives at the table, he said, noting the health-care sector advocates for changes, such as minimum stair dimensions, that could prevent injuries, but those changes could curtail smaller homes.

“That person living on the street? They don’t care what those stairs look like,” said Deeks. 

“We’re going to design the very best housing that the world has to offer, but nobody can afford,” he added.

My whole intention behind all of it is to be able to live a lifestyle that I can go and experience life instead of being stuck in the rat race and working 9 to 5 and coming home and cleaning on the weekends.Jessika Houston

Elsewhere in B.C., Jessika Houston is preparing to move into her new tiny home on wheels in early February after it’s finished. 

Houston, 42, had been thinking about tiny living and initially planned to rent after selling her four-bedroom house in Surrey.

When the pandemic hit and her rental circumstances changed, she said it was time to make the move to a more stable home that’s easier to maintain.

Houston said she went from working 60 hours a week and commuting two hours each day to starting her own business with more flexible hours and commissioning a tiny home from a Vancouver-based builder.

“My whole intention behind all of it is to be able to live a lifestyle that I can go and experience life instead of being stuck in the rat race and working 9 to 5 and coming home and cleaning on the weekends,” she said. 

Financing hurdles

Like Robertson’s homes, Houston’s farmhouse-style tiny house is built to CSA standards for RVs. A bedroom on the main floor will boast a king-sized bed, she said, while a loft is accessible by stairs with built-in storage.

Houston found someone to lease her a spot to park her tiny home in the Lower Mainland, but she said others aren’t so fortunate, given bylaws that restrict living in a tiny home on wheels throughout the region.

“When you’re in the city, you have to worry about the neighbours and somebody reporting it,” she said. “Right now, the way the landscape is set up, you have to go out into the country so that nobody can see it.”

Houston bought her home outright, but financing is another major hurdle for many tiny-house hopefuls.

The company that’s building Houston’s home, Mint Tiny Homes, lists the price for a 6.7-metre home at $92,500, while larger models with more features and customizations can top $130,000.

Banks are wary of lending money to people building homes without sufficient comparables, said Daniel Ott, president of True North Tiny Homes. The company builds and designs tiny and modular homes and garden and laneway suites across Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe.

“Pre-COVID, I was having some decent conversations with credit unions,” he said. “As soon as COVID hit, even they said, ‘Nope, don’t want to touch it.’ 

So, Ott looks for creative solutions for clients who can’t buy outright.

“I actually drive them to go talk to a Realtor and buy a piece of property. Even though it sounds like you’re spending more money, you’re actually able to finance it so you need less money down,” he said, noting banks are more likely to finance a home mortgaged in combination with the land.

Ott’s company was recently involved in the purchase of a mobile home park west of Toronto on the shores of Lake Huron.

The goal is to create a tiny home village of sorts, he said, where plots of land can be bought and sold like condo or strata title rather than leased. 

While others push for building code changes, Ott said he’s most keen to see municipalities update their zoning and other bylaws to recognize growing interest in tiny homes as a solution to housing affordability woes. 

Otherwise, said Robertson, “We’re restricting ourselves out of living.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2020.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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Party Hosts In B.C. Can Now Be Fined $2K For Violating COVID-19 Rules

VANCOUVER — Property owners and organizers can be fined $2,000 for hosting events found in violation of public health orders in British Columbia under stronger enforcement measures announced Friday.

The fines can be levied for hosting a gathering in excess of 50 people, failing to keep the contact information of everyone who attends an event, or inviting more than five guests into a vacation rental property, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth told a news conference.

A party with fewer than 50 people is not necessarily legal, he added, since all other public health measures must still be followed.

“Police have their discretion, but if you have 38 people crammed into a kitchen and, you know, there’s no social distancing (taking) place, then clearly that’s in violation of the order and the owner would be subject to a $2,000 ticket,” he said.

Farnworth said “problematic” guests may also face $200 tickets for behaviour that could include refusing to leave when directed or disregarding COVID-19 safety plans at restaurants and other businesses.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan wears a B.C. Lions CFL football team face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, during an announcement about a new regional cancer centre, in Surrey, B.C., on Aug. 6.

 B.C. reported 90 new positive tests for COVID-19 on Friday, pushing the number of active cases to 824, including 13 people who are hospitalized.

And for the second day in a row, two more people in the Fraser Health region died after contracting the novel coronavirus, bringing the death toll in B.C. to 202.

In a statement, officials said public health workers are monitoring 2,594 people as a result of exposure to known cases of COVID-19, up by 20 from the day before.

There have been 4,915 cases of COVID-19 reported in B.C. so far.

The province is enlisting liquor, cannabis and gaming inspectors, as well as conservation officers and WorkSafeBC investigators, to help issue the violation tickets for the duration of the pandemic.

It’s also working with local governments to revoke business and liquor licences where violations occur, said Farnworth.

“The province is building a comprehensive and integrated compliance and enforcement regime to put a halt to bad actors in all corners of B.C.,” he said.

‘Selfish individuals’ putting people at risk

B.C. is taking stronger action because the behaviour of a small minority of “selfish individuals” is putting vulnerable people at risk across the province, Farnworth said.

“We can’t let the bad decisions made by a few erode the progress that we have made together.”

Deputy provincial health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson said Thursday the majority of the latest cases of COVID-19 are still being detected in younger adults.

Vancouver Coastal Health has launched a campaign in response to that trend, which includes tips for visiting restaurants, spending time with friends, playing recreational sports, heading to the beach, going on road trips and practising safe sex during the pandemic.

 In a release on Friday, the health authority’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, said the reopening of restaurants and bars, where many young adults work, has contributed to the rise.

But, she said, partying is another factor.

“We’re seeing transmission take place in nightclubs in particular, but also at bars and restaurants, while boating and in other indoor social settings,” Daly said in a statement.

“It’s the way people act and interact in these settings that’s problematic: sharing food and drinks, speaking loudly and in close proximity if there’s background noise, and not social distancing among strangers, especially if they’ve been drinking alcohol.”

At a COVID-19 briefing in Ottawa on Friday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the federal government is also planning to step up messaging aimed at young people next week.

She said Ottawa is working to reach young people through non-traditional media and the best way to measure success will be looking at whether infection rates go down.

BC Ferries and TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transportation network, are also taking further action to stop the spread of COVID-19. Starting Monday, non-medical masks or face coverings will be mandatory for passengers on both transit services.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 21, 2020.