Just 50 kms outside of Toronto live Mark Su and his girlfriend in a fully self-contained 310 square foot home that set him back a mere $30,000.
The environmental consultant didn’t pay a dime for labour as he built his tiny house solo, an expense that saved him in the neighbourhood of $30,000. Their cozy house-on-wheels sits on a plot of land that the couple rents from a trailer park in Stouffville. Rent, water and other utilities cost them less than $400 a month.
“One of big reasons I did this is because I didn’t want to be tied down with a mortgage,” says Su, 28. “I didn’t want to live a stressful life. We also really like the sustainability aspect and the minimalist idea of just living with what you need.”
Despite the tight quarters, Su and his girlfriend say they live quite comfortably in their tiny home, which boasts a bathtub, a spare bedroom that doubles as a TV room and a composting toilet. The pair has entertained as many as 10 guests within its 28-by-8.5 feet walls.
People have lived in small spaces for centuries. Think shanty, lean-to and yurt. But only recently have we given the lifestyle a name. The tiny house movement, which espouses that living with less is better, has been around for a while in Canada, longer in the U.S. Tiny homes typically run from 100 to 500 square feet.
Given the lack of affordable housing in Toronto and Vancouver, it makes sense that it would fuel interest in pint-sized housing. In the first year after launching Live Tiny Canada, the website received 250,000 visits, about 85 per cent of which were from Canadian locations.
“People are really looking to hop on board,” says Matt Standen, founder and editor of LiveTiny.ca. “I think we will see this movement catch on in Canada. But right now people are waiting because no one wants to do the dirty work.”
Standen is referring to the work involved in bending political will in favour of tiny homes. Currently, building codes and zoning bylaws don’t generally support these dwellings. In Vancouver, for example, the minimum size a dwelling can be is 398 square feet. Tiny homes in Vancouver aren’t eligible to receive a building permit as they do not meet the city’s requirements for electrical and plumbing systems.
But that doesn’t mean the small house movement is non-existent on Canada’s west coast. In fact, laneway homes are growing in popularity with Vancouver issuing permits for 2,422 such homes since the program began in 2009. Built on pre-existing lots that open onto the back lane or alleyway, these homes are 550 square feet on average, one-and-a-half stories with one or two bedrooms.
The city of Toronto is not as laneway housing friendly and handles applications on a case-by-case basis, according to the Toronto Star. City concerns centre on whether lanes are wide enough for servicing and access by garbage, fire and emergency vehicles. Other considerations include privacy, parking, outdoor space and costly connections to the main street for water, power and sewage.
Standen and his partner are planning their tiny home, a 24 by 8.5 foot mobile home that they will park on a piece of property they own in Owen Sound. Their goal, like many tiny house fans, is to ultimately live off the grid, which means becoming completely self-sustainable thanks to solar panels, propane heat and a digging a well for water. Standen has budgeted $22,000 for the project and expects it will cost about $40 a month to operate.
Standen, 35, believes the lifestyle really appeals to millennials, who are attune to living a highly mobile existence thanks to technology. Tiny living gives them the freedom to connect and disconnect as they please, he says.
Standen and other tiny-house advocates are working to push for changes that will pave the way for smaller homes in cities without having them relegated to mobile-home parks and remote rural lots.
Natalie Brake of Tiny House Listings Canada is representing British Columbia on a nationwide board put together to push for the legalization of tiny homes. The 37-year-old Victoria resident says the new board will take a page from the U.S., where the tiny house movement is more advanced.
“We’re literally in a housing crisis and tiny houses are a response and a solution,” she says.
But those who laud tiny homes as the perfect antidote to the affordable housing crisis are simply masking a much bigger problem, according to Michael Stewart of Rabble.ca.
“Stories like these spread the falsehood that consumers have a say in how their neighbourhoods, communities, and cities are planned — while the evidence repeatedly shows that our urban agendas are set by developers,” Stewart writes. “Laneway houses, microlofts, tiny houses — these are individuated solutions to social problems that require social fixes.”