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Small communities paving the way for tiny houses in British Columbia

Across B.C., a growing number of tiny-house owners are looking for a place to call home

By Brenna Owen and Alastair Spriggs , in City Feature story , on March 28, 2018 Tags: , , , , , ,

Bluegrass Meadows near Terrace, B.C., is a community of 17 tiny cabins and 20 serviced lots. Photo: Jonathan Riddell

Across B.C., a growing number of tiny-house owners are looking for a place to call home.

Some advocates for the budding movement believe the future lies in small towns and rural communities, where there is more flexibility to change restrictive bylaws.  

Owners of tiny houses — which are much smaller than laneway houses and often constructed on wheels — usually face a host of challenges while looking for places to settle in cities. Beyond finding affordable property on which to park or build, tiny-home owners must navigate minimum square footage requirements, utility hook ups and ways to anchor their home on wheels.   

Tiny houses have grown in popularity across North America since the early 1990s, but in B.C., the movement has really gained traction over the last three years. Click here to take a look inside a tiny-house build in progress. 

‘We need to have a case study’

Lisa Chessari, founder of the Tiny House Festival Foundation, spent last year pitching tiny houses and encouraging municipalities around the Lower Mainland to change bylaws to allow them.

“We’ve gone to Maple Ridge, we’ve gone to Coquitlam, we’ve gone to North Van, we’ve done it all,” said Lisa Chessari. “We’ve heard the same story, telling us, ‘Why should we change bylaws with no case study? We need to have a case study.’”

Chessari hopes case studies will arise from smaller communities like Terrace, Abbotsford, Grand Forks and, most recently, Sunshine Valley, where tiny homes are permitted under certain circumstances.

Ted Allsopp, owner of Hummingbird Micro Homes, pioneered B.C.’s first tiny-house village in 2015. Seventeen tiny homes are now located in Bluegrass Meadows Micro Village, near Terrace, a town of 12,500 about 600 kilometres northwest of Prince George. Terrace’s regional district allows for tiny homes as long as they comply with a certified Canadian Standards Association building code.

“For more densely populated, bigger cities, it’s going to be a different process,” said Allsopp. “There isn’t a precedent out there for tiny-house villages or tiny homes on residential properties. Having communities like Bluegrass … opens people’s eyes to the opportunity.”

Take a 360 look inside a Hummingbird show home in North Vancouver.

Now, Hummingbird is searching for its next location.

“Whether it’s the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan, or the Kootenays,” Allsopp said he hopes to find “a municipality or a regional district — even if it’s not zoned properly at this point — that is open to working with us to welcome tiny homes.”

Dual zoning potential

For tiny-house villages to truly thrive in more rural areas — which generally offer fewer services and employment opportunities — Chessari said establishing dual zoning for both residential and commercial activities will be key.

“You need to have a plan that will actually drive people into investing there,” said Chessari, whose vision was inspired by a dual-zoning pilot initiated by a Berlin-based collective called Tinyhouse University.

“The reason we got more traction in the small, rural areas, is because developers have left,” Chessari continued. “Nobody is putting money in.”

In March, the Tiny House Festival Foundation released a guide aimed at property developers, small towns, and rural communities. It encourages the creation of tiny-house villages that allow for not only permanent residency, but also home-based businesses and collective endeavours like farmers markets and tiny-house construction workshops.

“I want to sustain myself. I want to be debt-free, mortgage-free. But not just mortgage-free so that I can commute three hours into town,” Chessari said. “Why not create those rural areas as self-sustainable? This is the model we will share with communities and we hope they can be inspired.”

Tiny homes welcome in Sunshine Valley

Recently, Chessari and 12 members of the Tiny House Festival organization travelled to Sunshine Valley, a largely recreational community 175 kilometres east of Vancouver. Eight 4,200-square-foot lots are for sale — fully serviced and friendly to tiny houses, whether they are on wheels or permanent foundations.

Sunshine Valley’s unique history paved the way for the legal development of tiny homes.

In 1983, Sunshine Valley’s private land owner applied for an exemption from regional building bylaws and zoning, which had been established seven years prior. The following year, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs approved the removal of Sunshine Valley from the Fraser Valley regional district. As a result, there is nothing prohibiting the construction of tiny homes on the lots currently for sale.

David Bull points out the location of eight new tiny-house friendly lots in Sunshine Valley.

“Given there are similar RV-type lots with wind structures built over them next door, it seemed reasonable to modify the design criteria for these eight lots to accommodate tiny homes as well,” said David Bull, an investor in the Sunshine Valley property and president and CEO of JBI Ltd., a Vancouver-based real estate firm.

Though the eight residential lots aren’t nearly enough to meet the demand for legal tiny-house living in B.C., Chessari hopes Sunshine Valley will become an inspiration for other communities.

“That was our suggestion, to push for full-time living that is also combined with a commercial opportunity to bring their home-based business to Sunshine Valley. Having an actual pilot village happening two hours away from Vancouver could inspire Hope, Chilliwack, Coquitlam” said Chessari. “You’re bringing that example closer and closer to cities where finally there is more demand for self-contained villages.”