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Tiny homes, big possibilities

How creative housing solutions could help ease Halifax’s affordable-housing crunch

What do you picture when you hear the words “tiny home”? You might be thinking of the tiny homes found on HGTV shows. Often, they resemble a rustic abode for retirees or travelling twentysomethings.

But when we say “tiny home,” we mean something a bit different. We mean a house with all the modern conveniences in just a few hundred square feet of floor space. These kinds of dwellings could become a part of Halifax’s affordable-housing toolkit — provided we remove the barriers to building them.

Traditionally, cities and provinces in Canada have relied on cheaply built or renovated affordable-housing units. Those units can quickly house people. But cheap buildings aren’t always cheap to fix, and landlords are often unwilling (or simply unable) to keep units in good repair and rents low. Subsidized housing helps fill this gap, but there are lengthy waiting list for those units.

So, here’s a quick primer on how these kinds of diminutive dwellings could help bolster our city’s affordable-housing stock, and ease the burden on our overstressed rental market.

How tiny homes and backyard suites work for renters

Would tiny homes actually serve the needs of people in precarious housing? The answer is complicated. A tiny home won’t be a great option for a family, or a woman with children escaping domestic violence. But for a single individual it could be an ideal solution. In HRM, 29 percent of people already live alone, and in some neighbourhoods that climbs to 49 percent. Many people looking for affordable housing are those who might have found an affordable home in a rooming house in the past. But as those disappear, new options are needed.

As always, location matters. In the United States, several tiny-home villages have been developed to address homelessness. Some are set up as neighbourhoods with shared facilities. These neighbourhoods include things like outdoor bathrooms, markets, barber shops, and medical centres within walking distance.

In Halifax, it’s more likely these buildings would be added to existing lots as backyard suites or laneway housing. A backyard suite is a self-contained building on an existing property. It is also small enough to fit into a dense urban environment. That means that building and renting them needs to be cost-effective for property owners.

How tiny homes work for homeowners

A very tiny home can be built as cheaply as a few thousand dollars (there are even kits available to buy on Amazon). For a larger one, suitable for living year-round in Nova Scotia’s weather, you’d be looking at $50,000 and up. There are also plenty of options for pre-fabricated tiny homes, which takes the guesswork out of the size and cost.

With the average one-bedroom rent in Halifax now sitting at about $1,000/month, a homeowner can build a tiny home, charge well below market-rate rents, and still break even within a few years.

One important hurdle to overcome is bylaws. Only some property owners can add more units to their property. Halifax Regional Council is considering amending land-use bylaws so that there will be consistent rules for which properties are able to add a backyard suite.

Would you like to see tiny homes as a part of your neighbourhood? Speak with your regional councillor to find out which bylaws apply.

Tiny homes won’t work for everyone. But they could become a bigger part of creative affordable housing solutions.