Commentary on a government response to Tiny House Villages 

We need an informed response to Tiny House Villages

Vancouver City Council will have some difficulty responding to the homelessness emergency given the errors and omissions in the October 2, 2020 report. In fairness, two weeks is hardly sufficient time to properly assess five different options for addressing homelessness.

The report’s response to Option 4: Tiny House Villages is especially lacking. In February of this year I sent a detailed proposal (attached) for a Vancouver Tiny House Village to members of City Council, the person in charge of Homelessness Action Plan, and the City Manager. The report was also sent to departments and agencies within the provincial government, the federal government and various nonprofits such as PHS.

The report overlooks compact Canadian models for Tiny House Villages

The report ignores the models presented in this proposal and other Canadian proposals and instead assesses the potential of Tiny House Villages based on US models which use too much land and fail to provide adequate community space. By just looking at US models the report concludes that Tiny House Villages are only suitable for places that will allow sprawl. This is nonsense.

The report arbitrarily insists that all tiny houses should have private bathrooms.

The report writer seems unaware of how much housing in Europe has shared bathrooms, how many university dorms have shared bathrooms, and how many converted houses in the city have shared bathrooms. The writer also seems unaware of how COVID-19 is spread. It is not through shared bathrooms. The main issue with shared bathrooms is cleaning. Self-managed Tiny House Villages typically pay one or more residents to clean shared bathrooms and the community kitchen.

The cost estimates for a Tiny House Village are far too high

Based on actual construction practice, the cost of a 112 ft.² unit with 12v power, heat, a kitchenette with water, but without bathroom would be less than $15,000. The report plucks a cost out of thin air of $80,000. This is out of sync with the cost of similar buildings in other places. A Tiny House Village can saved money by locating showers and toilets in a common building. With this set-up, and other measures such as placing units on concrete pavers instead of concrete foundations, site services and site preparation would be far less than $40,000 per unit. Treating the tiny house as if it were an RV (a common practice in off-grid communities) dramatically reduces the cost of services. For cost details, see the attached proposal.

The report incorrectly labels the Tiny House option as unlikely to secure partnership support

Another assessment that seems to have been pulled out of thin air. The Tiny House Village proposal sent to members of Council and others has already received tentative financial support from CMHC pending the city’s cooperation in providing a site. 

The report ignores the huge gap between cheap tents and costly modular housing

One of the reasons for putting together the attached proposal was the enormous cost of modular housing. Something should be available between a $40 tent and a $200,000 modular housing unit. The enormous cost of modular housing simply leaves most homeless people out in the cold, or  kicked-out of a shelter at 9 AM. The report makes the absurd statement that, “Temporary Modular Housing presents the highest, most economical and best us [sic] of limited land available . . .”

The report mistakenly claims that housing in a Tiny House Village is rarely temporary

The evidence shows that people move out of tiny units because they find them too small, and because they want their own private bathroom. Tiny houses are actually temporary housing, unlike so-called Temporary Modular Housing.

The report writer does not seem to understand the purpose of sprinklers

SROs need sprinklers because they are often located in large buildings that are difficult to escape in the event of a fire. Tiny houses do not require sprinklers because residents can escape to the outside with little more than a few steps.

The report ignores city-owned land in little-used streets and rights-of-way

Council should consider sites other than the handful mentioned in the report, if only to reduce the loss of revenue when leased property is given over to housing the homeless. There are plenty of rights-of-way, street ends and little-used north-south streets that could provide no-cost sites. The attached proposal shows how a Tiny House Village would fit on Hawks Street between the Strathcona Community Garden and Strathcona Park.

The City needs to go beyond warehousing the homeless

Because many homeless people suffer from mental and physical health problems, they benefit from being part of a local community. In the attached proposal, showers and toilets are part of a large gathering space, that includes a community kitchen. A gathering place contributes to well-understood social determinants of health, and is a key component of the widely lauded model of co-housing. It is even more important to the homeless, many of whom depend on social goods in the absence of physical goods. Providing places where people can congregate may be an issue given the current pandemic, but this may soon be addressed with rapid testing. The pronounced benefits of the social determinants of health point to the importance of a safe, off-the-street gathering place in any chosen housing option.