High house costs have some Canadians thinking tiny, but not all cities on board

MONTREAL — Amelia Jasper-Laurin dreams of living in a community of tiny house owners, where like-minded neighbours all pitch in to share chores and property maintenance.

Karina Jacobsen, an artist, would like to live in a vehicle that combines a studio and living space so she could travel to different communities to volunteer and learn new artistic techniques.

And Amelie Guertin, 37, toys with the idea of leaving behind the big city and big mortgage for a simpler life close to nature.

The three Montreal-area women are all among those contemplating the idea of eschewing bigger spaces for tiny homes, spurred by a rising cost of living and an increasing focus on minimal living that minimizes one’s ecological footprint.

Kenton Zerbin, an Edmonton-based sustainable living expert who teaches about building tiny homes, said there’s been a growing interest in the topic, and that the cost of living is the most important factor.

“At the end of the day, when you have to get into a quarter million, half a million dollars to get into a property, for many people today in an uncertain time, with uncertain wages and uncertain jobs, it’s just not feasible,” he said.

Over the weekend, Zerbin led about 20 people, including Jacobsen, Guertin and Jasper-Laurin on a workshop that covered the elements of building a tiny home, from planning and design to tangling with local officials.

In a vast Montreal warehouse turned community space, he assigned them exercises including outlining a blueprint of their dream homes on the ground with tape.

In a lunch-break interview, Zerbin said there’s no exact definition of what makes up a tiny home. Most people agree it’s a dwelling ranging from roughly 10 square metres to 45 square metres — or 100 to 500 square feet — although he personally disagrees with such a rigid definition.

“If you’re a family of seven, you have different needs than a family of two,” he said.

While they can be built as cheaply as $10,000, he says that between $40,000 to $80,000 is more realistic, while some of the fancier models can cost much more.

He said the main draw of tiny homes that their smaller price and size allows owners to focus their money energy on other things, such family, community, or travel.

“A tiny home enables you to live your life, versus living for your house,” he said.

Zerbin said that while interest in tiny homes is high in Canada, especially in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, municipalities have been much slower than their American counterparts to accept them.

Many set a minimum square footage requirement, while others have bylaws that go so far as to specify the colour and type of building materials.

“There’s no one city in Canada where you can just build a tiny house and go there,” Zerbin said. ”You have to force-fit yourself.”

Consequently, much of his workshop is devoted to teaching participants to champion the idea with their municipalities, encouraging them to stress the quality of their projects while pitching the ideas of densification, increased tax revenue and attracting new residents to the city.

Zerbin, who himself lives in a 33 square metre home with his wife, says Canadian cities are showing an increasing openness to smaller homes.

Cities such as Vancouver and Edmonton have moved to soften restrictions for secondary suites and laneway homes, while towns such as Okotoks, Alta., have begun planning entire communities of smaller homes.

“I’d say cities are willing to have the conversation, but they’re bureaucratic so everything is slow and wrapped up in red tape,” Zerbin said. ”But if (future owners) are willing to do the work, change will come.”

The process is one that Richard Painchaud knows well.

Painchaud became hooked on the tiny home concept after he semi-retired and spent a year travelling and living in a van, “only to learn it was all I needed.”

However, he learned that building a tiny home in Sherbrooke, Que., was easier said than done, since the homes he wanted to build didn’t correspond to any existing zoning description.

Painchaud eventually decided to create an owners’ co-operative of mini houses, with shared community spaces including a kitchen, garden, pool and workshop.

He eventually managed to convince the city, which was luckily redoing its urbanization plan, to lower its minimum single-family home size to 45 square metres from 65.

“Had I known the amount of work it would take, I’m not sure I would have done it,” he admits.

Le Petit Quartier, made up of homes measuring five by nine metres, is scheduled to begin delivering the first of its 73 homes by the end of this year.

He said the price, which begins at about $140,000 including taxes, is a big plus, but that the biggest is living in a community of like-minded individuals.

“The home is almost secondary,” he said. ”Firstly, it’s for people who want to have a community life, a village in a city.”

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