Tiny House Owners Face a Big Fight for Legitimacy

A recent spate of evictions across the Lower Mainland has left many members of the tiny house movement looking for a place to call home.

July 6, 2017

By Aryn Strickland

It’s a tough time to be a tiny home owner in B.C. While the diminutive houses, 400-square-feet or less and typically built on wheels, are growing in popularity as a response to the Lower Mainland’s housing affordability crisis, increasingly those joining the movement are finding restrictive laws in the region means they may have a house, but still no place to call home. At least that was the case for Cory Grandfield and Ailsa McMillan, a couple in East Vancouver who made the news last month when their tiny home was evicted from a friend’s backyard. According to Lisa Chessari, the founder of the tiny homes non-profit organization the Tiny House Festival Foundation, they were not the only ones who have been evicted from properties in the Greater Vancouver area. Though they didn’t make the news, Chessari says five other tiny house owners, members of her group, were also evicted and forced to move overnight.

With the total cost of roughly $40,000 to build a mortgage-free home, the incentive to join the tiny house movement is usually one of economic necessity, Chessari says. “Most of them have been pushed a little bit on the edge of desperation not to live on the street. They decided to go ahead and build their own tiny houses and just move and take a chance.” However, this is where the issues arrive. Currently, in municipalities including Vancouver and Maple Ridge, living in mobile homes is illegal. This means that tiny homeowners, like Laura, who asked that we not use her real name for fear of eviction, have had to get creative. She parks her home in the backyard of a property five-minutes outside of Maple Ridge and as an extra precaution she does not pay her landlords in cash. “I don’t pay even my electric bill,” she says. Instead, the property owners accept payment in labour hours. “We call my tiny home a nanny suite because they need child care so much so that is where my five hours a week goes—to their child care.”

However, Chessari explains that municipalities like Vancouver and Langley have been open to piloting tiny home programs by giving owners temporary parking permits provided that they pass a building inspection. “What we’ve seen, regrettably, is lots of tiny house owners that haven’t taken that opportunity,” she says, noting building code infractions, like having compost toilets and lofts (a fire safety issue) in tiny homes are common. As a result, many tiny house owners are too afraid to have their homes inspected in case that results in expensive alterations or altogether tear-downs.

(Photo: Tiny House Expedition.)

What’s Happening in B.C.

One partial solution could come in the form of tiny house villages, that would provide designated land for owners to park their homes legally. Currently, the Tiny House Festival Foundation has put forward an application to pioneer a tiny house village on a 16-acre farm in Maple Ridge. Chessari says that while the process is underway and the farmer and the foundation are negotiating the terms of the permits with the municipality, it’s a long process that is happening in stages. “We’ve talked to the city staff we managed to create new zoning specifically for allowing small tiny houses on foundations hooked up to the city services. Then the second phase would be zoning to allow tiny homes on wheels,” she adds. After that, there is another village in the works for the Sunshine Coast.

Although living on farmland may not be perfect for tiny homeowners who work in the city, it would offer a better solution as the only areas it is clearly legal to park tiny homes long-term are on camping grounds in places as far out as Hope or Chilliwack. But even then, that’s only allowed for three months at a time, and only if they are able to get a space.

Lisa Chessari seated to the left at a Tiny House Festival Foundation event in Maple Ridge. (Photo: Lisa Chessari.)

Learning from Tiny Houses in the States

As the progress of the tiny house movement in B.C. continues to be slow-moving, the Tiny House Festival is trying to draw inspiration from the more established movement in the States. This Saturday (July 8) the organization is hosting documentary filmmakers Alexis Stephens and Christian Parsons to showcase their tiny home and to speak about the making of their documentary, Living Tiny Legally, at the UBC farm. The three-part documentary series charts the couple’s course over three years and captures what is happening with the more established tiny house movement in the U.S. that has been progressing since at least 1999. “Designer Jay Shafer had the first tiny house company Tumbleweed and brought [the movement] into the mainstream, he went on Oprah, and it’s been slowly growing in popularity since the early 2000s. But in the last three years, it’s really exploded with reality TV shows about tiny homes,” says Stephens.

Similar to Canada, the two main issues that the movement has faced in the U.S. are building codes and updated zoning. However, there is a building code that every state can reference for dwellings that are under 400 square feet. With several petitions inching toward changing laws in several municipalities in B.C., Stephens says she hopes her experience will provide some hope and inspiration for tiny house adherents here. “I think Canada has a lot they could learn from the great examples in various states.”

Tiny House Expedition creators, Alexis Stephens (second from right) and Christian Parsons (far right). (Photo: Tiny House Expedition.)

Tiny House Festival

Saturday, July 8, 2017 | 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
UBC Farm (3461 Ross Dr., Vancouver)

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