Well, if it isn’t the million dollar question.
It’s been just over a month since I launched my Generosity fundraiser, and though it may not look like it from the (lack of) postings, I’ve been working fairly tirelessly at this project. However, I owe you all an update! Here’s what’s been eating up my days:
I’m currently investigating two avenues for legalization in the City of North Vancouver (featured image via http://www.northvancouver.com).
Backyard tiny houses
This was the original plan, proposed by a supportive city planner in North Vancouver — to find a backyard that meets the requirements for a coach house, and park it there. Only thing is, these requirements are actually quite challenging to meet, especially in an up-and-coming neighbourhood like Lower Lonsdale.
You need a lot that’s 1) at least 3900 square feet and 33 feet wide, 2) with space to accommodate 2 on-site parking spots, 3) that is owner occupied 4) that does not already contain a secondary suite, and 5) does not exceed the maximum density allowance for whatever zone it’s in. And that zoning makes all the difference between the permit being considered by staff ($500, estimated 2-3 months) and having to go through council (min. $1750, estimated 8-12 months). I was looking into a lot that was recently re-zoned for the Moodyville Developments, and under this new zoning I would be required to apply for a >$4000 Development Variance Permit (through council) because my house is under 400 square feet.
And then once you’ve found the right lot, there’s the building itself — it has to meet BC building code, along with specific height and servicing requirements (which may require additional work to the main house in order for it to meet current servicing standards), include energy star appliances, and incorporate landscaping and architectural features that complement the principal dwelling. Oh, and did I mention the permit involves pre-inspection by a BC Certified Land Surveyor, neighbour consultation letters, and the like? The application checklist is 9 pages long, and this is even after the city has put in a lot of work to simplify the process. So in other words, the paperwork is insane (and I say this having experienced the paperwork involved with federal research funding). Now I know a lot goes into building a house, and regulations are hugely important for maintaining health and safety standards of our communities, but needless to say these regulations put real logistical and economic limitations to finding a suitable parking spot and building to coach house standards. Especially if we’re talking affordable housing solutions.
Not only are the political barriers difficult; the cultural barriers are just as prohibitive. In particular, NIMBY is alive and well on the North Shore (quite literally, in this case). Not to say that the community isn’t open to my project. I’ve canvassed a few times around the Quay, and people are all for tiny houses in North Vancouver. Just Not In My Back Yard… Ok, fair enough. It just reinforces one of my goals of this project, which is to encourage self and community reflection on the NIMBY mentality (including in myself). So I hope that continuing the discussion about tiny houses through various media (e.g. this latest interview!) will help normalize this conversation and spur some action.
Ultimately, I hope that the cultural underpinnings of the tiny house movement will trigger policy changes that make tiny house parking more logistically and economically accessible, and less of a one-off. This is a really great article on legalizing tiny homes — it discusses Fresno’s progressive move as a city to create a formal tiny house code. A distinct Tiny House Code is one direction we could pursue in North Vancouver (which could make finding a spot and applying for a permit more flexible) and definitely something to consider proposing to the City as we move the conversation forward…
Tiny house pocket villages
The more I delve into the bureaucracy of backyard permits, the more I find myself leaning towards the idea of a tiny house pocket village. This is the second avenue for legalization, which would involve a larger-scale, and longer-term approach to tiny living.
To create a tiny house pocket village in the Vancouver area, we would first need to secure a piece of land, and then work with the municipal government to zone the land accordingly for multiple residences and community structures. I haven’t done a ton of research yet into zoning/operation/design possibilities, but one option is for individual tiny homeowners to pay into strata or co-operative ownership, and then pay monthly service charges for amenities such as a community kitchen, utilities, and gardens. Another option would be a communal or individual leasehold on city lands, or private ownership by a local NGO or society.
The beauty of a tiny house village, and something that’s appealing to cities, is that it offers a model for affordable ownership rather than rental. Also that it could provide flexibility for homeowners — mobility is an important part of the tiny house movement, and a pocket village would allow for transience (eg. individuals may stay for a few years, before moving themselves and their house onto a larger plot of land) while also offering a secure community framework. And the potential for community services and programs in a tiny house pocket village are limitless! This is really where the social and environmental benefits of tiny living can flourish — Incorporating permaculture principles and public programs into the village could potentially transform a plot of land from simply a residential area, to a regenerative community and ecosystem. It could support food sovereignty, promote ecological and social health, and even redefine what we consider “urban”… totally my jam.
Ok, ok, back to reality.
So there are a couple options for securing land. In the City of North Vancouver and City of Vancouver, public land is in low supply and in high demand, not least by other social housing initiatives. For a tiny house pocket village, which admittedly does not offer the most efficient option in terms of densification (indeed, the principles of a tiny house community are not necessarily grounded in efficiency), the best chance is to secure private lands. Which means, in Vancouver, that there’s little chance… unless we can catch the eye of some philanthropic developer, or otherwise secure outside funds to purchase a multi-million dollar plot. I’m not holding my breath.
If you venture a bit further out of the city however (even a few blocks over, into the District of North Van), there is a possibility to secure public lands for the project. A leasehold on public land could reduce the cost substantially and make it affordable for tiny homeowners — especially if we could secure grants and other funding to build the community centre, gardens, and other infrastructure.
Anywho, this is still something that I need to look into. I’m planning to organize a tiny house meet-up on the North Shore in the next couple weeks to spread the word and collectively decide on next steps. If there’s enough interest, the potential to secure land and move this forward could be very real!
So there you go. It’s been pretty much a full time job trying to push this forward — networking with various individuals, organizations and municipalities to find a viable parking solution, while simultaneously trying to secure materials, sponsorships and funds for my own house. And I have to admit that at times, it all feels quite futile. Especially as I hit roadblock after regulatory roadblock, and as my to-do list growing infinitely bigger, and as I still have no paycheque, all the while sucking up resources from my family and friends… I know that I cannot keep doing this indefinitely.
But then I remind myself that roadblocks are okay. Even though it’s called The Failure Blog, I was happy to read about the experiences of Evergreen, a Canadian NGO, and Anthony Moscar, a tiny house champion, and their efforts to pilot tiny houses in Toronto. The blog definitely touches on the challenges I’m currently facing in North Vancouver, and highlights the difficulties of tiny house legalization in an urban setting. But it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the road for them, or for us here on the West Coast.
There are so many options, and tons more to explore, and I’m definitely not ready to give up yet.
So I think I’ll just keep on keeping on.