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Housing alliance suggests small solution for big housing crisis

Deputy Mayor Barry Ward says he doesn't see tiny houses as a long-term solution, as he'd like to see projects with more density address the problem

A small idea could help solve a bigger problem when it comes to the area's affordable housing conundrum, says an official with the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH). 

During a recent meeting at city hall to discuss Barrie's new Official Plan, which is currently being updated, SCATEH's Jennifer Van Gennip said the group's primary goal within the new planning document is to create more affordable housing units. 

The city has a goal of 840 affordable housing units in the period between 2015 and 2025, and city officials have said it currently sits at 441. 

However, Van Gennip said those numbers are up for debate. 

"An affordable housing 'unit' is a defined term and we believe that only units created that meet that definition should be counted," said Van Gennip, adding the 441 numeral includes 179 privately created second suites and may not meet the definition. "And in this current market, it's almost certain they do not."

Conservatively, Van Gennip said three-quarters of those units do not meet the definition of affordable housing, adding there are also no new units that would meet the bottom end of spectrum.

"It's concerning and it's misleading," said Van Gennip.

The province defines affordable housing as a unit where rent does not exceed 30 per cent of the gross annual household income for low- and moderate-income households, or a unit where the rent is at or below the average market in the regional market area.

Van Gennip challenged council to meet those targets by amending zoning bylaws to allow for micro build forms and "tiny houses," which can be as small as 250 square feet. 

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution to ending homelessness," she said, "and tiny houses are a better option than an apartment building for some of the people we serve."

Coun. Clare Riepma said it's "very hard if not impossible" to find a decent apartment to rent in the city for $1,000 per month. 

"That makes it very hard for someone on disability or senior on a pension," he said. "Affordability is a big problem in Barrie."

The idea of 'tiny houses' has been used in other communities where homelessness is a concern. Just a few weeks ago in Whitehorse, Yukon, a handful of small homes opened to help reduce the city's homeless issue.

The project is aimed at alleviating homelessness by offering transitional living space to at-risk clients. The 240-square-foot units are each meant to house one person for an indefinite period of time, according to a CBC report from last month. 

Another city using the idea is Detroit. Cass Community Social Services, a local community group in the Motor City, is behind the movement to bridge the poverty-stricken city's housing gap between rich and poor.

Tiny Homes Detroit, once complete, will have 25 of the small structures, which are built using donated materials and volunteers doing the work to keep the costs as low as possible. The homes are all unique and between 250 and 400 square feet, and Cass officials say they end up costing about $1 per square foot. 

Residents are charged "rent" to establish a financial history with the community group, but that money goes toward security systems, water and taxes. After seven years, people are handed the deed and take over the associated costs. 

Some Barrie city councillors think tiny houses could work in Barrie, but only on a minuscule level. 

"I think there may be a place for tiny houses as part of the overall solution to the lack of affordable housing in Barrie, but I suspect they’ll never be a large part of the solution," said Deputy Mayor Barry Ward, who's also the councillor in Ward 4. "I’m open to hearing the case being made for them and I can see them being used as part of the current Housing First approach we’ve adopted to getting people off the street."

For example, Ward said there may be a piece of land in the city where a dozen tiny homes could go while more permanent housing is built or for short-term accommodation.

"I don’t, however, see tiny houses as a long-term solution for most people’s needs when it comes to finding a permanent place to live," he added. 

Frankly, Ward said he doesn't believe tiny houses are the best use of land in terms of density. 

"I’d rather see 20 or 30 units in an apartment complex built on a parcel of land rather than a dozen tiny homes," he said. "Considering the cost of the land, plus the cost of sewer and water connections to all the individual units, I’m not sure how affordable they’d be in the end."

Riepma said he would also like to see more information around the idea before giving his full endorsement. 

"I wonder if there would be a big demand for them," he said. "Certainly, they would be of interest to a small segment of the market. How big that number is, is a question mark."

The city's zoning bylaw does not have a minimum unit size, Riepma said. 

"As a result, you could build a tiny house anywhere in the city where single-family homes are permitted," he added. "As we all know, tiny houses have not been built. Probably because it doesn’t make sense to build a tiny house on a regular building lot. This means that if we are going to get tiny homes built, we will need need to find other solutions that currently may not be permitted in the bylaw."

Another issue could be convincing builders to construct them. 

"Part of the problem is that builders are not building 900-square-foot homes anymore," Riepma said. "I lived in one for years. It was a great starter home that I could afford and we moved to something bigger when our family grew. A smaller home costs less to build and therefore would be more affordable." 

There's also the matter of how do tiny houses fit into the city's Official Plan. 

"I don’t believe we have zoning which would accommodate tiny houses at the current time in Barrie, but that could change, especially with our current review," Ward said. "It is my understanding that meeting the building code standards is also a challenge, including in accessibility requirements."

There are other ways the city can tackle the housing crunch, Ward said, such as encouraging a percentage of new developments be affordable, which could happen through the Official Plan.

"We have been having some luck with this in the annexed lands secondary plans and some of the high-density developments proposed for the downtown," he said.

The city can also work with community groups and charitable groups, such as churches, who bring forward affordable housing plans, said Ward, noting is something that's already being done with the Barr’s Motel conversion on Essa Road, which is almost complete, and the Salvation Army family housing proposed for Lillian Crescent.

"It would be great to see more of these in the future," he said. 

Creating affordable housing is one of city council's top priorities and there are several ways the issue is being addressed, says Andrea Bourrie, the city's planning director. An updated affordable housing strategy will be prepared this year, with input from community partners. The new Official Plan also includes a goal of 10 per cent of new residential units be affordable.  

"Staff will be proposing to make this a requirement, which will help to address the issue," Bourrie said. "There are also some restrictions with respect to second suites that we believe can be changed to help with affordability yet still protect the integrity of stable neighbourhoods and we will be making these recommendations to council."

The city will also launch an awareness program related to second suites and specifically, how residents create one in their own home and do it with all the needed permits to ensure compliance and safety, she added. City officials will be on site at the Barrie Home Show, March 16 and 17, with information and staff to discuss second-suite renovations.

"We are working on funding tools that, if approved, could serve to allow the city to be more proactive in funding affordable housing projects," Bourrie said. "Right now, the city is limited to development charge credits and permit fee reductions and the county holds the larger provincially and federally funded programs for housing.

"Staff believe there is an opportunity to explore other tools under the Planning Act that will serve the city well in addressing this growing affordability issue," she added. 

City staff is also looking at what other municipalities are doing and seeing what can be used in Barrie. 

Riepma, whose ward includes the college district, said tiny houses wouldn't address the housing problem in that area, where he says there is a lack of purpose-built student housing. So, many homes in that area are occupied by students. 

"If we could get this resolved, we might free up another 100 affordable houses for families," he said. "I think that there are other ways to tackle the housing crunch, but the city will need to work with the building industry to accomplish them."

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Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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