Tiny Homes – The Solution to Homelessness on Salt Spring Island?

I've been researching and writing about homelessness for many years, and have looked at the issue while traveling throughout Europe and Canada, as well as here on Salt Spring. In my post, written two years ago, I ask a number of important questions, including: Why can't we use innovative and creative ideas to create alternative housing here on Salt Spring? Why not look at what other communities have done to assist their formerly homeless residents to create community and innovative solutions to homelessness? Are tiny homes a solution to homelessness on Salt Spring Island?

Both of our local trustees mentioned tiny homes in the report from the January 19, 2021 Islands Trust Zoom meeting.

Peter Grove would like it to be easier for tiny homes to be built on Salt Spring, but he also noted that there are examples of tiny home communities that are not working out as expected. Surprising to some, we also learned that there are almost no successful tiny home communities in British Columbia, largely due to its building codes requiring minimum square footage and a bathroom.

Laura Patrick explained that one of the reasons that the proposed Bylaw 471, which allows Temporary Use Permits for residential use, had been referred to the Housing Challenges and Solutions planning project was because it had become too narrow in application. For example, it no longer addressed tiny homes, and Laura would like to see a path towards legalizing tiny homes.”

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Salt Spring Island boasts a per-capita rate of homelessness 50% higher than Victoria and double that of Vancouver. The “Point in Time” Homelessness Count done in March 2018 documented 89 unhoused individuals, and an additional 39 living in ‘provisional’, insecure housing. According to the 2016 Census, Salt Spring’s population of 10, 557 owned a total of 3,920 single family homes. Each of the island’s 183.03 square kilometers was occupied by only 57.7 individuals. That’s a lot of unused land.

The number of unhoused individuals is increasing annually, and this increase is expected to continue. Numerous local organizations are addressing the ‘homelessness issue’, developing strategic plans and applying for government funding. Seven affordable housing projects are already underway, with land secured, representing over 250 units, to address a range of affordable housing needs on SSI.

So here are a few questions I’ve been asking myself: Why are potential solutions to homelessness and lack of affordable housing so complicated, expensive and time-consuming? Why do we need to rely on government assistance to fund top-down housing developments rather than create grassroots solutions to these issues ourselves? Why can’t we use innovative and creative ideas to create alternative housing here on Salt Spring? Why not look at what other communities have done to assist their formerly homeless residents to create community and innovative solutions to homelessness?

Let’s look at Madison, Wisconsin. Their Occupy Madison (OM) is a membership non-profit organization whose mission is to join together to creatively work toward a more humane and sustainable world. They envision a place where people with or without current safe housing can live and/or work cooperatively in a way that promotes dignity, safety, stewardship, and sustainability for all. With help from numerous community groups, Occupy Madison has built nine tiny houses, a day resource center, laundry facilities and a community gardening space in the village. The 96 square foot homes are made from reclaimed and recycled materials and include a bed, a toilet, propane heat and solar panels for electricity. Each building costs around $5,000 to build and the money was raised with private donations.

Occupy Madison, Inc. has no paid staff. “We are a small group of volunteers, 100% funded by donations. Most of us have full-time jobs unrelated to our participation in OM Inc. We would LOVE to help others get started, but are overwhelmed by the global interest in our project and our very real need to manage our own affairs. Unfortunately, there is no ready guidebook for starting a tiny house village. We are quite literally making things up as we go. As we learn what works for us (and what doesn’t!), we will be only too happy to share what we have learned”.

I would like to respectfully respond to a couple of points in the report in the Islands Trust Housing needs assessment:

  1. Dozens of  successful tiny home communities for the unhoused have been running smoothly for decades in the United States.  For one example, please take a look at the information about the Occupy Madison community I mention in my blog post.
  2. Quebec leads the country as a major supporter of the tiny home movement in Canada.  It is legal to live in a tiny home and several successful tiny home communities are thriving.  What can we learn from their successes?  What could we replicate here?
  3. While it may be true that there are examples of tiny home communities that are not working out as expected, the same could be said for any other type of housing.  Surely there are also examples of gated communities, co-housing communities, single family homes and multiple unit residential housing  that are not working out as expected?
  4. I was intrigued to read of the “Housing challenges and solutions planning project” mentioned in the report.  For some reason, I was not able to find any information about this project on the Islands Trust website.  What I did find was a long list of studies, reports, strategic plans, assessments and toolkits on the topic of housing needs and affordable housing…..dating back to the early 2000’s.  Scanning through a report from 2009, I saw that the issues facing SSI then are the same issues facing us now.   “The Most Urgent Needs: housing for those who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness is the most urgent need. There was widespread agreement that many of the housing challenges faced by this segment of the population are not merely economic, but rather a complex combination of low income and mental health issues (including addictions). There is a serious need for housing that meets both the affordability thresholds for those on social assistance or disability pension ($375 for shelter)) and provides integrated social services that can help ensure success in their housing. The form and location of housing should also be given important consideration.”

A  tiny house village would provide its residents with their own dry, warm and secure place that is also part of a larger, self-supporting community. A multi-purpose common building is crucial for fostering community.  

Let’s take action together now to provide housing, safety, and community to our unhoused neighbors here on Salt Spring.

January 24, 2021 2:36 PM

Community Comments

  • We could create this on Drake Road, owned by the CRD donated by sd64. The Wagon Wheel Society could run it.

  • Avatar J Cade says:

    In my 21 years in Real Estate I must have been approached 100 times from people wanting to buy property had have several small cottages to rent out. The answer has always been the same. The current Islands Trust zoning will not allow it. That wold considered a commercial operation or a multi family zoning and to rezone a property would be many years an a lot of money to do. End of story.

    I don't think there is a limit on the size of a home built, as long as it meets BC Building code. That means it has to have a foundation, a source of potable water and a septic system and yes, it must have a bathroom. That could be rainwater catchment and it could be a share septic system as long as it was approved by VIHA. The problem has always been zoning. Islands Trust is so terrified of the island being over populated that they will not allow for an increase in the density of homes on a property.

    Of course the question always comes up about why we have more homeless people here than other places. I think there are two answers. It would be interesting to find out where the current homeless population came from. I will bet they are not the sons and daughters of residents of the island. They made a choice to come here. Why not, it's better than Winnipeg in the winter. If they new there was no housing available, why did they choose Salt Spring. The second reason is as stated above, it is zoning restrictions. We don't need government assistance or subsidized housing, we need a clear set of rules for building affordable homes and the zoning to allow it. If a land owner knows they can build five small cottages on a property and follow the health and safety rules and the BC Building code, they will do the math and figure out if they can rent them out at an affordable rate. The biggest challenge is the bureaucracy to get to this point. Time is money and if it is gong to take years and study after study, it will never be affordable..

    Why don't we have any apartment blocks on the island? ZONING !!! Apartments are a form of affordable housing. You share the infrastructure costs and land costs amongst each unit. I looked into building an apartment block in 1993. The zoning limitations made it impossible to build and rent out affordable units. It s now worse.

    We have a dearth of rental housing on the island. Why? Because the zoning won't allow for duplexes or suites or multiple units on a property ( back to sharing of infrastructure and land costs). Secondary suites are only allowed in areas that are serviced by NSSI water which has a moratorium on new hook ups. They are also in areas of smaller lots that can't support a well and a septic system.

    There are simple solutions to these problems if we can just get the authorities to get out of the way.

  • Avatar Andy S says:

    It’s all about zoning, taxation and what your neighbours will accept. Many people are concerned about homelessness, but will say, “not in my neighbourhood”. I don’t have the answers, but I am able to identify the roadblocks... been there, done that 🙁

  • Avatar Barry says:

    A group of us are currently building a tiny home community here on the island. We are building according to code and practicality with proper septic systems and / or composting toilets and permaculture systems that have been working excellently and proven composting methods brought from the wisdom of Hawaii. We collaborate as a group and host regularly group community meetings to address challenges arising from within and outside of the community. We arrive at solutions that are mutually beneficial to the group, our neighbors, and most importantly to the environment. We never had a complaint or visit from the CRD. Unlike most property owners on the island who are mindlessly hacking down trees on their property , we are integrating trees on every available and sensible area throughout all the property just to retain water in the soil as in a natural water holding system . We dont need no hassle from municipal engineers who are used to specifying traffic lights and Concrete Jungle type of systems that are not practical over here.

    We build to safety, with practicality and never compromise when it comes to potable water, mold free spaces and sewage treatment. . Moreover we build with the environment with respect for all the surroundings where we're at. This community never obtained a permit for the site, it is known by the CRD and Islands trust, no penalties or drama here because it simply works.

    Sorry for the Judgment but thumbs down to the chickenbox apartment systems that city dwellers want to bring with them to this island. Go have your Starbucks and stare at these apartments while you sip your concrete jungle coffee.

    When opportunity does not come knocking at your door just build a new door. This new age requires a new way of being and thinking to reflect the conditions that we are in.

  • Avatar Myco Bask says:

    Hi Barry, just wanted to get some more information about the tiny home community and the potential to join and or build. Thanks, Myco. mycobask@gmail.com