Back when his wife was a footloose family physician in training, Craig Keating lived with her in a trailer in Hazelton, B.C. The City of North Vancouver councillor described the experience as "just fine". But even with a recession on and the average price of detached homes in North Vancouver at $739,856, he's not advocating Cates Park become a real-life version of Trailer Park Boys.
"I'd get my head chopped off," he told the Georgia Straight in an interview on March 10, noting that he's seen innovative, sustainable modular homes built in Europe and Japan. North America, he said, has a unique aversion to factory-made homes. "You just need to get past the language. Put two dots over the O in modular and then it could be from IKEA."
Modular homes as affordable housing solutions burst into public consciousness here this winter with two independent proposals. The first, released January 23, was a pro bono paper led by Vancouver architect Gregory Henriquez. It suggests temporarily solving Vancouver's homeless crisis by building 982 temporary housing units on eight city-owned lots, from Kitsilano to Crab Park. On March 9, development consultant Michael Geller sent a commissioned feasibility study to the province on 64 modular homes to be built on one of the 12 Vancouver social housing sites.
With 68,000 British Columbians having lost full-time jobs in January alone, according to Statistics Canada, and with a deeper recession brewing, plus a rental squeeze in the West End and elsewhere, modular homes could be a housing solution for a wider population than street homeless—at just $48,000 (or less) per temporary unit, according to the Henriquez report.
However, Surrey city councillor Judy Villeneuve is in no hurry to set land aside for a modular-home metropolis. The city simply doesn't have a surplus of lots, she explained to the Straight. Plus, she said, housing prices there have dipped, so even low-income earners can buy.
On March 10, for example, 176 Surrey homes were listed on MLS for under $150,000. The least expensive of all was a two-bedroom mobile home for $14,900. The least expensive site-built home was a bachelor apartment for $109,900.
"The city is not in a position to purchase land to provide housing," Villeneuve said. "It's a national shame that we don't have a national housing program. Cities are already going beyond the call."
Rick Higgs, executive director of the Manufactured Home Association of B.C., told the Straight the factory-built homes could provide a permanent, thin modular-home vertebrae down the laneway of every city block in the Lower Mainland. Vancouver and other jurisdictions may have new laneway-friendly bylaws approved by this spring, but Higgs warned that manufactured homes still battle a big-city stigma.
Even as a solution to the most visible housing crisis, modular homes have critics.
The Henriquez report proposes 116 units of modular housing under the Kitsilano side of the Burrard Bridge,. Homeless people camp there already, according to Lynne Kent, a spokesperson for the Kits Point Residents Association.
"A lot of the sleeping-bag sites have evidence of theft, and we do have a problem with theft throughout the neighbourhood" she told the Straight. "I'm not sure how this [modular homes] might help."
Wendy Pedersen, coordinator of the Carnegie Community Action Project, said she's concerned. At a March 10 meeting with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, she told the Straight, people raised concerns that the homes—and their occupants—could get loaded onto railway cars and shipped out of town for the Olympics.