Vancouver suburbs won't go modular

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.




Mar 12, 2009 at 9:03am

Well, I have heard a lot of arguments against housing people in modular buildings, but Wendy, this one has to win the prize. I hope you assured them that they will not be trucked away. Or did you advise them to continue sleeping on the streets since that will keep the pressure on the senior levels of government to build permanent homes?

Let's get real here. We have people with no where to live. The Provincial and City governments are committed to building permanent facilities, but under the best scenario, none of these permanent new buildings will be completed for two years. So what do we do in the interim? Yes, we can give people blankets, which was a Pivot Society initiative...yes, we can allow people to sleep on church pews, which is better than being in the cold.

But we could also house people in safe, decent warm buildings that could be in place by August, and available at a very low cost if set up on free publicly and privately owned sites. This is what I am proposing.

The buildings would be one and two storeys high...attractive and well managed. By keeping the space standards modest, they can be very affordable.

This is an idea that could work for a lot of people...not just the homeless, the mentally ill and drug addicted. And the housing should be scattered around the region, not just concentrated in the DTES. If homeless people don't want to move into this accommodation, while I will be saddened, I will accept this. And I will start promoting my plans for small studio and one bedroom units, fabricated in the factory and from containers, that will result in very attractive homes for anyone looking for interesting housing alternatives around the province.

It is important to distinguish between factory produced modular buildings and trailers. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME. And it is important to separate the building form, from the occupants being served. If you don't know what I am talking about check out 'container city' on the London Docklands, where artists and young urban professionals have created a very exciting new community.

I sure hope the Straight will do more stories on this topic, since this piece, by one of my favourite writers, does a disservice to the topic. Michael Geller


Mar 12, 2009 at 11:37am

While I can appreciate Michael Geller's wanting to distance himself from "trailers", I'd suggest that trailers are just fine for doing what we need to do - house the homeless in a reasonably safe environment. Sure, architects may not like the idea that trailers are just "tin-boxes" that leave rather little room for creativity, but I'm very much in favour of trying anything reasonable to get the job done of providing housing for the homeless, or the insecurely-housed, or the people forced to "couch-surf" in dumpy motels. Just like the famous (and somewhat infamous) FEMA trailers for Hurricane Katrina victims, hundreds of 26-foot trailers could be set up to serve the homeless. Rather than being forced to set up tents on park-lands, such trailers could occupy parking spaces and road-shoulders in many sites around the metro region - always being aware of safety and proximity to services. It sure ain't "trailer park" boys we're talking about! Small trailers can house the "difficult-to-house" with some privacy, they can keep their dog, and if they smoke, they only do it in their own trailer. So, a big yes to TRAILERS!!


Mar 12, 2009 at 5:10pm

Not really related to the desirability of modular homes, but I suspect that when the new stats on rental vacancies comes out, we will see a significant change. With 68,000 full time jobs a month disappearing and with a 50% reduction in foreign students, the vacancy rate is bound to change significantly.


Mar 28, 2012 at 11:12pm

Ignorance from all levels of government has caused this from foreign buyers to greedy politicians. Mobile homes are the solution. I just love these city councellors that say oh buy a condo for low income earners..hey wake up!!!try qualifying for a mortage you latte sipping moron. .Its time for real people to run government not these morons that have their heads up their behinds and have noconcept of what it is like to earn less than 35000 and live..Ide like to force them to do it, without any help..try it good luck getting a bank to finance you let alone have enough for a downpayment. Im sick and tired of people stigmatizing mobile homes. They are an awesome way to get home prices down and managed properly.....they are the answer.. NOT CONDOS!!!!!