Two Vancouver women are spearheading a movement that could have a massive impact on the city’s limited housing supply—one that could put home ownership within reach for the average Vancouverite again, and even offer a solution to homelessness.
In July, Anastasia Koutalianos and Samantha Gambling were strangers with a mutual interest in the concept of ‘tiny living’—a social trend that encourages the downsizing and simplifying of one’s living space and lifestyle, and is generally associated with a home no larger than 500 square feet.
They met for the first time at a tiny house meet-up organized by Gambling in North Vancouver.
By August, they’d come up with an idea so promising that potential stakeholders were already knocking at their doors.
“Our ultimate goals are to legalize and legitimatize tiny houses in Metro Vancouver and across B.C.,” Gambling tells the Straight during an interview at Trout Lake Community Centre.
As the cofounders of the B.C. Tiny House Collective, she and Koutalianos are working hard to see building bylaws reconfigured so that citizens who might be inclined to reduce the size of their homes—not to mention their carbon footprints—can do so legally.
“We really want to break some of the cultural barriers that people have about tiny houses,” Koutalianos says.
“They are an affordable model for home ownership and rentals, and they could be used to diversify irregular sites like vacant and underdeveloped lots."
Though she stresses that tiny homes are not "a one-size-fits-all" solution to housing, they do offer a way of significantly diversifying the city's housing stock, and are in line with Vancouver's green housing strategies.
Through their Go Tiny campaign, the duo has been hard at work collecting research and engaging with the public through meet-up groups, engagement events, and online surveys, partnering with local institutions including UBC, BCIT, and VCC to identify the opportunities and barriers to tiny houses and the questions that need answering before any bylaws can be put in place.
If that happens, the model could also have great potential for nonprofit housing providers that are looking at different solutions for the city's homeless population.
Gambling says the implications associated with tiny houses range from environmental—reduced energy usage, possibilities for off-grid living, requiring fewer materials and resources—to economic and social.
“You really need to be connected to the land you’re sitting on in a way that is so different from the housing that we currently have,” she says.
“You also need to be connected to your community, because you don’t want to stay in a 300-square-foot box all day, so it creates interaction, which is something that we are really lacking in Vancouver.”
Though she’s heard some refer to tiny homes as "glorified RVs" or “a millennial’s response" to the housing crisis, Koutalianos says that, when it comes to where and for whom tiny houses might be useful, the possibilities are endless.
The former communications director for Habitat for Humanity says the model is a far more efficient solution to housing needs than what is offered by the current market.
“I got really interested in the potential for serving the needs of diverse communities, but also in looking at housing from an innovative lens,” Koutalianos says.
“How do you push the status quo in terms of how we build?” she asks.
Because they require less time and money to construct—it's been suggested that the average DIYer could build a tiny house in three months, for anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000—tiny homes also offer more opportunity for customization, like the integration of eco-friendly options including off-grid power sources, mobility options, temporary foundations, grey water systems, compositing toilets, the use of reclaimed building materials, and more.
Gambling, an academic with a master’s degree in land and food systems, was in search of a living situation that would enable her to work in the nonprofit sector, when she was first attracted to the idea of tiny living.
“This idea came from me wanting to work in the realms of food sovereignty and food security, and I couldn’t afford a place to live and do that work,” she says.
“Ideally, I would like to not have to pay monthly rent to someone else’s mortgage, so I see tiny houses as a means of affordable home ownership that would give me the freedom to do the work that is meaningful to me.”
It will be completed within the next two weeks, and eventually, she hopes to move it to an empty lot near Main Street and East 41st Avenue while a developer awaits permits, but she also has her eye on a few sites in North Vancouver and other local muncipalities for potential pilot projects.
Because there are no tiny house-specific bylaws, the designer suggested that it be built as a CSA-certified RV. Despite the associated added costs (and a final price tag of roughly $75,000), Gambling went ahead with her project, hoping to pave the way for future tiny-homeowners.
She and Koutalianos have applied for a B.C. Homeowner Protection Office grant to further explore the possibility of a tiny house-specific construction code, and are in talks with the City of Vancouver to use the house as a demo unit in a pilot project.
Gambling says she's excited to be the collective's guinea pig.
"I have to remind myself what makes it worthwhile, because at the end of the day I know I want to live in a healthy system that doesn't currently exist," she says of the challenging project.
"I have no other option but to help it exist. If this works, and if we can see that cultural shift in the way that we live towards a more mindful, more connected, symbiotic community, then that's worthwhile."
Gambling and Koutalianos are eager to bring more volunteers into the fold, and want to empower people to make change happen with respect to their living situations.
"If we can scale this here, it can be replicated elsewhere," says Koutalianos.
"I see this as an opportunity, and if we can overcome the hurdles that exist here, then I don't see why this wouldn't be opening a door for cities across Canada."