By Caterina Amaral and Jacob Dubé
Liz Lee’s first apartment was the size of a walk-in closet. At 120 square feet, there wasn’t much room for anything. Instead of a kitchen, she had a kettle and an electric pot. Her work desk doubled as a cutlery drawer. The third-year Ryerson theatre production student paid around $560 a month, including utilities, for the room near Jane Street and Finch Avenue—an hour and 15 minute commute from school.
When it came to finding a good apartment, Lee didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t afford to rent downtown, and this was her cheapest solution—even though she had to get up at 5 a.m. to make it to her morning classes on time.
Average rental prices for downtown apartments in mid-2016 were $1,425 for a bachelor and $1,710 for a one bedroom. Over a single year, the cost of property in Toronto rose by 10 per cent. By some estimates, 10 years from now a single-family home in Toronto will cost upwards of $2.5 million. At this rate, the possibility of finding affordable housing seems more and more unrealistic.
The potential solution? A group of Ryerson students want us to think small.
Daniel Sobieraj, Douglas Peterson-Hui and Gregorio Jimenez, students in the architecture program at Ryerson, have started building their own “tiny home.” The concept is pretty straightforward— property and building prices are surging, so why not live in a smaller, more efficient house?
The tiny house movement is growing. In Ontario, there’s been an increase in the amount of people looking to buy land to set up their homes, especially on Kijiji. Large numbers of small house buyers are even coming together to form their own tiny communities across northern Ontario.
A tiny house can be as small as 80 square feet, or as big as 160. But these aren’t shitty live-in closets without kitchens or cutlery drawers. From the outside, they look like a children’s play house. But inside, designs often resemble something out of a House & Home magazine. Most have lofts outfitted with bunk beds, subtle storage space and hidden bathrooms.
In May 2016, the three students started the framework for a tiny house in Saanich, B.C. At first it was just a skeleton—a shell of wooden planks held atop a wheeled trailer. A couple of months later, they installed metal siding, wooden windows and insulated the house to make it airtight. A massive, triangular roof was built to give it a more classic feel. Most of the time, a big tarp had to be put over the house to ward off potential damage from the rain. It’ll cost them about $40,000 to build and they plan to sell it for $75,000.
He thinks the tiny house project can help solve the density problem in Toronto
Sobieraj says people have different motives for wanting to live in a tiny house. Some want to live minimally and change their lifestyle, while others just can’t afford to buy a “regular” house. He thinks the tiny house project can help solve the density problem in Toronto.
Frank Clayton, an urban and real estate economist and senior research fellow at Ryerson, says that the rising cost of housing is one of the biggest challenges that Toronto faces. Roughly 100,000 people move into the area every year, which means there needs to be about 40,000 new housing units built annually in the GTA. Right now, there are only 55,000 new units under construction in all of Ontario.
In 2006, the Ontario government released the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe. The plan maps out a huge, horseshoe-shaped area surrounding the GTA that’s covered in green space—forests and farmland—and restricts urban growth within it, effectively preventing any housing divisions
from being built. Since housing in the GTA can’t expand outward, the price of real estate within the area continues to climb.
Even before construction on a regular house can start, the municipal government charges an extra $65,000 in development costs, bringing up the price further. Costs are governed by how much you are willing or able to spend in order to buy a place in the area.
In Sobieraj’s opinion, a tiny house would be great for students, but in Toronto specifically there is potential to run into technical challenges. Most, if not all, tiny houses are built on trailers, so they can’t be classified officially as a house and therefore can’t be exclusively placed on their own piece of land. Tiny homes can only legally stay on properties with a primary house already there, or on RV parks. In the city especially, tiny homes wouldn’t be paying a hydro bill, which make them a not- so-ideal renting option for landlords.
The tiny home project isn’t just for students and young people. A Toronto committee is looking into creating them to help solve the homeless housing crisis.
When Ryerson politics and public administration professor Cathy Crowe first started on the project years ago, nobody called what they were doing a tiny homes project. The term wasn’t even coined yet. All she knew was that building small, affordable housing could help the growing and ignored homeless population in the city.
Her colleague, anti-poverty activist Bonnie Briggs, decided to create a committee in Toronto to work on creating a tiny homes project in the city. They began by setting up a DuraKit Instant House (a light and cheap version of a tiny house) in the Toronto settlement Tent City, which housed a collective of tents and other shelters around Cherry Street before everyone was evicted.
The committee already has designs created by architect John van Nostrand, but their main issue is finding land to fit them all
Crowe refers back to a case in Richmond Hill where several DuraKits were set up on a large property to be used as emergency shelters.
“It was going to be ideal because instead of being in this big old house that was a shelter, sharing a kitchen and all that, every family was going to have one unit,” she said.
According to Crowe, tiny homes work in this situation because they’re cheap (each one would cost between $30,000 and $80,000), can be set up quickly, and could theoretically be hooked up to the power grid.
The committee already has designs created by architect John van Nostrand, but their main issue is finding land to fit them all. It’s Crowe’s goal to have them be as close to the downtown core as possible, but they’re still waiting on support from the municipal government.
“It’s very hard to get things done in this city,” she said.
But there are some areas in Ontario where tiny houses are breaking ground and establishing themselves. Ottawa is currently working on their laws around allowing secondary houses to be built on properties, which would make renting space for a tiny house much easier. Other municipalities are also rethinking their renting and zoning bylaws. The movement is growing, though it still might not be for everyone.
After finally getting out of her Jane and Finch situation, Lee now lives in the Distillery District with her sister, where she splits the $1,600-a-month rent. It’s not perfect, but she’s making it work.