Middle Ground: Are smaller homes the answer to B.C.’s affordability crisis?

Most new homes built in B.C. are small condos or large detached houses. But one solution to the affordability crisis may lie somewhere in between

Credit: Courtesy of Small Housing BC

Home builder Jake Fry sees room for smaller houses in B.C.

Most new homes built in the province are small condos or large detached houses. But making shelter more affordable may call for something in between

You could pretty much go to any cocktail party, any conversation, any Tim Hortons or coffee shop, and you’re going to have the same discourse happening around housing,” says Jake Fry, best known for his Vancouver firm Smallworks, which builds laneway homes. “And the challenges are uniform,” Fry continues. “The dollar value may change, and drivers may be different between Penticton and Vernon and Terrace and Kerrisdale, but the challenge is there.”

Fry has found that people are increasingly looking for housing that meets but doesn’t surpass their needs and accommodates their budgets. In response, in 2012 he and Bob Ransford, now VP development at real estate firm Century Group in Vancouver, founded Small Housing BC (SHBC), a not-for-profit society to study and advocate for homes between 100 and 1,500 square feet. Recently SHBC began sharing its research. This year Fry and SHBC project managers Anastasia Koutalianos and Samantha Gambling visited or video-conferenced with some 20 municipalities across the province, outlining the advantages of constructing fewer apartment buildings and more small infills or larger structures that might look like a house but contain multiple residences. Not only can this approach add households to neighbourhoods without changing their character, but infill homes might also be quicker for planners to approve while suiting residents’ requirements better than more traditional developments, Fry explains.

“Most neighbourhoods don’t need to be razed and redeveloped with one uniform typology,” he says. “We need to keep a bit of what’s there, and we need to be able to add things that are much more diverse than what we have now. It’s that mixing that gives us those really strong neighbourhoods.”

As a result, SHBC partnered on projects with the cities of Maple Ridge, Nelson and Vancouver. Maple Ridge and Nelson had existing regulations for detached secondary dwellings, but few homeowners were building them.

SHBC helped with research and public outreach that led to both cities increasing the maximum size of infill homes, to 968 square feet and two storeys in Nelson, and to 15 percent of the lot area or 1,500 square feet, whichever is less, in Maple Ridge. The two communities also now allow both a secondary suite and secondary detached dwelling (called laneway homes in Nelson and detached garden suites in Maple Ridge), for potentially three residences per property.

In Nelson, the maximum was previously 700 square feet of living area. “It doesn’t make a lot of financial sense most of the time,” says city planner Alex Thumm, “in terms of what you could get for rent for a place that small but what you’re having to put into it to build it, because you still have all these fixed costs—the kitchen, the bathroom, the connections for utilities.”

SHBC also helped develop two publications for the homeowner-turned-developer who is less familiar with city building processes than design professionals but wants to build a laneway house for extra income or intergenerational living. Nelson is considering pre-approved plans, “likely going through an architectural competition to choose some high-quality designs that can be made available to homeowners at a lower cost than commissioning their own designs and using that as a way to promote local designers,” Thumm says.

At workshops and open houses in Maple Ridge, community planner Lisa Zosiak found that people’s major interest was being able to construct larger detached garden suites. “They’re quite a large investment,” she points out, and residents think, “If I’m investing in this, what would make it livable for me or for the kids?”

The city has lined up three homeowners to build detached garden suites as pilot projects, and Small Housing BC is helping put together a look book for each. “We do profiles of each of the property owners, the properties, what they’re intending to build, to try and give council and the public an idea about what these structures will look like and what this will be like in the neighbourhood,” Zosiak says.

As for Vancouver, SHBC director and urban planner Michael Mortensen is doing a feasibility study on developing single-family lots that combine market-value and more affordable units attractive to both homeowners and neighbours. “We’ve got examples, especially in the streetcar suburbs, of types of development at higher density that still preserve high-quality, leafy, desirable neighbourhoods but accommodate more people,” says Mortensen, who has suggested that Vancouver Specials should make a comeback. “This study is looking at how can we weave in some permanently affordable housing as part of that.”

On November 17, SHBC is holding a summit in Vancouver for decision makers in fields such as construction, design, finance, policy and real estate. “The whole reason for doing the summit in the first place is we’re bringing Maple Ridge, Nelson and Vancouver together to say, this is what we did, this is what we learned, this is what’s next for us,” project manager Koutalianos says. “And leverage the room at the end [of the event] and be like, what’s next now for B.C.?”



Average square footage of a Canadian home in 1945


Number of people typically living in a Canadian home in 1945


Average square footage of a B.C. home today


Number of people typically living in a B.C home today


Based on income alone, spending 40 percent of it on housing and ignoring the federal mortgage stress test, how many households in Metro Vancouver can afford to buy a home worth more than: 

$1.1 million


$1.5 million


$1.7 million