By Rachel Fraser

Despite doing away with the Regional District’s minimum first-storey floor area last year, tiny homes still technically aren’t legal within McBride, Valemount or the Regional District at large. They don’t even exist as a regulated category of permanent dwelling in the National, BC or regional/municipal Building Codes or zoning bylaws. 

These and other barriers challenge the pocket communities envisioned by RDFFG Area H Director Dannielle Alan, a force behind scrapping the district’s square footage minimum. A pocket community, or pocket neighbourhood, is a grouping of homes intentionally clustered around a shared outdoor space to encourage interaction and community among neighbors, a concept that in this case could be made up of tiny homes. 

Alan admits this is a step process. 

“I find it frustrating because we’ve seen this housing crisis coming for 10 years,” she said. “First step is not putting unnecessary regulations in place.”

The District’s previous minimum ground floor area was 40 m2 or approximately 430 s.f. The current BC Building Code allows for a minimum total square footage of approximately 323 s.f., or 30 m2. Both, in fact, could accommodate a “tiny home,” were it code-compliant in other ways that can be difficult to achieve in compact design, such as meeting minimum clearances for egress in the case of fire.

According to Village of Valemount CAO Anne Yanciw, the standard definition of a tiny house refers to those built on wheels. She says the problem with tiny homes is twofold. One, most do not meet building code regulations because of egress requirements in case of fire. The ladders many have for accessing an upstairs sleeping area are not legal egress. And many do not have a sufficient window in the sleeping area for egress. Two, because tiny homes are mobile, access to power, water and sewer is an issue. Municipalities (and BC Hydro) do not generally allow for units that can be moved relatively easily to hook up to utilities. Were they to be established in a “tiny home park,” they would be subject to provincial legislation governing mobile home parks.

Financing and insurance are often inaccessible for the above reasons as well.

A report on tiny homes published in 2021 by BC Housing defines the tiny house similarly to Yanciw: “a permanent ground-oriented dwelling that is detached, moveable and non-motorized, under 500 square feet and tailored to compact design.” However, it goes on to clarify that this is an unnecessarily limiting definition. “Often, we limit tiny homes to wood-framed units that are built on a chassis or flat deck (on wheels) only. However, this report also explores prefabricated (modular) and converted steel shipping container units—all of which can be constructed, assembled or placed on either temporary, flexible or permanent foundations.”

Because a large part of the motivation to permit tiny homes is to increase the availability of affordable permanent housing options, requiring a permanent or semi-permanent foundation, such as what is required to mortgage a mobile home on a private lot, would not necessarily undermine its viability. 

Yanciw suggested that there are options within current zoning.

“Municipalities have flexibility to change their legislation to allow for dwellings under the typical minimum sizes, so mini communities such as the one in Smithers are possible options. If multiple buildings are built on one property, there are ownership options as well, such as a bare land strata. Or the small buildings could be connected in a condo arrangement and offered as rentals or ownership through a strata.” 

She pointed to two instances of small-footprint homes that have been successful – a local Accessory Dwelling Unit on a lot also occupied by a regular-sized home, and a publicly-operated rental development in Smithers, BC with eight small detached homes on a single lot. In both cases, the buildings are single-storey units slightly over 600 square feet each, not quite meeting the tiny home threshold of under 500 square feet. Additionally, neither offers the possibility of home ownership, and the Smithers development allows no pets. A strata option would likely require a developer or co-op to purchase and oversee the development, with the ability to undertake the red tape. 

While current regulations have a preference for a foundation not wheels, the BC Housing report suggests flexibility.

“Temporary foundations should be considered for their mobility and also because they are more affordable and environmentally-friendly than concrete-intensive practices. A chassis can range in size and price, offering homeowners many choices, while still being more economical than laying down a concrete foundation.”

BC Housing concluded that tiny homes can be a viable option and calls on the Province and Municipalities to investigate ways to regulate and include them in their bylaws and community plans. The report highlights the roles of all levels of government in research and collaboration to remove barriers to this type of housing. 

Alan sees a partnership between the Regional District and the municipalities as vital to imagining housing solutions. She says the province is working to facilitate pocket neighbourhoods.

 “How can we incorporate this into what we’re doing? We need a mix of housing solutions; there’s no single magic bullet.”