Rachelle Stein-Wotten

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Gabriola Sounder

Local elected representatives are disappointed in the province’s response to appeals to address local government’s concerns around supporting tiny homes as an affordable housing option.

The province delivered responses to resolutions endorsed at the Union of BC Municipalities’ 2022 conference in early March, including the tiny homes resolution, NR21, which calls for a review of the BC Building Code to recognize, allow and provide building requirements for tiny homes that would address barriers such as egress, headroom and window and door sizes.

The resolution specifies that Part 9 of the BC Building Code, which applies to small residential buildings that are three storeys or less in height, not larger than 600 m2 and used for residential, commercial, or medium-to-low hazard industrial purposes, should be amended to define tiny homes as allowable permanent dwellings to facilitate their construction in areas where local government’s official community plans and zoning bylaws allow them.

In its response, the province said reducing or removing measures “compromises the health and safety of building occupants,” noting the BC Building Code (BCBC) does not restrict the size of a house. It pointed out that there are tiny home manufacturers in B.C. that have installed tiny homes that meet the building code. It also noted that tiny homes on wheels have unique considerations such as connections to potable water, utilities and sewage disposal.

Local governments are challenged with how to zone tiny homes, a 2021 BC Housing report says. Building codes and safety standards, minimum square footage, homeownership and tenure models as well as servicing are barriers for planning, engineering and building departments. “Local governments’ hands are tied until decision-makers at all levels take steps to amend small housing sub-sections within provincial building codes, and certified bodies create tiny house-specific standards,” the report says.

While the BCBC does not prohibit tiny homes, there are inherent challenges for establishing them, the BC Housing report indicates, namely, foundation, permanent hookups for electricity and plumbing, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, entrance/exit door widths, bathroom facilities and plumbing standards, ceiling heights and egress to the exterior from the sleeping area. Fire safety as it relates to burn times, fire barriers, fire retardant materials and means of egress is also a concern.

A tiny home on wheels used as a full-time residence is not covered under the BCBC or any industry-accepted standard, according to the BC Housing report. Those on permanent foundations, or seasonal residences on wheels are covered by the National Building Code and BCBC, or Canadian Standards Association, respectively.

In the absence of any specific building code, a number of local governments are using various tools to allow tiny homes as dwellings, a 2021 RDN staff report says. These include temporary use permits, developing guidelines and development permit areas specific to tiny homes, permitting permanent residential occupancy of recreational vehicles within RV parks and supporting the development of tiny house villages.

The RDN submitted a resolution similar to NR21 at last year’s UBCM conference though it was referred to the eventually endorsed one as it was considered too similar.

“I am disappointed that the provincial response doesn’t address the underlying concern for all of these resolutions, which is that there are potential barriers to the construction of tiny homes,” Electoral Area B (Gabriola, Mudge, DeCourcy) Director Vanessa Craig, whose motion initiated the 2021 RDN staff report, said. The director and now board chair added affordable and available housing “is critically low and a greater diversity of housing options is necessary to help address this. Difficulties in addressing the space constraints within the BC Building Code means that potential solutions can be at odds with the BC Building Code. This limits creative solutions which could ultimately still result in a safe and secure living space.”

The RDN’s ongoing review and update of Bylaw 500, which covers land use though does not apply to Area B, will include an assessment of the potential use of tiny homes and park model recreational vehicles in a future phase of the project, Craig said.

Tobi Elliott, trustee on the Gabriola Local Trust Committee and previously tiny homes educator, is “disappointed by the lack of scope and opportunity present” in the province’s response, adding while the province seems to suggest that the current regulatory framework already allows for certain builds, “it’s a bit like putting together a puzzle when all you have is square pegs, five hammers too large for the job, and slightly small, rounded holes. Everything almost fits, but not quite well enough to create an easily replicable solution to housing through tiny homes – on wheels or otherwise.”

Despite the obstacles, Elliott remains hopeful that the NDP government is working toward improving access to lower income housing and engaging with local governments. “Perhaps changes to the building code are less important at this stage of the conversation than supporting innovation in housing alternatives from entrepreneurs, our community and the marketplace.” Elliott supports exploring community-led efforts such as tiny home clusters, co-operative land tenure arrangements, and gentle densification in areas “where it makes sense and won’t degrade the environment.

“I personally am aware of many people who want to live in community, in smaller homes, and with a much smaller environmental footprint.

“Establishing minimum standards to address health and safety is essential to recognizing tiny homes as dwelling units, but the Islands Trust still needs to address other barriers such as zoning regulations, siting and use, septic, services and making sure only to approve development where it makes sense to do so.” Elliott, who attended UBCM’s housing summit in early April, said Gabriola’s official community plan review scheduled for 2024-25 would be an opportune time to explore housing models like tiny homes.

Local News