Size does indeed matter. Just ask the Surrey homeowners troubled by the 4,000-plus-square-foot home overshadowing their rancher. Or the folks who can’t wait to move into a 270-square-foot rental in East Vancouver.
The former is viewed by municipalities, proponents and opponents as a rather prickly issue that is not easily resolved. The latter has generated much to-and-fro discussion ever since a developer issued a news release heralding his 30 micro-suites as “the smallest self-contained rental apartments in Vancouver.”
The new boys on the Burns Block in the Downtown Eastside are anything but newbies.
The developer, Reliance Properties, is a privately owned Vancouver company with more than 50 years experience in Vancouver’s real estate market. In the past decade, Reliance has built about 300 rental lofts in Gastown and the Downtown Eastside, and has won several heritage awards.
Reliance’s project partner, ITC Construction Group, is the largest residential construction company in Western Canada and has completed 115 projects in B.C. and Alberta. ITC has been selected as one of Canada’s best-managed companies for six straight years, and is committed to corporate social responsibility.
Not a bad partnership handling the makeover of a 100-year-old, five-storey, 18,000-square-foot building. As a former board member of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, I can tell you the once-abandoned structure promises to be a polished heritage jewel when work is completed next year.
The suites will offer a space-saving wall bed with built-in, flip-down dining table. The kitchen will include a bar-size fridge, two-burner cooktop, sink, convection microwave, countertop and cabinets. The bathroom will have a shower, sink and wall-hung toilet. A computer work area will have space for a wall-mounted TV. A large window will take up almost the entire space on the exterior wall.
Monthly rents will be as low as $675, reasonable in a city just pegged by a public-policy research group as the most unaffordable in the world. (The group’s assumptions and conclusions are considered somewhat flawed by some industry watchers, but that’s a story for another day.)
Despite the need for more affordable housing in this region, the project has its detractors. As soon as media outlets posted the story on their websites, comments from the public quickly followed.
One fellow wrote that living in such a small apartment would be akin to occupying a prison cell. Perhaps he has claustrophobia issues but, for the record, the average prison cell built today is a cosy 70 square feet. Another guy said he wouldn’t last more than a few months in a 270-squarefoot apartment.
Here’s the thing. The Burns Block concept is not new, far from it. So all this naysayer chattering about some newfangled housing form coming soon to Lotus Land-by-the-Sea is a tad bothersome.
Tiny homes exist all over the world, and the folks who live in them are quite happy and content.
Take, for example, Californian Jay Shafer, who for more than 10 years has lived in a 96-square-foot home complete with galley kitchen, bathroom with shower, seating, desk, bookshelves, closets and fireplace. The home is easy to heat and cool, and meets California’s strict energy-efficiency standards. I don’t know Shafer’s significant-other status, but his sleeping loft accommodates a double bed.
New York is home to the Prokops and their two cats. Compared to Shafer’s home, the Prokops’ Manhattan coop apartment is mansion-like at 175 square feet. They have given new meaning to the term “downsizing”, starting out with a 1,600-square-foot apartment, then 900, now 175. The married couple plan to renovate their home this year, a process that likely won’t break the bank or take much time.
Worldwide, the story is the same. Los Angeles is home to a growing number of small-unit condos and apartments, including the Rosslyn Lofts in the historic downtown. The 297 rental apartments range in size from 200 to 325 square feet. The homes add to the variety of mixed-income housing, which helps to attract a diverse group of tenants, enhancing the vitality and diversity of the downtown area.
Small is also big in Santa Monica, where space-efficient 375-square-foot apartments in a central location close to amenities are popular with renters. And in Edinburgh, Scotland, renters are flocking to 350-square-foot contemporary concrete-and-steel apartments, complete with balconies overlooking green space.
In Toronto, the city’s smallest detached home, built in 1912, is only 330 square feet. It even has a backyard.
In 1990, Gordon Price lived for a month in a 290-squarefoot apartment at Drake and Seymour in downtown Vancouver because he wanted to see if such a small space was livable. Turns out it was.
“The apartment was absolutely livable for me. If the space is designed and proportioned to both day and night uses, it will be perfectly fine for all functions. In my case, the apartment’s Murphy bed tilted up in the morning, replaced by a dining room table for the rest of the day,” said Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and now the director of the Simon Fraser University City Program.
“It is important the apartment remains uncluttered, and the furniture is appropriately designed for the space. And you need lots of natural light, preferably from a floor-to-ceiling window,” said Price.
“People who live in small spaces typically spend more time in the public realm -making use of parks and other amenities, eating in restaurants, that sort of thing. Because they spend so much time away from their apartments, it is important that their neighbourhood is clean, green and safe,” said Price.
Tom Durning of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre is always happy to see an increase in the production of affordable rental units, particularly in Vancouver, where supply is tight and costs high.
Durning was quoted recently in this paper as saying, “Any rental housing is good housing these days.”
Many groups — including housing advocates, developers and governments — will be watching to see how the Burns Block project fleshes out. So far, I believe all can agree it’s not a bad experiment.
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A few young people have called our office to ask when the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association’s annual first-time homebuyer seminar will be held. Well, save the date, the seminar will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 23 at the Vancouver Sheraton Guildford Hotel in Surrey.
Presenting sponsor of this year’s seminar will be the Homeowner Protection Office, the provincial Crown corporation responsible for builder licensing and the provision of home warranty insurance.
Corporate sponsors include The Vancouver Sun, the Province, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., TD Canada Trust, Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, Travelers Guarantee, Genworth Financial, Shaw Cablesystems, CKNW AM 980, Classic Rock 101, AM 730 and 99.3 The Fox.
Visit www.gvhba.org for registration details. More than 900 registered for last year’s seminar.
Peter Simpson is the chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association. E-mail email@example.com.
By Peter Simpson, Special to the Sun
February 6, 2010
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