Advocates: Tiny homes could help Kingston alleviate homelessness

As the City of Kingston’s Planning Services Staff discuss potential amendments to the City’s Official Plan with respect to tiny houses, local advocates are pointing to the concept as a means to alleviate homelessness.

In a report to the City Planning Committee Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2021, City of Kingston Planning Services Staff provided information on potential amendments to the City’s Official Plan with respect to tiny houses, shipping containers, and additional residential units.

Local housing advocate, Chrystal Wilson, who watched the meeting with interest and made her own brief statement to the committee, says that, while the proposed bylaw amendments are encouraging as a first step, they don’t go far enough when it comes to housing the homeless.

In an email to the Planning Committee she pointed out, “The proposed tiny house bylaw still discriminates against those who have the least. By not allowing portable tiny houses and keeping the ban on mobile parks, we are limiting tiny home ownership to people who are well off enough to be land owners — Those who already have a principal residence or those who can afford to buy land. I understand the current proposal could potentially increase rental units, but not at a rate for those at the lower end of the income spectrum. The kinds of tiny homes currently proposed are more likely to become trendy short term rentals or in-law suites.”

Laura Flaherty, a Project Manager in Planning Services on the City’s New Zoning Bylaw Project (New ZBP) presented the discussion paper via Zoom on Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2021. Still photo from Zoom.

Laura Flaherty, a Project Manager in Planning Services on the City’s New Zoning Bylaw Project (New ZBP) presented the discussion paper at the meeting that broke the issue down into three different aspects. “Firstly,” she explained, “ We’re proposing to implement the new provincial legislation, which requires municipalities to allow for up to three additional residential units on properties that currently allow for up to two second residential units.”

To clarify the issues, it is important to understand the distinction between principal units and accessory units. Principal units are the main residential units on a property: a single detached house, a semi detached house, or a duplex.

Accessory units, on the other hand, are completely separate from the principal units, and they’re typically in a smaller detached building that might be located in the rear yard.

Currently in the City of Kingston, second residential units are permitted as an accessory unit that is either attached to the principal unit, or as a detached standalone building in the rear yard. Current permissions allow for one principal unit and one accessory unit per property, with a number of zoning bylaw requirements.

Flaherty explained, “So one of the purposes of this discussion paper is to talk about the changes to the Planning Act and how we’re required to implement them in the new zoning bylaw.”

“The new legislation requires municipalities to allow for up to three residential units where two were previously allowed,” she continued, “So this means that a property with a detached, semi-detached, or real house can have one principal unit, plus up to two accessory units, and the legislation specifies that the two accessory units would mean that one is attached to the main building and that one would be detached from the main building.”

According to Flaherty, “The intent of the additional residential unit legislation is to create more opportunities for more housing in the city. The legislation may help to address the housing crisis by providing more opportunities and more housing options and options for more affordable housing. It increases housing opportunities where infrastructure already exists without the need to expand costly services and facilities.”

This is where Wilson says the proposal, as it stands, falls short.

“What I would like us to consider is a way to enable homeownership for those who have the least,” she said. “Through a steering committee composed of people experiencing homelessness, we see solutions like this as the most likely route to eliminating homelessness in Kingston, while also creating ownership options for low-income workers.  We would like to see Kingston embrace diverse micro-communities of portable tiny homes with communal use of kitchens, bathrooms and laundry in a separate building, hence the need to lift the ban on mobile parks.”

“When I talk to people who are experiencing homelessness and people who are living precariously trying to survive on minimum wage,” she continued, “One of the ways that they feel they could live comfortably and still feel housed and still feel like they have a home is to have ownership over a portable tiny house.”

But right now, Wilson points out, “Only landowners can participate in creating housing, it means that you’re still dependent on somebody else providing your home. It means people who are already struggling aren’t able to participate in homeownership, because they’re limited to people who have the means to buy housing, and after the huge housing bubble.”

What could a tiny house provide someone who is living precariously?  Stability and security, according to Wilson. “It’s a better option and safer. Just imagine the simple impact of being able to lock your door at night or when you’re away,” she expressed.

Wilson said she has been having great discussions about how homeless people could participate in committee meetings, “But they can’t do it if they can’t leave their tents or their camp or wherever they’re pushed to if they don’t have security.” Going out means risking the few belongings they have, she explained.

“But if they could lock their door and they have a group of people around that are watching and taking care of each other, then it gives them more options for participation and for removing themselves out of homelessness,” she explained, noting that, with a door to lock, “They’re feeling safe. If they’re not feeling safe and they’re not feeling comfortable and they don’t have stability, it’s just near impossible.”

Wilson also points to the current systems in place as a source of anxiety for many people.  Having to follow in and out times at a shelter, having to interact with staff and volunteers, and watching your words and actions can all be immensely stressful. Some people would rather live rough than have to deal with the pressures placed on them in those situations. A home though, even a tiny one, could give the gifts of independence and dignity.

Wilson has seen the effects independent housing can have through a motel housing initiative she was part of.  When housed, “We saw the simple ability for people to move themselves out with just some support. Some of those people from that initiative now have their own house and they found it themself while they were in the motel. We just helped them fill out some paperwork, and they’re still successfully housed and have chosen to stop using substances, and one of them even has full-time employment,” she shared.

A tiny home built by volunteer tradespeople for less than $6,500. Submitted photo.

Wilson sent pictures and design diagrams to Council for a house which a group of volunteer tradespeople have built. “Our goal was to build a house for $5,000, and we did, but current pandemic pricing has pushed the full retail cost of the next house to $6,500. We can create lease-to-own options, or we can gift a house like this to ODSP/OW recipients without penalty to their income; they are allowed $10,000 worth of gifts per year. These kinds of homes need to be independent of ownership from the land they might sit on and pay rent for, as the people who might live in these kinds of homes can’t afford to buy the land, too.”

City Staff are in the third and final phase of the New Zoning By-Law project, with the ultimate goal of bringing a final document for Council’s consideration in early 2022.  The purpose of the report to the Planning Committee was to inform them and the public, and receive feedback on how these items will be addressed in the second draft of the New ZBL when it is released to the public, which is anticipated in mid-2021. 

Future Statutory Public Meetings considering both the proposed Official Plan amendment and New ZBL will be announced in the coming months.

One thought on “Advocates: Tiny homes could help Kingston alleviate homelessness

  • I fully agree with Chrystal Wilson on all matters concerning tiny homes. We need to provide homes to people most in need. There is a growing problem with homelessness and lack of affordable housing. Independence, respect and dignity are first steps to restoring hope and a community’s ability to help those who need it, which could be any of us.

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