January 26, 2017 Features & Images » Feature Story

The big movement of tiny homes 

Smaller square footage, portability and low carbon footprints among the features that appeal to future homeowners

click to flip through (2) STORY BY LYNN MITGES - The big movement of tiny homes
  • Story by Lynn Mitges
  • The big movement of tiny homes

It's a recreational Colorado town at the foot of a mountain range, but it could just as well be Whistler.

Salida is a quaint community of about 5,500 in the heart of the U.S. Rockies, but its challenges are eerily similar as workers try to find affordable housing.

To try to solve the problem, the Salida city council in November unanimously voted to annex 7.6 hectares (19 acres) of riverfront property in order to build 200 tiny-home units on foundations with rent estimated from US$700 for the smallest units to about $1,200 for a two-bedroom unit.

"We're not an Apsen or Vail or that kind of town," said Salida Mayor Jim LiVecchi. "But more and more people are finding we have a lot to offer. We're still kind of a small town — I think it's very important to understand that."

Salida is about two hours west of Colorado Springs and three hours southwest of Denver. It is 20 minutes from Monarch Mountain ski area, and home to the annual FIBArk — the oldest whitewater rafting festival in the U.S. — that is hosted each summer on the Arkansas River as Salida's population swells to more than 20,000.

Salida is the epicentre for hunting, fishing, and some of the best whitewater rafting in the world, but is increasingly playing host to burgeoning hiking, mountain-biking activities and art ventures.

"The Continental Divide is right at our back door, but now Salida is more of an arts and music destination. It seems like we don't have an off-season anymore," said LiVecchi. In fact, Salida is ranked No. 30 in the book 100 Best Art Towns in America, and one of the Top 10 bargain retirement spots in the country.

"More people are coming and wanting to rent," said LiVecchi.

Not-so-tiny movement

With the riverfront land annexed, the Colorado-based Sprout Tiny Homes will develop the project at an estimated cost of between $25 and $27 million — all of them rental units.

Sprout Tiny Homes executive Diane Graham said the company only started three years ago with a couple of homes, and has expanded to produce a couple of dozen units each year. Tiny homes clearly are trending.

"We're working on some commercial projects, one with a company in Colorado — they're having trouble getting employees to stay because there's no place for them to live, so we're working on some tiny homes with wheels for them," Graham said.

LiVecchi said the project makes sense for Salida.

"Sprout is going to bring in their own money to build it and they assume all the risk," he said. "We think it's going to provide us with jobs, probably from 10 to 15 jobs over about a five-year period."

LiVecchi said the rentals will also be managed by Sprout. "About 12 per cent will be what we call affordable, or workforce housing, which will be a lower rental rate," he said.

The tiny-home venture could help the community's seasonal workers, which in turn helps businesses to retain staff. It's just one concept in communities in the U.S. and Canada — from Whistler and Banff, to Park City and Vail — that struggle not only with housing shortages, but inflated housing prices and absentee owners.

"A typical house here is $320,000 and we have a lot of people from the West Coast that'll just come up and buy properties sight unseen because they can afford to do it," LiVecchi said. "But what it does is deplete our rental units."

The Salida development is called River View at Cleora, which was an up-and-coming railroad town in the late 1800s until another railroad centred in Salida effectively transformed Cleora into a ghost town.

Once completed, the River View development may well be the largest tiny-home development in the U.S. The homes — built on foundations — will be clustered in neighbourhoods with a community centre, fitness centre, catering kitchen, a community garden and a few hectares of parks and trails.

"People are embracing a lower carbon footprint," said Graham. "Our units are energy efficient, we build with structural insulated panels — it's not just two-by-four construction. It's basically OSB (Oriented Strand Board) with Styrofoam in between, so it's a lot higher R factor."

Squamish explores

The District of Squamish is keeping pace with the surge in popularity of tiny homes. The district's website explores the feasibility of tiny homes, which includes zoning, infrastructure, flood-plain consideration and building codes. The website page went live in November. Aside from the resource-rich questions and answers, the page includes myriad information about what would need to be done, the costs, and the regulations that would need to be adapted — and urges residents to give feedback.

"We know there are people out there who are really interested and so we're trying to figure out how to incorporate tiny homes into our plans," said Squamish Mayor Patricia Heintzman.

"Currently we only allow one suite, whether it's a laneway or a carriage house or an in-house suite, so we've got some parameters around that. Then there's this sort of weird wishy-washy area with regard to the building code that governs this — or is it the Motor Vehicle Act, depending if it's transportable. We're working through all those sorts of issues." Tiny homes often are built on trailers, thereby avoiding size-restriction bylaws.

Just this year, Squamish council removed the minimum-size and development-cost charges for secondary suites in order to support smaller infill housing. Mobile tiny homes currently are not legal in Squamish, but Heintzman said everything is on the table at this point.

Heintzman said the issue is dear to her. She has a 350-sq.-ft. home on her rural property that she rents out. The structure was an old chicken coop that was renovated.

"Personally, I'm obsessed. I'm currently renovating an old Airstream trailer so I've been looking at the concepts about design and use of space for awhile."

The issues are complex and range from whether the district would play the role of landlord or instead lease out properties to someone who would manage them, to the level of servicing that would be required for plumbing and water. But Heintzman said that interest is building, particularly among those who are younger and don't feel the need for a large house and prefer a low-carbon footprint.

"I think the beauty is you can make that investment so you own something," said Heintzman. "You can move to different communities, different neighbourhoods — if they are portable."

Tiny homes can range anywhere from CDN$30,000 to more than $100,000 for top-end structures. One Squamish resident salvaged much of the wood and did most of the work constructing his tiny home that wound up costing $12,000 for the 360-sq.-ft. structure. For comparison, a 30-year-old, 396-sq.-ft. condo at Gondola Village at Whistler Creekside recently was listed at $375,000.

Tiny turmoil

But the concept is up in the air for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

"Certainly we don't allow mobile tiny homes at this point and we're not considering those," said RMOW Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "But since 2003 we've allowed detached auxiliary dwellings from 450 sq. ft. to a maximum of 900 sq. ft. They're detached, so that's the difference.

"The RMOW has other parcels of land that might be appropriate for resident-restricted housing, and again, those are the things that are under consideration by the (Mayor's) task force (on housing) and the Whistler Housing Authority (WHA)."

As well, Wilhelm-Morden said the RMOW has infill housing as a pilot project in Alpine Meadows.

"We're looking at that as the detail of the Mayor's Task Force on Housing — and there hasn't been a lot of uptake on that until very recently," she said. "There are some controversies on the infill housing, and we're looking at tweaking what that looks like."

Salida-based writer Susan J. Tweit in 2016 wrote for a High Country News blog that she has concerns, specifically that River View at Cleora location is between the city's wastewater treatment plant and the stockyards.

"The city will need to... extend city services to the new houses even as Salida struggles to maintain existing streets and infrastructure," writes Tweit. "There's also the problem that in a town that prides itself on being bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, the development will not hook into our town trail system. It is reachable only by a four-lane federal highway, or a county road with blind corners and no shoulders."

Tweit said River View is not the solution to affordable housing problems.

"How many people will really settle down in these expensive micro-rentals?" she asked. "Or will they soon move on, much like those long-ago Cleora residents? They reportedly put rollers under their buildings and relocated themselves — homes and all — to Salida."

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