As Newfoundland and Labrador struggles with affordable housing and shelter shortages, one developer in Stephenville believes he has the solution that can turn the tide.
Sean Hickey is all in on tiny homes — smaller, purpose-built dwellings that have a smaller footprint, are more affordable and can be built much faster than a normal house or apartment building, depending on the size of the construction crew.
Hickey and two employees have built 12 tiny homes in Stephenville since 2018, without government grants or subsidies. He owns the land and the units and rents them to a range of tenants, including seniors and young professionals.
“It’s a great way for them to start and they can afford to live. If you’re living on $1,600 or $1,700 a month, you can live in a tiny home, you can afford a car, you can afford groceries, you can live comfortably,” he said Monday.
“They could go there with their internet, their cable and everything, and live for about $600 a month.”
As the developer, and now as the landlord, Hickey sets his rental prices, with the lowest rent right now $375 a month. The homes range in size from 192 square feet to just over 700, on lots that are 25 feet wide.
The homes sit on foundations, have paved driveways, storage sheds, sodded grass and are connected to the community’s sewer and electrical grid. They have full bathrooms and come in one- or two-bedroom models.
At its peak, Hickey’s three-man crew built three tiny homes a year.
That strategy could soon make its way east and into the province’s largest population hub. The City of St. John’s has applied for $18 million in federal funding through the Housing Accelerator Fund, run by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. That application includes funding for the development of tiny homes and backyard suites — accessory buildings built on already developed properties.
A housing needs assessment report commissioned by the city and released in August said St. John’s was short by between 1,025 and 1,335 units at the time, based on population estimates. The report projected the housing shortage could grow to between 2,740 and 3,770 units by 2028 and to between 3,610 and 5,310 units by 2033.
In March, the city approved the development of one tiny home on an existing property on Leslie Street.
Coun. Ron Ellsworth, the city’s head of housing, said he expects more applications to follow once the city has the $18-million pool of federal money for developers and community groups to apply for.
“It’s tiny homes, micro-units and backyard suites that we’ve applied for. Obviously until we get confirmation from the federal government, we have no idea where it’s going at this point,” he said.
Ellsworth said the city’s application includes money for at least 50 tiny homes to be built over three years. In total, the city hopes 475 units will be built with help from the federal funding.
“Additional units in your home, that can happen fairly quickly. Micro-units can happen fairly quickly and tiny homes can happen fairly quickly,” said Ellsworth.
“Basically anybody who has got property can apply.”
There’s also a focus from both the municipal and provincial governments on making city land available for these sorts of developments. Ellsworth said that option is on the table but developers must use the land for affordable housing options and not another expensive subdivision.
In a news release Monday, the provincial government released what it calls “an inventory of vacant provincial land in the St. John’s metro region” that can be made available developing purpose-built, affordable rental housing.
Tiny housing demand
After showing the province, and the rest of country, what was possible for tiny home developments, Hickey said he has been fielding messages, inquiries and conference calls from cities such as Ottawa, Halifax, towns in New Brunswick and more across Newfoundland.
“Not everybody can live in an economy with the rent increases that are going on,” he said.
There have been some speed bumps along the way. Hickey needed the town of Stephenville to shorten its requirement on homes being 750 square feet to meet dwelling standards.
Once that was pushed through by council, the rest was easy, he said.
Other municipalities require tiny homes to be on trailers — essentially smaller mobile units. Ellsworth said that likely won’t be a problem in St. John’s.
“My understanding, the ones we’re looking at on Leslie are permanent, but I would anticipate a regulatory change that would need to be made to make these permanent because they need to be permanent,” he said.
“We’re in a winter climate, so if you were to have your home on a foundation where you can maximize your energy conservation and live in it comfortably, it needs to be on a foundation, it needs to be permanent.”
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