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Tiny homes could help solve multiple policy problems

While they may not see eye to eye on the idea of carbon pricing, all of the Yukon political parties seem to be spending a lot of time this election campaign talking about the different ways we as a territory can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

While they may not see eye to eye on the idea of carbon pricing, all of the Yukon political parties seem to be spending a lot of time this election campaign talking about the different ways we as a territory can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions — whether by investing in renewables or by retrofitting buildings.

But one potential energy saving idea which doesn’t necessarily require any large government expenditure doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar: helping people who already want to live small.

It likely won’t appeal to you if you’ve got three kids bouncing off the walls, a barking dog, and a tonne of recreational gear. But micro living has become all the rage with a certain part of the population. So called “tiny houses” — homes, often mobile in nature, of only few hundred square feet in size — have become so popular in recent years that there is now even an HGTV show dedicated to them.

And micro living is the clichéd stone that kills multiple birds at once. There is of course the environmental angle: large, sprawling homes of the type we are familiar with have proportionally large carbon footprints. Living in a smaller space means less heating and therefore less energy consumption.

But the benefits of tiny living are not solely environmental. A tiny house means less land, less construction and less money.

There is a whole cohort of Yukoners nearing or just past retirement age who may have a few hundred thousand dollars in cash or equity in their current homes but meager ongoing pension incomes. These are people with varying degrees of anxiety about how they are going to make ends meet in their retirement. And tiny living has the potential to set them up with a financially sustainable life.

Incidentally, both what to do about our aging population and how to expand affordable housing are also themes of this election campaign.

Unfortunately our society is simply not set up to accommodate those wanting to live this type of lifestyle at the moment and we have unintentionally set up a lot of barriers to tiny living.

Building a tiny house is relatively easy. Finding somewhere to put it and jumping through the various regulatory hoops to make it legal is not.

Here in the Yukon, affordable titled land is scarce. And while micro living far outside Whitehorse city limits may be feasible, not everyone wants to be so far from the services of the big city — especially in their old age. So providing potential tiny house dwellers with a range of urban, suburban and near-rural options could really help expand the movement.

Closer to the city, municipal and local area zoning and building requirements impose a significant obstacle to the type of densification and construction that might bring the cost of land with the reach of potential tiny house dwellers. Subdivision is strictly controlled and installed services are expensive.

This is a problem because many tiny home livers would like the security inherent in owning their own property, free from the whims of landlords and the burden of ongoing rental payments. Living in close proximity to other tiny house dwellers presents an opportunity for them to save money on land costs and take advantage of economies of scale on the installation of sewer and water (in the city) or septic, wells and electricity (in the country).

Accommodating people interested in tiny living will probably require action by both municipal and territorial levels of government. Government, for its part, would need to show some flexibility in terms of the requirements it imposes on construction. Both building and zoning requirements would need some tweaks to make building and placing a tiny home a reality.

But there is a role for the private sector to play as well. Properties are out there which are zoned for multiple residences, but converting these large blocks into affordable parcels requires an investment up front. The use of so called “bare land condominiums” may be part of the solution. Bare land condominiums are a form of property ownership where an individual owns a small plot of land within a larger multi-residential development of similar units with or without shared services. A creative developer could buy a property, install the necessary service hookup, do the legal work to create bare land units and sell them off one by one without building the houses themselves.

Even then, banks and other financial institutions would need to be part of the solution as well. Lenders have requirements that make it difficult for people to borrow the relatively modest amount needed to get into their new tiny home. They are just not use to seeing tiny houses and bare parcels of land as security.

If the big banks are unable or unwilling to make this a reality, Yukon Housing — the territorial crown corporation responsible for housing in the Yukon — could step in to fill the gap.

Tiny living is certainly not for everyone. And this column shouldn’t be taken as a call to move your whole family along with the family dog into a 400 square foot house on wheels. Not everyone has to do it. I know I don’t intend to.

But we certainly shouldn’t be throwing up road blocks for those who want to. People want to minimize their carbon footprint or engineering an affordable retirement for themselves (or both) should be encouraged to do so.

There are plenty of options to facilitate this movement. All that is required is a bit of political will.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.