It seems everyone in New Brunswick is talking about tiny homes.
Fredericton entrepreneur Marcel LeBrun shared the stage with Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch and Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin last week when they announced $1.4 million in forgivable loans for this 96 tiny homes development near the northside Walmart. LeBrun’s 12 Neighbours Inc. is a not-for-profit organization that will provide affordable housing for 100-200 people in Fredericton – no small number.
The first 36 homes are scheduled to be operational soon. Tenants will pay no more than 30 per cent of their income in rent, CMHC’s cut-off for affordability. The difference in rent will be covered by the provincial rent supplement program.
While tiny homes may provide affordable housing to some, this model is not without its limitations. Limitations that merit careful consideration as the popularity of tiny homes grows while the housing crisis deepens.
Municipalities, primarily in the US, turned to tiny homes to provide housing to folks experiencing homelessness. Canadian communities have recently been following suit, with Fredericton being the latest.
There are positive features of LeBrun’s homes. They will be insulated and connected to the city’s power grid and sewage system – a critical feature missing in many tiny home villages in other parts of North America. The project plans to include wrap-around services, meaning residents would be supported by a team of social workers, counsellors, and other professionals.
Still, LeBrun acknowledged in the press conference that these homes can support only one or two individuals at a time and are not meant for families or children. This means tenants in the 12 Neighbours community who wish to have children or live with their children will likely have to leave.
Women, who as a group shoulder more of the parenting work, will be disproportionately excluded from this model. Yet, lone female parents in the province experience some of the highest rates of unaffordable housing. Parents, generally, face discrimination in the rental market. Indeed, nearly 20 per cent of tenants who responded to the province’s 2021 rental market survey said that they could not find housing because they had children.
Living in tiny spaces can also carry health risks, including a specific risk of causing psychological problems. It is not easy to pack one’s life into a 250 square foot box. In an op-ed for the New York Times, a resident of a “micro-apartment” painted a rather grim picture of what life can look like in a tiny home. “Here, even smell takes up space,” Gene Tempest, the author, wrote.
These limitations suggest the project is not a Housing First project, but a transitional housing project. Yet, it has been positioned within the evidence-based Housing First philosophy, which advocates for permanent housing as an immediate first step to solving homelessness.
Unsurprisingly, Barbara Poppe, a leading expert and an Obama White House advisor on homelessness, advised the city of Seattle against funding tiny homes (they did anyway), arguing that the money would be better spent on permanent housing. Similarly, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness maintains that “any social housing project using the [tiny homes] model would have to…offer it as an option only to those who would be interested in that kind of living.”
It remains to be seen whether LeBrun’s project will survive the problems that other such tiny home villages have faced. His development, with its connections to power and sewage, is tackling key problems. There is research suggesting that tiny home projects show promise to combat homelessness if they can sustain a strong community, hold public support, secure funding with few restrictions, and ensure affordable housing for individuals when they transition out of the tiny home.
So where will people go when they transition out of LeBrun’s tiny homes?
Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) and other predatory corporate landlords are fixated on extracting as much rental income as they can from New Brunswick’s extremely unregulated market. One REIT alone plans to take 1300 units off the affordable housing market to turn into high rental income properties.
At the same time, we are hearing about astronomical rent hikes nearly every week while there remain nearly 6,000 households on the affordable housing waitlist.
The main problem New Brunswick faces, as scholars have pointed out, is the financialization of housing, not a lack of supply. Governments can throw as much money as they like at the problem through programs like rent supplements, but without effective rent controls these programs function as a wealth transfer to landlords who have no reason to keep rents low.
And as St. Thomas University sociologist Kristi Allain has argued, the popular yet simplistic solution of cutting the so-called “double-tax” will not work.
The authors of this article hope sincerely that 12 Neighbours Inc. can overcome the obstacles that similar projects have faced in the past, and that the tenants will thrive with the promised “dignity, community, and opportunity.”
But we want to caution decision-makers against the erroneous conclusion that we can tiny home our way out of the housing crisis.
Aditya Rao is a Fredericton-based human rights lawyer. Tobin LeBlanc Haley, PhD is a community-engaged scholar and an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John. They are founding members of the NB Coalition for Tenants Rights.
We corrected an error in an earlier version of this article that stated the Homelessness Hub maintained that “any social housing project using the [tiny homes] model would have to…offer it as an option only to those who would be interested in that kind of living.” In fact, it was the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness that made the statement on tiny homes. The correction was made on January 17, 2022 at approximately 7:05 pm.