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Tiny homes: A developer says micro-houses are the future for St. John's and its housing crunch

As Newfoundland and Labrador grapples with a shortage of affordable housing, Sean Hickey, a developer in Stephenville, is championing an innovative solution that he believes can help alleviate the housing crisis: tiny homes. These purpose-built, compact dwellings offer a smaller footprint, increased affordability, and quicker construction compared to traditional houses or apartment buildings.

Hickey, along with two employees, has constructed 12 tiny homes in Stephenville since 2018, all without government grants or subsidies. He not only owns the land but also the units, which he rents out to a diverse 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," Hickey explained.

He added that tenants can enjoy modern amenities like internet and cable while living for approximately $600 a month. As both the developer and landlord, Hickey has control over rental pricing, with the lowest rent currently set at $375 a month. The tiny homes come in various sizes, ranging from 192 square feet to just over 700 square feet, situated on 25-foot wide lots.

These homes are not makeshift; they are built on foundations, equipped with paved driveways, storage sheds, sodded grass, and are connected to the community's sewer and electrical grid. They offer full bathrooms and come in one- or two-bedroom models.

At its peak, Hickey's three-person team managed to construct three tiny homes each year.

The success of this approach could extend to the province's most populous region. The City of St. John's has applied for $18 million in federal funding through the Housing Accelerator Fund, administered by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. This application encompasses funding for the development of tiny homes and backyard suites—additional buildings constructed on existing properties.

A housing needs assessment report released by the city in August revealed a housing shortage of between 1,025 and 1,335 units, with projections indicating an increase to between 2,740 and 3,770 units by 2028 and between 3,610 and 5,310 units by 2033.

In March, the city approved the construction of a single tiny home on Leslie Street.

Coun. Ron Ellsworth, who leads the city's housing efforts, expects more applications to emerge once the city secures the $18 million in federal funding. He emphasized, "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."

The city's application includes provisions for at least 50 tiny homes to be built over three years, with the city aiming to create 475 units with federal assistance.

Both municipal and provincial governments are emphasizing the availability of city land for affordable housing developments, with a focus on utilizing the land for affordable housing options instead of expensive subdivisions.

Sean Hickey's innovative approach to tiny home developments has garnered attention nationwide, with inquiries coming from cities like Ottawa, Halifax, and towns in New Brunswick, as well as other regions in Newfoundland.

Hickey did face some challenges, such as the need to shorten Stephenville's requirement for homes to be 750 square feet to meet dwelling standards. Once the council approved this change, the project proceeded smoothly.

While some municipalities mandate tiny homes to be on trailers, St. John's is considering permanent, foundation-based structures. Regulatory adjustments may be necessary to ensure these homes can withstand the winter climate while maximizing energy efficiency and comfort.

As the housing crisis continues to grip Newfoundland and Labrador, innovative solutions like tiny homes offer a glimmer of hope for providing affordable and efficient housing options to residents.

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