Is 400 square feet a lot of space?

'It's a good sized one-bedroom apartment for somebody.' - Alan Whittle, Good Shepherd

It's two-and-a-half times the size of a parking space. It's the size of an average two-car garage. It's one-tenth the size of a tennis court, or as big as nine king size beds pushed together.

But for two Hamilton agencies, it's the magic size for a partial solution to Hamilton's affordable housing crisis, particularly when it comes to homeless women.

Good Shepherd and the Social Housing and Research Council of Hamilton (SPRC) are planning an as-yet-unnamed project to offer up duplexes of tiny units for women in danger of homelessness. 

Second Wind Cottages

Second Wind Cottages in Newfield, NY provides cottages of about 320 square feet. (Second Wind Cottages)

The project will cash in on another affordable housing concept — the use of laneway homes. The pair will build on a Clarence Street property accessible only by laneway.

It's a new concept for Hamilton, said Renee Wetselaar, an SPRC housing advocate. But the tiny home concept has caught fire with affordable housing advocates across the U.S.

Research shows smaller units are more cost effective than high-rise buildings. When paired with Hamilton's multiple laneway properties, it's a unique local fix.

"It's not a lot of space," said Alan Whittle of Good Shepherd, on the little home concept. "But it's a good sized one-bedroom apartment for somebody."

The project has been in the works for about seven years, but the logistics have been challenging.

Madison

Occupy Madison has built a village of units that are about 99 square feet. (Occupy Madison)

First, the group had to secure the property, which is city land that once housed a number of single-family homes. Those homes were destroyed by fire.

'I'm a laneway house supporter. I have been since day one.' - Coun. Jason Farr

Then, there were laneway-related challenges, namely how emergency vehicles would get back there to service the property. As of this month, the city has given the all clear on the emergency service front. Now, they look for sponsors and donors. Wetselaar envisions brightly coloured structures of donated steel with innovative designs that make the most of the space.

Other examples

There are many examples from the U.S. In Madison, Wisc., for example, Occupy Madison built a tiny village with houses as small as 99 square feet. Its inhabitants are formerly homeless.

House project location

The new project is on vacant city land accessible by laneway. (Google Maps)

In Los Angeles, humanitarian Elvis Summers made headlines for building little houses and giving them to homeless people, including people in the infamous Skid Row district. The city started impounding them, telling Summers they couldn't exist on city land. Like other organizations, Summers's My Tiny House Project LA relies on donations.

One of the earliest examples of the concept is Second Wind Cottages in Newfield, NY, where mechanic Carmen Guidi built a dozen 320-square-foot cottages for homeless men. Each costs $12,000 US.

Guidi started his project when he noticed chronically homeless people in his community, so he used a plot of his own land and started building. The units were only small, he said, because he couldn't afford to make them bigger. Now he's inundated with calls from groups wanting to do the same.

"The president of Switzerland toured here," he said.

Land

The project will be on this parcel of city land. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

At Guidi's complex, people pay 20 per cent of their employment income for rent. The units have full bathrooms and kitchens, and tenants use a washer and dryer in a common building – a tiny one, of course.

The size doesn't restrict the tenants, he said. "It's no problem at all."

In Hamilton, Wetselaar and Whittle see this as a demonstration project. If it works, they'll do it somewhere else too. 

And a solution is needed. Housing prices increased about 20 per cent in Hamilton and Burlington last year. Hamilton's largest social housing provider, CityHousing Hamilton, is cash strapped, and there are 818 kilometres of laneways in Hamilton. Most are owned by the city.

Jason Farr, Ward 2 councillor, is on board with the current project. And he's open to seeing more.

"I'm a laneway house supporter," he said. "I have been since day one."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC