Millennials thinking small for affordable housing

The real estate market is ballooning and young buyers in their 20s and 30s are faced with huge costs for a first home. In pursuit of affordability, many millennials are adapting their expectations, seeking housing that, in some cases, is downright tiny.

Rising housing prices and culture shift causing Generation Y to seek new types of housing

The "Getaway" tiny house projects gives people a chance to taste what living simpler means, says Pete Davis, the co-founder of the project. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Harvard law student Pete Davis says he wants to live in his own tiny house someday. In the meantime, getting a taste of the lifestyle now  — by offering it to others — has been an unexpectedly successful venture for him.

Davis is the co-founder of Getaway, a project that rents out tiny houses in the woods around Boston, Mass., for people seeking a retreat, or for those who want to test if tiny house living could work for them on a more permanent basis. 

The project is one of many small housing initiatives in what amounts to a growing industry in millennial housing, particularly as rising real estate costs in both Canada and the U.S. have made traditional home buying much less affordable.

The tiny house movement, which has seen entire tiny villages spring up in Oregon and Texas in recent years, is working to fill that niche, and was the inspiration for Getaway. 

The kitchen and bath area of one of the homes in the "Getaway" project. Davis says downsizing living space to get in touch with the world around you has a lot of appeal. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Davis said the appeal of tiny housing is in the shifting priorities of millennials, those in their 20s and early 30s, who seek humbler existences.

"I think it's because there's been a transition in lifestyle of what people think the American dream is," he said. "The idea of the nineties over-consumption — of showing off all the stuff you have and getting the big screen TV — has changed to the desire for more authentic experiences."

Communal living

A layout for Commonspace, a coliving apartment in downtown Syracuse, N.Y. Though units are small, co-founder Troy Evans says the community atmosphere appeals to people.

Another small housing idea that's gaining traction in the U.S. is the idea of expanding dorm-style living into post-university adulthood.

Commonspace, a real estate venture situated in downtown Syracuse, N.Y., is selling the idea of living in a tiny apartment that is part of an active community. Set to open in May, the project will see residents live in small, 300-square-foot micro-units with larger shared areas like kitchens and relaxation areas.

Troy Evans, one of the co-founders of Commonspace, says the idea is about providing residents with both a community atmosphere and a private space.

"It's a very warm and welcome space. It's not like you're going to be unhappy when you're in your private space," he said. "We'll give you that and a combination of public space — so trying to create that perfect balance."

Evans noted the space has received a lot of interest, and affordability is a big selling point.

Units in Commonspace rent for $750 to $900 per month, compared to the $1,100 price range of other single-bedroom apartments in downtown Syracuse.

Evans expects the communal living idea — which has already taken root in New York City and San Francisco — will continue to gain traction.

"I think you're going to start seeing them pop up everywhere," said Evans. "I think other people — they're going to try it just like we are."

Deferring the American dream?

A new report suggests U.S. millennials are choosing to wait longer to buy a home in an effort to balance how much debt they take on. (Getty Images)

This new housing movement seems to be coming along as U.S. millennials are delaying when they purchase homes.

A recent study out of the University of Illinois suggests the country's millennials are taking more time to buy a house, deferring on what's often called the American dream for financial reasons.

"A lot of millennials are paying off their student loans and that would take a big portion of their paycheque," said Yilan Xu, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the university, who co-authored the paper.

The study notes that while millennials are still interested in buying a home eventually, they are seeking different types of living arrangements from what their parents had.

"They are more open to the options of having a town house versus a single family house," said Xu. "They are open to those kind of options and they typically desire a smaller home than their parents' generation."

Small houses in Canada

Tiny houses, such as this one in Victoria, B.C., have made their way to Canada as a way to address a lack of affordable housing. (Canadian Press)

The home-buying power of millennials is stronger in Canada. A report released in January by TD economics shows over 50 per cent of Canadians aged 25-35 own a home, as opposed to 36 per cent of their U.S. counterparts.

But small housing initiatives have been making their way to Canada as well. Tiny housing has been springing up across the country and the condominium market is booming in urban centres like Toronto and Vancouver.

Steve Jackson, program manager of the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, says his organization has also been trying to appeal to millennials looking for affordable housing, but a lack of new co-op initiatives has been a roadblock.

"It's unfortunate that there are no major programs to develop new co-op housing," said Jackson. "We know that a lot of millennials do see co-op housing as a wonderful option. It would be great if the waiting lists weren't so long."

While Davis doesn't think smaller houses will supplant traditional ones, he sees it as a market that will grow.

"Cities are going to start allowing it, businesses are going to come up to make this happen," he said. "There's going to be a new age of real estate developers who are going to build these."