British Columbia·Analysis

The story of tiny homes, intertwined problems, and one B.C. municipality

All municipalities are different and not all solutions are universal. But Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples hopes other communities will be as proactive as her city in their own ways.

Every community has a story of how they’re trying to deal with multiple crises. This is Duncan’s

The vast majority of residents in Duncan's tiny village have said in surveys that their mental health has improved and they are seeking employment opportunities. (City of Duncan)

At the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, there are 161 different municipalities and 27 regional governments gathering in Whistler this week.

It's the first time they're meeting in person in three years. Every day, there are discussions devoted to different topics that we sometimes call a "crisis": housing affordability, mental health, drug poisonings, shortages in health care. 

Some mayors and councillors agree with the general approach the provincial government is taking. Others, less so. 

"Students are going to learn how to do hard drugs now that they're going to be legal," Cranbrook Coun. Ron Popoff said at a session about the upcoming decriminalization of simple possession of some drugs in B.C. beginning in February 2023. 

"This is a health crisis, but we're going to be turning this into what might be a society crisis if we don't properly plan … how will this initiative to legalize small amounts of hard drugs control and reduce the related crime that's going on in our communities?"

Popoff's concerns were shared by many municipalities outside the Lower Mainland, worried they will be asked to enforce another set of new rules put in place by higher levels of government without new resources.   

But every municipality has a different political culture, and a different way they've been trying to tackle these issues.

Which brings us to Duncan. 

The City of Duncan's tiny village has been operating since the beginning of 2022. (City of Duncan)

'Parts that are kind of intertwined' 

"I think this is a really important step in the right direction," said Duncan Councillor Stacy Middlemiss, after hearing the government's plans.

Duncan has only 5,000 people, but it's the urban hub of the Cowichan Valley, where some 50,000 people live. As such, it deals with many of the same overlapping issues as much bigger cities. 

As both a councillor and a registered psychiatric nurse that has managed homeless shelters, Middlemiss is aware of the tensions between moving too fast or too slow.

"Sometimes we can try and wait until everything is perfect before we roll out programs," she said.

"Sometimes it takes the actual experience of working through things before we can figure out all the little details, but so long as they're working on it, I think people will like it." 

But she's also aware of trying to solve one part of the issue without addressing other aspects. 

"I think the [support] programs they're talking about incorporating, we're a long way from those pieces. Who's going to staff some of these services?

"I know as a nurse, we're short-staffed all the time, nurses are coming to me because they don't have places to live. It's the housing piece, there's all these parts that are kind of intertwined."

Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples says many of the people originally opposed to the tiny homes now say they support them. (CBC News)

Tiny village has been imitated 

At the same time, Duncan is trying to find its own solutions.

At the beginning of this year, a 34-unit tiny home village opened an unused B.C. Housing lot.

There are washrooms and storage facilities, but also 24/7 staffing, including two security guards overnight. Peer outreach programs allow members of the community to take part in maintenance of the area and to form connections with residents. An assessment team decides who gets to be part of the space. 

"We know that a lot of people in our community, specifically the most vulnerable people in our community, just don't fit into … putting them into supportive housing. So this is a transitory option," said Duncan Mayor Michelle Staples.

"It's meeting people where they're at, and being that kind of first step to connection to safety."

She said the vast majority of residents have said they have improved mental health and are now involved in employment programs. 

It's been successful enough that other Vancouver Island communities are taking notes. 

"We have a model and we've seen how successful Duncan has been," said Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions, whose municipality purchased a property next to a trailer site with many marginalized residents living in poor conditions. 

They're planning on moving people from the trailer site to the new tiny village, and Minions says there's been little community pushback so far.

"Duncan and other projects that exist have a big role in showing that this is not something we have to be afraid of," said Minions. 

"In fact, it can be something that can really improve neighbourhoods and really obviously make a huge difference in people's lives."

All municipalities are different and not all solutions are universal. But Staples hopes other communities will be as proactive as Duncan in their own ways.

"It's not working, right?" she asked, with it perfectly clear what "it" was. 

"So we have to not be afraid to try to see what will work … it's not going to change overnight, but it is going to change."


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.