Canada’s smallest condominium? ‘Micro suites’ proposed for Vancouver-area development

Living in Vancouver, I'm quite familiar with the obsession officials have with residential densification and affordability.

Squeezed between the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. border and the Fraser Valley, where development on agricultural land is restricted under B.C. law, municipalities have been struggling to keep housing affordable near the core.

People were shocked when the first condo towers went up in downtown Vancouver in the 1990s featuring units of 450 square feet or less — about the size of a nice hotel suite and about half the size of a conventional apartment.

But a new development in suburban Surrey is pushing living space past the 300-square-foot barrier with so-called "micro suites," according to Surrey Now.

The proposed project, called Balance, would contain 56 suites, the smallest of which would be 290 square feet, and 33 of the units would be 305 square feet or smaller.

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The largest suite, a one-bedroom unit, would be a palatial 653 square feet and be priced below $180,000, Surrey Now reports.

Developer Tien Sher said it expects to begin pre-selling the micro suites in January if Surrey City Council approves.

Affordability is the key, says Tien Sher president Charan Sethi. Asking prices will start at $109,000 but, given the softening condo market in the Vancouver area, they may come down.

"If you can afford the $6,000 down payment, and you make a salary of $17 per hour, we have a home for you," Sethi says.

Balance, located in a once dodgy part of Surrey called Whalley, is part of a global trend, he says.

"Real estate prices in the Lower Mainland are among the richest in North America," Sethi said in a news release.

"In cities like New York, Tokyo and Paris they found a solution - build smaller but build closer to amenities. We wanted to build suites that renters could afford to purchase - today."

Young millennials aren't cocooning like their parents. They "don't like to be bogged down" with housework, says Sethi, and they socialize at restaurants, clubs and bars or just enjoy the outdoors.

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Peter Simpson, president of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association, said he expects more such micro condos to be built in the region where, despite recent price and sales declines, the average selling price of a downtown condo is still more than $500,000.

"With mortgage amortization periods capped at 25 years, coupled with the high cost of developable land in the Lower Mainland, micro suites are a sensible and cost-effective option for single people looking to purchase their first home," Simpson told Surrey Now.

Big Canadian cities face a dilemma in coping with housing demands: Build further and further out, like Calgary, which puts pressure on services and lengthens commutes, or find ways to increase density without turning their cities into anthills.

In housing-stressed San Francisco, where 290-square-foot homes are already allowed, the city's Board of Supervisors is considering building-code changes to allow units as small as 220 square feet, according to the Los Angeles Times. That's about one-tenth the size of the average three-bedroom U.S. house.

Tiny condos make sense for singles or young, socially active couples, but what about families?

Vancouver for the last few years has promoted "laneway houses" built on the property footprint of an existing family home, ranging from 500 to 750 square feet and costing under $300,000, even in desirable established neighbourhoods near the city centre. The city's building permit department has been processing 30 to 40 laneway house applications a month, according to B.C. Business.

But another densification idea isn't going over quite as well. The city has floated the idea of "skinny streets," where existing roadways would be narrowed to free up land for development.

It's one of many ideas being considered by Mayor Gregor Robertson's task force on affordable housing, the Globe and Mail reported. Selected streets would be narrowed to 33 feet from 66 feet wide, creating an estimated 6,800 new lots for small homes.

But those homes would go up in front of existing houses, some of which are worth more than $1 million, which doesn't thrill their owners. And the narrowed streets would probably be harder to navigate, especially if you're driving a delivery vehicle, or perhaps a fire truck.

And, given the price of land in Vancouver, you have to wonder how affordable those new homes will be.