Faced with rising rental prices in rural Nova Scotia, a 12-metre school bus seemed like the logical choice for Hannah Verra.
She admits the 25-year-old bus she bought for $2,500 earlier this year is a bit rough on the outside, with cracks of yellow still visible in the peeling red paint — a reminder of its former life packed with kids out on the road.
But step inside and you'll find the makings of a cosy home for Verra and her two young children.
"My wish for housing was to be able to live in a home that was both comfortable but affordable, and there wasn't anything available in the region," said Verra, who lives in West Dublin, in Lunenburg County on the province's South Shore.
Because she's self-employed, Verra said she couldn't get approved for a mortgage and ended up staying several months in a short-term rental that wasn't sustainable. She's spent the last few months renovating the bus and plans to move in at the end of May.
She's not the only Nova Scotian opting to drastically downsize in order to deal with what many call an affordable-housing crisis in the province.
The Facebook group, Nova Scotia Tiny Home People, has "exploded" in popularity, according to one of its founders, growing from about 1,000 members to more than 7,000 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How to turn a bus into a home
When Verra bought her bus, all of the seats, except the driver's seat, had been removed. She's since added a propane stove for cooking, appliances, a dinette and a couch she ripped out of an old RV and a diagonal wall at the back of the bus with her room on one side.
"The other side is the kids' room, and it has a bunk bed in it and it's almost completely done. It's painted purple and has trim and they have carpeting," she said.
The space is insulated and there is a wood-burning stove for heat.
Verra is installing LED lights powered by solar energy and steel gutters that will run along both sides of the bus to collect rainwater. She also has a composting toilet.
The bus has largely been built using free items she got from a Facebook group called WeShare Lunenburg County, donated to her by people who were strangers at the time but whose names she now recites with a fond familiarity.
The faucet came from Sandy, and Sheila supplied a bed frame that, along with some other donated items, has been turned into "the little cabinet that love built."
"It means so much more to me than if I had just bought it at the hardware store because ... this way I remember standing in Sheila's garage and chit-chatting with her as I disassembled her bed frame," Verra said.
The Ontario native is no stranger to living in cramped spaces. Before moving to Nova Scotia last June, she lived on a sailboat with her family, exploring the western Caribbean before the pandemic forced them home to Canada.
Still, she's not sure how she'll be received living in a bus with her kids.
"Living in a trailer or a bus or a mobile home, I think that there's maybe stigma associated with that, but I think maybe that's changing in my community as it becomes more common," she said.
Her short-term plan is to park the bus near Petite Rivière at the property of her friend, Heather Dawn. Dawn has been living in a school bus of her own with her 11-year-old daughter since November.
Price of housing has become out of reach
When the pandemic hit, the four-bedroom house Dawn had been renting and planned to buy in Halifax was suddenly out of reach.
"I paused for a moment and really just like reconsidered what I was investing in," she said. "I could spend literally my entire savings on a down payment for a house ... or maybe I take a totally different approach."
Dawn decided to take the $50,000 she'd saved up and buy a property with some outbuildings and a chicken coop — as well as a 1993 school bus for $6,000 that had already been partially converted.
Her bus, which is totally off-the-grid, is refinished with wood on the walls and ceiling "so it kind of feels like you're in a cabin." The micro space means Dawn and her daughter spend a good deal of time outside.
Life in the school bus gives them more quality time together, too, Dawn said, because she's not worried about working long hours to pay the bills.
"It also really challenges your ideas of how much space you actually need," she said. "I actually can't imagine living a 'normal' life now."
She said the regulations around living in a bus in the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg aren't exactly clear. Because the home is on wheels, she said, it doesn't need a development permit, but there are also rules about not making these spaces a permanent dwelling.
Right now, what's allowed depends on the location in Nova Scotia and what kind of small structure it is. But Carolyn Hocquard, who helped start the Nova Scotia Tiny Home People group, said she wants to see regulations relaxed so more people can do what Verra and Dawn are doing.
When the group started in 2014, it was mostly filled with "internet-savvy, hipster, middle-class [people] who were not in as desperate situations," Hocquard said.
"Now it's becoming hugely popular among people who are kind of running out of options and looking for a place to live. And even though tiny houses are tiny and much cheaper, it's still inaccessible for some people," she said.
For Verra, her do-it-yourself bus project has given her a lot of time to think about what home means to her.
"I think everyone should have the safety of their home," she said. "I think everyone should be treated with respect in regard to what type of home they choose to live in or what type of home they're forced to live in."