“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

There’s a housing crisis in Canada. Home prices have skyrocketed. More than 1 million renters are living in unaffordable housing. It’s estimated that at least 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in a year. In response, several Canadian provinces are developing tiny home communities. These projects are receiving overwhelming community support. Some have even been nominated for awards. So, what’s the problem?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with tiny homes. There are many benefits to small, sustainable houses. Where these tiny home communities miss the mark is the way they group people together. As someone who has worked in the disability field for a decade, I’m all too familiar with good intentions that lead to harmful outcomes.

Let me be clear, the hearts of individuals and organizations supporting tiny home communities are in the right place. They see a problem (the housing crisis) and they’re doing something about it. We need more people like this in our society! We also need to make sure we’re familiar with our own history – especially when it comes to supporting people who experience marginalization.

In Canada, we have a long history of addressing social issues through the lens of charity. Governments or organizations provide a support or service and expect recipients to be grateful for what they have been given – regardless of whether it appropriately meets their wants and needs. We have traditionally provided what we feel is “in their best interest” rather than trusting people to make their own choices.

People with disabilities, psychiatric survivors, and people living in poverty have been segregated and congregated for decades. They have been confined to institutions or grouped together in subsidized low-income neighborhoods. In fact, we’ve used segregated communities as a strategy to contain the people we devalue for so long that there’s a word for it – a ghetto. These forms of housing provide a ‘solution’ to a social issue while upholding society’s motto of “not in my backyard.” Community members are happy to contribute to the solution provided it does not impact their daily lives or property values.

We see this replicated in the tiny home communities popping up across the country. These tiny homes are not dispersed throughout the community. Instead, we see tiny homes congregated together on plots of land in industrial or commercial areas. The people living in them do not represent the diversity of people in our communities. The residents do not have a choice over where they live. There’s a big difference between choosing to spend time with others who have shared life experiences and being restricted to live in an area based solely on your status as a member of a marginalized population. Some of these communities are even gated, like institutions. Municipalities are quick to support these developments, seeing them as an ‘innovative’ alternative to tent cities and out-of-the-cold shelters. They sink money into these options because surely “something is better than nothing.” We’ve jumped on the tiny home community bandwagon without fully thinking it through.

Housing is a human right. A housing-first approach makes sense, both ethically and financially. But all housing is not created equal. If we’re truly committed to meeting the needs of our neighbours, we must ensure that the housing available is inclusive, safe, accessible, and affordable. It must provide choices about where and with whom we live.

There are many caring people invested in this work. This is not a criticism of them, but rather an invitation – an invitation to reflect on our past and adjust our path forward accordingly. Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

  • If we are committed to the idea of tiny homes, why do these homes need to be congregated together? We’re told it’s a zoning issue. If the government is serious about addressing the housing crisis, these zoning issues could be overcome through something like laneway zoning. One example is Nest Niagara Inc., a non-profit working with homeowners to host mobile secondary suites on their property, dispersed throughout the community.
  • If the concept of cooperative housing is appealing, what is preventing these tiny home communities from being inclusive? Could these homes be occupied by people who reflect the diversity of our communities? (Students, retirees, working professionals, newcomers, single parents, as well as people transitioning from being unhoused). Inclusive neighbourhoods allow us to build relationships and networks of support.

  • If we have resources to fund tiny homes, why can’t these resources be put towards inclusive housing solutions? Government-assisted portable rent subsidies, or homeownership assistance programs can support people to secure housing near their medical services, their workplace, or their family.
  • If tiny homes are meant to be a stepping stone to more permanent housing, why do the homes need to be grouped together? We know that social inclusion contributes to greater safety and health outcomes – so why are we keeping people segregated and isolated from the wider community?
  • If we anticipate people will need intensive wrap-around support to transition from being unhoused to securely housed, is there a way to provide these services without everyone living in the same place? Could we fund transportation services or offer mobile services instead?

If we know the harmful history of segregated housing, are we still willing to repeat it?