Public, private partnership wins provincial award for affordable housing

Victoria’s Tiny Homes is a private and public partnership project aimed at helping end homelessness.

Victoria's Tiny Homes Village repurposed storage containers into self contained housing units. Photo: James Jones.
Victoria's Tiny Homes Village repurposed shipping containers into self contained housing units. Photo: James Jones.

When Victoria’s Tiny Homes Village opened the doors to 30 people in May 2021, it was the culmination of a project where those with divergent viewpoints joined forces to provide housing for the unhoused.

Tiny Homes Village, which took only six months to go from the glimmer of an idea to beacon of hope, has captured the Urban Development Institute’s Innovations in Affordability Award. It’s the first time this award has been given by the UDI, which represents BC’s development industry. 

“Politics notwithstanding, common ground was found. We found a solution to a problem where all sides agreed,” says Luke Mari, a principal at Aryze Developments, which led the creation of the Tiny Homes Village. “It was community collaboration with a really clear, common goal.”

When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, people were already living in various locations in Greater Victoria, including the tent encampment in Beacon Hill Park. Mari, who lives near the park, saw the less-than-ideal conditions. Between hand-wringing and finger-pointing, not a lot was being done to stop the growing tent city. 

“Compassion is not the solution” Mari notes.

“Then my two brain cells collided,” he quipped. Mari was visiting one of Aryze’s projects, standing in the site safety office, which was in a shipping container. After  looking around and considering the logistics, he asked himself, ‘Why can’t someone live in here?’

Luke Mari of Aryze, pictured here with his leadership team, was one of the driving forces behind Victoria's Tiny Homes Village. Photo: Eli Ramraj.
Luke Mari of Aryze, pictured here with his leadership team, was one of the driving forces behind Victoria’s Tiny Homes Village. Photo: Eli Ramraj.

Finding an easily implementable, practical housing solution

So in the late fall of 2020, as the rains of winter descended, Mari and the Aryze crew, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Our Place Society, the City of Victoria and various community members, raised over $550,000 and secured in-kind donations of goods and services for the project from almost 600 companies and individuals.

“The Tiny Houses came out of the desperate situation so many found themselves in during the pandemic,” says Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. “What was most inspiring was how the community came together, recognized a problem and did something so quickly.”

What actually happened is that the city of Victoria found an underused parking lot in the North Park area, close to transit and downtown. 

With a design from D’Ambrosio architecture + urbanism, 18 used shipping containers, of various sizes, became 30, 100-square foot homes. Each unit has a bed, desk, wardrobe, small fridge, night stand, chair, is heated/ventilated and has a window that opens. 

Communal washrooms and showers, office and common space, storage, garden and bike parking are on site. Our Place Society is in charge of operations. The full complement of services for the residents has contributed to the success of the village.

The interior of a housing unit at Victoria's Tiny Homes Village. Photo: James Jones.
The interior of a housing unit at Victoria’s Tiny Homes Village. Photo: James Jones.

A housing project delivered with care and purpose

“There was a deliberate effort to make it not slapped together. To really create a sense of home,” Helps says. 

Instead of a grandiose scheme, the sensibility of the Tiny Homes concept activated people’s empathy and compassion. “The community wants to help when there’s tangible solutions,” Mari notes. 

Mayor Helps considers it a successful pilot project while Mari shies away from the idea that it was a social experiment, where formerly homeless citizens were living in close quarters. 

Housing is a basic need, he says. Because the federal and provincial governments, and cities, have not been building enough homes for the last 30 years, people end up in parks, under bridges, on boulevards and in doorways. 

But Mari says the province has been sending very clear signs that it will be requiring municipalities to speed up the building process. “Housing policy should not be based on self-interest,” he says. He would like that same dedication and passion that went into the Tiny Homes project be used to solve the region’s missing middle housing dilemma. 

Other communities are taking note

New homes will be needed for the 30 residents of Tiny Homes Village, which was designated as transitional housing. The village will be dismantled in either the fall of 2022 or at the latest, March 31, 2023, Helps says. The 26,000-square-foot city-owned parking lot at Royal Athletic Park is designated as a site for about 200 homes.

But the containers, owned by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, will be reused. Within BC, organizations and First Nations are interested in using the tiny homes, Mari says. And agencies from across Canada have taken note of the project.

Both Mari and Helps agreed there were minor snags when creating 30 living space within four months. “But we never faced it alone,” Mari says. “There was always a team to address challenges.”