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Tiny Homes, Huge Controversy

Hamilton needs big wins to meet the housing crisis but it seems we can’t even manage tiny ones. 

In April 2020, the City of Kitchener embarked on a transitional housing project called A Better Tent City – a community of tiny cabins for people experiencing chronic homelessness. The community has shared kitchen and bathroom facilities, plus social and health services from the Sanguen Mobile Health Clinic, a harm reduction organization called ACCKWA and an onsite methadone treatment program.

In Kingston, a group called Our Livable Solutions is running a pilot project to provide transitional communities of sleeping cabins with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. The implementation has been a bit rocky, with the cabins being shuttled back-and-forth between a winter location at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour and a summer location at Centre 70 arena. 

In St. Thomas, a small southwest Ontario city of about 40,000 residents, a project is underway to build 40 tiny homes on a vacant downtown lot. Unlike the sleeping cabins in Kitchener and Kingston, each unit will have a full kitchen, laundry facilities and a living room, with a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

City council there cleared the path with necessary zoning amendments and contributed $3 million toward the total cost, while funding and organizing partner YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin has raised nearly $7 million and will be providing case management and wraparound support services for residents. A groundbreaking ceremony was held in May.

Another tiny homes project is underway in Deshkan Ziibiing, also known as Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, an Anishinaabe community in southwest Ontario near London. The student-led initiative, in partnership with Pathways Employment Help Centre, combines the construction of 400-square-foot self-contained homes with certification in building trades. The first two homes were completed in late 2022.

The Jamesville site of affordable townhomes has been boarded up for years, right across from the site of a failed proposed tiny homes site. PHOTO: Supplied

Amidst this backdrop of imagination and initiative, the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS) launched in January 2022 with a proposal to build a community of tiny homes. A demonstration cabin unveiled in April 2022 featured a locking door, insulated walls and floor, a bed, a microwave and mini-fridge and a place to charge a device.

Despite its enthusiasm, HATS has struggled to land a site for its pilot. The group first tried the former Sir John A. MacDonald School grounds at York and Bay, but was rejected due to concerns that flooding might require the school building to be demolished soon. They also made a tentative deal for a private parking lot at Barton and Earl, but council rejected the proposal in part because of pushback from neighbouring residents. 

Then HATS tried without success to get council approval for several public sites, including a lot near Gage and Barton, Cathedral Park near King Street West and Breadalbane and Stuart Street near Tiffany.

2022 came and went without a location, and HATS tried casting a wider net, asking the public for suggestions. Their search criteria included a location outside the downtown core, close to transit, with on-site hydro, compatible zoning, a size of 0.75 to two acres and minimal impact on residential neighbours.

In August, Hamilton councillors abruptly adopted a staff proposal to build up to 25 tiny houses on Strachan Park between James and Hughson. This triggered a firestorm of community opposition, which escalated into actual violence that disrupted a community meeting on Sept. 11 at Bennetto Community Centre. 

Soon after the doors opened, a small group of angry attendees began hurling verbal abuse at a man they (wrongly) believed to be unhoused, and there were multiple reports of physical assault. The meeting was quickly cancelled. 

During this time, volunteers with the Hamilton Encampment Support Network also began warning of an uptick in threats and abuse directed at unhoused people living in tents near the proposed site. The public mood was ugly.

Opponents argued that the site was too small, too close to Bennetto Elementary School and too close to nearby residents. Many neighbours pointed out that the site was chosen before doing any community engagement – though if we’re being honest, it is unlikely that more proactive engagement would have yielded a more supportive community response.

HATS decided in early October to abandon the proposed location, acknowledging that the Strachan site was not an ideal fit for their selection criteria and also warning that an unsuccessful pilot would undermine the goal of providing transitional housing.

So another winter is descending on Hamilton’s unhoused population of nearly 2,000 people with no progress in building tiny homes. This is not a criticism of HATS, which is, after all, a small group of volunteers trying desperately to step into the vacuum of municipal leadership. Indeed, HATS proposed several sites across the city, all of which councillors rejected.

It shouldn’t be this painful to find a decent location, commit to it, and set up some prefabricated cabins with support services. Perhaps most galling is the fact that right across the street from the failed Strachan site stands a complex of 91 affordable townhomes, all of them boarded up and desolate. 

The City began emptying Jamesville units in 2015 for a planned 447-unit redevelopment that has been stuck in planning purgatory after CN Rail filed an Ontario Land Tribune appeal in September 2022. The parties are in mediation with a hearing date set for May 2024.

If we can’t manage to build housing for 25 people over two years, how on earth do we expect to provide housing for everyone? 

Ryan McGreal is a web programmer, consultant, writer, editor and self-described troublemaker. He served as founder and editor of Raise the Hammer, an online magazine dedicated to sustainable urban revitalization in Hamilton. He is also a founding member of Hamilton Light Rail, a community group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. His personal website is Quandy Factory.