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Discover Squamish: Making a home in unique ways

Like many single parents — and plenty of others — Liesl Petersen found Squamish an expensive place to live. Innovation was going to be key if she was going to make it happen.

Like many single parents — and plenty of others — Liesl Petersen found Squamish an expensive place to live. Innovation was going to be key if she was going to make it happen.

She and her daughter, then six, tried "the vanlife thing" — living in a vehicle down by the river —  but that didn't seem ideal, she said. A step up was an old 1976 Airstream trailer that Petersen gutted and rebuilt into a tiny home and parked on a welcoming neighbour's land.

"I actually give my daughter a lot of credit for being super-resilient," Petersen reflects with a laugh. While the child was jealous of her friends who had their own bedrooms, her friends were envious when they visited the Petersen family in their camping-style abode.

Even things that were frustrating for an adult, such as when the pipes froze in winter, leaving them waterless, were fun for a kid. It meant a daily trip to the public pool for a swim and a shower.

They lived in the Airstream for five years, even increasing the population when Petersen's now-partner moved in. With double incomes, the family was soon able to move into more conventional digs. But the Airstream is still serving its purpose. Another single mom, this one with two kids, is now living in it.

"I think she's an absolute trouper," Petersen said of her Airstream successor. "But she's super grateful just to have somewhere affordable to live because she can't do the math and figure out how she would be able to rent an apartment."

These are just two examples of many households working together and confronting inflationary prices in a region already among the world's most unaffordable places to live. Necessity being the mother of invention, Squamish folks seem to have pioneered some inventive means of overcoming the difficulties.

Shifting the rules to encourage affordability

The District of Squamish is attempting to address the challenges of cost and affordability, as well as supply and demand, by encouraging what it calls "accessory dwelling units." These are more commonly known as basement suites, carriage homes or coach houses. 

"We have been chipping away at any barriers that accessory dwelling units would face," said Jonas Velaniskis, the town's director of community planning. They are making it easier, he said, to put more units on a single property in the case of a new build and to retrofit or add extra space to existing homes.

Now, said Velaniskis, any single-family home in the District is eligible to add a suite and a carriage home. In the case of a duplex, for example, each side is permitted a suite, and the combined property may also have one carriage house, for a total of five housing units on what was originally zoned for two.

The District has also increased the maximum size for secondary suites, to 90 square metres, or almost 1,000 square feet. Carriage houses can range between 700 and 1,000 square feet, depending on the property size. The District has also reduced some of the setbacks that existed, meaning the distance that a building must be located away from the property line has been shortened, with the effect of allowing larger coach homes.

"If you've got a laneway in the back of the property, which a lot of our downtown streets have, you can put the carriage house almost all the way onto the laneway," he said. This is a change from previous regulations, which required several metres' setback.

After years of exorbitant housing prices, many jurisdictions are revisiting long-held assumptions about single-family neighbourhoods and other once-sacrosanct ideas in urban planning. 

"I think there is a general realization, especially in Squamish where we don't have a lot of purpose-built rental projects, that our best way and our biggest stock of rental units is in the accessory dwelling unit market," said Velaniskis. "I don't think we're unique in the sense that we are trying to change regulations and make these kinds of dwelling units easier to build, but I think to the extent that we've gone is unique."

Allowing both a suite and a carriage home, for example, may be a step farther than a lot of other municipalities have gone.

The "vanlife thing" is, however, a step too far for the District, although they know it is happening.

"Camping is not permitted on streets, public lands, parks, parking lots or Crown lands and that includes Forest Service roads within the District of Squamish boundaries," he said. Velaniskis said the District is emphasizing alternatives. "What we're trying to do is create more housing so that people have more affordable options to live in buildings that have been designed for it."

As one example, the number of coach houses in town spiked from 560 in 2016 to almost 900 last year.

In addition to these most visible additions to the townscape, the District has taken steps to encourage more housing. They eliminated permit fees and associated municipal costs for secondary units, hoping that this would spur more folks to consider the opportunity.

Squamish, like other places in B.C., has also had to confront the impacts of short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb and VRBO, which have been snatching long-term rental housing and converting it into tourist accommodations. 

"We just outright said you can't have short-term rental in a secondary suite or a coach house," Velaniskis said. "If you live in your house and you want to short-term rent while you're on vacation, or you want to short-term rent a room or two, you can do that with a business licence. You just can't do it in a secondary suite or a coach house."

Carriage homes

Brian Wilkes is pleased with the growth of carriage homes. He is president of Modco Pacific Homes, a Squamish business that creates custom modular homes, studios and prefabricated structures. While most of his projects are vacation homes — many in difficult-to-reach locations like the Gulf Islands — he hopes for more carriage homes in the future.

Modular homes like the ones Wilkes' company builds are ideal for remote locations where bringing in construction teams presents a challenge. With much of the construction taking place off-site, the modular homes take a small team less time to build once shipped to the property. That can make it more affordable. Modular homes are not necessarily cheaper than the conventional construction in the city, he noted, though it is definitely faster. He also clarifies that "modular" is too often mistaken for "mobile." 

"A lot of people hear 'modular' and think mobile home or trailer park," he said. "That is certainly not what we do. They are built to a completely different standard. A modular home is built to the same standard as a regular site-built house. All the B.C. building codes apply." The difference is simply that much of the construction is done remotely then put together at the final site.

While his company makes plenty of structures that are typical family-sized homes, Wilkes said their method is ideal for smaller buildings like carriage homes. With downsizing elders, new families seeking an entry point into the market and just a changed emphasis on what is important, Wilkes sees a bigger market for smaller homes on the horizon. If the location of the build presents logistical difficulties, he said, modular construction is an especially good choice. 

Wilkes is far from the only entrepreneur in town addressing the housing issue.

Communal living

This past summer, home builder Dave Ransier opened the doors to a new concept in shared accommodations. His purpose-built property, called Responsible Living Squamish, is a two-storey home, each floor accommodating six residents, each with their own room and en-suite, but with shared kitchens, common areas and large decks. Co-housing is a small but growing trend, though it is usually a co-op or equity model. This shared rental accommodation is scarce.

Realtor Angie Vazquez said her profession gives her interesting insights into how people live. She knows of two couples who realized they could have two separate not-so-awesome homes apart or, by living together and sharing the overhead, they could have a very nice home where they share a kitchen and common areas, as well as have a spare room when family come to visit.

More commonly, a lot of buyers are prioritizing secondary residences on the property, where two households can coexist adjacent, but not as intensely integrated as shared accommodations, Vasquez said.

Whether for income, in-laws or a nanny, a secondary suite or carriage home is among the top three things on her clients' wish lists — a yard and a garage.

At least one family she knows of uses a recreational vehicle as a guest cottage when folks come to stay, allowing family to remain close but not too close. 

Petersen, the Airstream innovator, believes that addressing the cost of housing is not solely a family issue, but a community matter.

"Our working class is moving away because they can't afford to live here," she said. "It's a scary situation when everywhere we go they are understaffed because there's not enough people living here who want to work for a wage like that. There is still a huge demographic of really valuable people in our community who are working for $15 to $20 an hour and that's just not enough to pay $3,000 a month for rent."

These are people who work hard and are versatile, ready to live in alternative situations to make it happen, Petersen said. "But I feel like lately, a lot of things have been really hard for those people."

Editor's note: This story first appeared in Discover Squamish, winter edition, which was published in November 2022. Neither the writer nor the publication benefited from featuring the people or businesses mentioned. 

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