Windsor summit hears of tiny homes, big dreams to end housing 'crisis'

By Doug Schmidt, The Windsor Star

The homes might be tiny, but the dreams are huge when it comes to Windsor’s homegrown advocates, including designers and builders, pushing to kickstart a new local industry aimed at providing a more modest, yet much more affordable, avenue to home ownership.

With average local home sale prices last month surpassing the $700,000 mark, owning a roof over one’s head in Windsor is no longer a realistic prospect for many, and that gap between owners and non-owners has been widening, fast. Ever-escalating real estate prices also mean ever-escalating rates for renters.

A two-day summit hosted by the Windsor Law Centre for Cities — focused on Canada’s “unprecedented housing crisis” — concluded Thursday with a flurry of ideas and recommendations on how to move forward locally. Many of the suggestions were based on initiatives already underway here and elsewhere, and the Zoom sessions — viewable soon on the research group’s website — included a list of tools available to help tackle that crisis.

As with the surge of simple and small new homes built for returning soldiers after the Second World War, local housing advocates see big potential in so-called “tiny homes” or additional dwelling units (ADUs) that have now become permitted in Windsor on existing residential properties.

Sarah Cipkar, a lead researcher with ADUSearch.ca, told the summit her team has identified 29,000 lots in Windsor — representing about 43 per cent of properties with existing structures — where such a home could be built. She had a 431-square-foot detached ADU built in her own backyard in 2020.

Michael Hoppe of Petite Homes said there are plans to build a factory in Windsor to produce such tiny homes at a significantly reduced cost. Homeowner fears of what’s required to get one built, including lack of knowledge of city regulations and the building approvals process, is perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome, he said. But he envisions a system in which the buyer simply has to give the thumb’s up and a company like Petite Homes takes care of everything, from approvals and design, to construction and servicing hook-ups.

“The number of homes we need to build is just astonishing,” said Hoppe, with estimates of Canada needing over four million new homes over the next decade, including a million in Ontario. A 450-square-foot home, with interiors that balance comfort with affordability, can be ready-built for under $200,000, he said.

Another summit session listed financing tools available to municipalities, some of them already employed by Windsor, including community improvement plans, which offer financial breaks to developers based on future property tax income.

Another available tool is tax increment financing, which Gracen Johnson, an innovation and research specialist with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, said allows a municipality to calculate the future increased value of property — say a vacant industrial lot turned into residential condos — and apply that to the up-front costs to get an affordable housing project launched. TIFs are in wide use in the United States, she said.

A municipality can use a Community Planning Permit System to designate a district or neighbourhood for a certain type of development and then promise fast-tracking of planning and building approvals and offer other incentives to developers. Community Land Trusts can be set up in which the value of the land is detached from the development on it, which Johnson said puts a damper on speculation.

Such tools, said John Revell, Windsor’s chief building official, would also help smaller and new developers enter the home-building market.

As land and construction costs escalate, a number of summit participants warned of what could happen if new players and competitors aren’t given space to grow and innovate in the home building market.

“If we don’t do this, we’ll see sprawl,” said Hoppe of Petite Homes.