Tiny homes in Montreal find their space amid housing crisis

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Across the country, housing spaces are limited, particularly in bustling downtown neighbourhoods – a challenge that is leading some developers and tenants to repurpose overlooked spaces into unconventional homes.

Third-year engineering student Tayseer Nejim is slowly getting settled into his new place, a tiny brick structure in Montreal that used to be part of a larger building.

“I actually bumped my head at least three times already,” Nejim said with a laugh as he showed a camera crew around his bedroom, where a sloped ceiling hangs over a bed that takes up most of the room.

This one bedroom, one bathroom pad is smaller than anywhere Nejim has lived before. Spread out on three storeys, the entire living space is just 350 square feet.

“The first thing that came to mind is, ‘how am I going to manage to work in this place, it’s really small’,” Nejim told CTV National News. “’Where am I going to put a desk here?’ But then I discovered they actually have a desk here.”

The small desk, which folds up into a box on the wall when not in use, came with the apartment, which was furnished already with pieces chosen to fit the bite-sized space.

Located steps away from Concordia University, Nejim’s apartment and a set of matching units are part of a project aimed at finding creative ways to maximize housing spaces downtown.

A real estate developer has transformed century old brick structures that long served as back staircases into six tiny homes.

“We took the stairs that were the fire escapes for the front and moved them outside so we could then use this space, which was a great space because it was a brick structure, so it had the bones we needed for us to rework the interior,” Lexa Serafini, Groupe Forum Director of residential development, told CTV National News.

“Otherwise it would have just been a lost space and it would have been a missed opportunity.”

Read more: This Toronto tenant had no trouble finding a roommate to share his bedroom for more than $1K each. Here’s why that’s a problem

The rental market has become increasingly fraught for tenants in Canada amid a housing crisis characterized by fewer units and higher prices. A 2022 report authored by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) stated that Canada needs another 3.5 million housing units by 2030 on top of what is already being built in order to meet the need – a goal which a CMHC economist said this month may not even be attainable.

Housing Minister Sean Fraser said on CTV’s Power Play on Wednesday that he doesn’t believe it’s impossible to build another 3.5 million unit.

“I believe it will be difficult,” he acknowledged.

The tiny homes now available to rent in Montreal are all about making efficient use of the limited space, according to Serafini, who helped design the units.

The stairs that connect the three levels of each unit have drawers built into the steps for added storage. The narrow bathroom – which has the sink situated just inside the room underneath a ceiling showerhead, and the toilet tucked into the back of the space – is inspired by the setup in an RV, Serafini said. Photos of the kitchen show a two-burner stove, with a dishwasher and a microwave.

It was tricky to furnish the small space; the first couch she chose was too big.

“It was more of a modular couch, but it actually didn’t fit up the stairs, so I found this couch that came in three pieces that we assembled once we got up here,” she said.

The average unit size for an apartment can vary widely across Canada depending on the city or the current rental outlook, but 350 sq. feet is definitely on the small side. A report on rental trends posted by Rentals.ca in July 2022 found that the average unit size in Montreal at that point was 773 sq. feet, while the average rent was $1,719.

Read more: Lease swaps becoming more common in Quebec as rents rise

A report by the same company released this September found that Montreal’s rent is growing fast, with an annual growth of 16.4 per cent pushing the average rent in the city to $2,001, the first time it has surpassed $2,000.

The tiny house units established near Concordia University can be rented for $1,995.

Are these tiny homes a creative way to tackle a lack of housing spaces, or a worrying symptom of the country’s larger housing crisis? Whichever it is, it’s clear that Nejim’s apartment is no traditional home.

“At the beginning, I thought, ‘ok, so I’ll live here for a month and maybe I’ll find somewhere else,’ but I believe now I’m liking it, actually,” Nejim said. 

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