If Ottawa is to contain urban sprawl and increase the population, we need to ensure that there are more people living in many areas of the nation’s capital, not just downtown.
Certainly, concentrating development close to rapid transit (light rail, and bus rapid transit) makes a lot of sense. People’s housing and transportation needs would both be well-served. There is another opportunity not yet widely known: coach houses or secondary suites in existing backyards.
For example, I live in suburban Ottawa, in a 1,500 square foot home in Kanata South. Our semi-detached two-storey house is on a corner lot. Our lot size is 50 feet wide, and 80 feet deep. Our property and neighbourhood could easily accommodate another living space added to it. A 600-square-foot home would be comfortable for people interested in affordable, tiny living.
In 2017, Ottawa began allowing the development of coach houses in backyards and side-yards, but it seems few homeowners are aware of the opportunity. As of February 2019, CBC Ottawa reported that the City said “only 15 building permits have been issued for coach homes since the new bylaw came into effect. The city initially anticipated 50 applications per year.”
Coach homes could be an important part of the puzzle we need to fit together to help solve both the climate crisis, and the affordable housing and homelessness emergency.
An example of a coach house in the backyard of a home in the Hintonburg – Mechanisville neighbourhood. The coach house was constructed by Ottawa General Contractors. A video that shows the interior of the Hintonburg Coach Home can be found here: https://vimeo.com/336600771. (Image courtesy of Google Street view)
Ray Sullivan sees a lot of potential for coach houses. The Executive Director of Centretown Citizens’ Ottawa Corporation, the city’s second largest social housing provider, says even modestly affordable rentals are not affordable for people on the affordable housing waiting list. “If you are on the waiting list, by definition, you can’t afford market rent.”
“The City has trouble finding places to put subsidized rents, so coach houses would be an advantage here. Under supply of housing is a big problem, not just affordable housing. Things like coach houses would allow for greater number of units being available.”
A coach house or secondary suite can cost as little as $150,000 to $250,000 to build. In theory it could be rented out to people for $1,000/month, with governments providing a rent subsidy to make up 60% to 80% of the total rent costs. And, for the homeowner, the secondary suite would pay for itself in 12.5 years, twice as fast as it normally costs to pay off a mortgage.
So, if we were to get serious about secondary suites (aka granny flats), how many affordable units could be added to Ottawa? In Kanata South, for example, the City says 49,915 people were living in Kanata South in 2019, in 18,879 households. Hundreds of units could presumably fit into this existing area.
What about in Kanata North? The City says 38,497 people lived there in 2019, in 15,499 households. A couple hundred secondary suites could no doubt fit in there.
If secondary suites were also added in Orleans, Stittsville, and Barrhaven, as well as to the inner suburban areas of Ottawa (those within the Greenbelt), there is no reason why we couldn’t see a significant number of households living in coach houses or tiny homes in existing suburban communities. The beauty of this is it would not require any more urban sprawl, nor the loss of forests, farmland, and/or important green spaces.
For Paul Johanis, Chair of the Greenspace Alliance of Canada’s Capital, this type of living arrangement could be the key to increasing the number of single-family homes that can be provided through intensification.
In addition to coach houses, he sees great potential in the development of tiny home communities here. In Calgary, for example, a community of 15 tiny homes was opened in late-2019, providing housing to homeless veterans at a low monthly rent of $600. In Edmonton, in June 2020, city council there approved a similar 21-home project.
“If just 14,000 coach houses or tiny homes could be built across the city over the next 25 years, it would provide the additional supply of single detached homes needed to avoid an expansion of the urban boundary. And it would do so in an affordable and carbon efficient way, without sacrificing urban greenspace,” Johanis said.
So, what can Ottawa do to help encourage the building of more secondary suites and coach houses, to better use existing land for residential, affordable living?
One idea might be to follow the lead of Simcoe County. That Ontario municipality has been providing $30,000 forgivable loans for homeowners to build secondary suites. These units then must be used to provide affordable housing for 15 years. The program provides an incentive (in the form of a forgivable loan) and this has led to the construction of hundreds of units of affordable housing there.
The homeowner takes on the additional construction costs (of $120,000 to $220,000), but the creation of an affordable housing unit for 15 years for as little as $30,000 is a noteworthy accomplishment. It is something Ottawa should learn from.
More information about Simcoe County’s program is available here: https://www.simcoe.ca/dpt/sh/secondary-suites.
What is a coach house, and what does the bylaw allow for?
A separate residential unit built on a lot that already has a main house.
Depending on the context, it is 1-storey (urban), or 2-storey (rural) building, and it can’t be bigger than 40% of the square footage of the main house.
Water and electricity connected to main house (on one bill).
No rooftop patios allowed, and it has to ‘fit’ the neighbourhood.
A permit most be obtained from the City prior to building.
Cost to build: $150,000 to $250,000
Source: City of Ottawa