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The inside of a micro-loft in Vancouver's downtown East Side
The inside of a micro-loft in Vancouver's downtown East Side

Architecture

The incredible shrinking condo Add to ...

Smaller than two parking stalls or the same size as a yacht.

That's two ways of looking at the "micro-loft" suites that a Vancouver developer and construction firm are pioneering in the city's Downtown Eastside, saying their 270-square-foot rental units will help provide a desperately needed form of housing.

Jon Stovell of Reliance Holdings and ITC Construction Group announced yesterday that work was about to start on the city's smallest rental suites, in what used to be known as the Burns Block. Those 30 suites, which will come with built-in wall beds, tables and flat-screen TVs, will rent for an average of $750 a month.

"This is for young working downtowners who get the majority of their lifestyle and activities nearby," said Mr. Stovell, a Gastown property owner and developer who has worked in the area for years. "It's not gentrification. It's accommodation." He said the rents would be affordable to people making about $25,000 a year, a group that has limited options now.

City councillors and housing advocates said the development is a welcome addition - a sign of how the mood has shifted in the city.

"We took a position against these kinds of units 20 years ago, but times have changed," said Tom Durning of the Tenant Resource and Advisory Council. "We've got to support any kind of rental housing."



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Councillor Raymond Louie said the small-size suites are the direction the city is taking, with other initiatives such as laneway housing.

Twenty years ago, some city councillors were outraged at proposals to build 320-square-foot units, calling them "coffins." But going small is a trend that has been emerging in Vancouver social-housing projects. The province has one building under way with suites as small as 256 square feet as part of its push to build housing for the homeless, the mentally ill and the drug-addicted.

Other cities are also experimenting with small-size suites in central neighbourhoods. Shoebox Lofts in Portland, Ore., Cubix Yerba Buena in San Francisco and Moda Apartments in Seattle all have units in the 250- or 300-square-foot range.

However, Vancouver allows this size only in renovated buildings, city planner Jill Davidson says. If developers are building new units, the minimum size is 400 square feet, unless they get special permission from the department to go down to 320.

The Burns Block, one block east of the newly completed Woodward's project, was emptied of its dozen or so tenants in March, 2006, after the city's fire department said it was unsafe.

Mr. Stovell's company bought the building for $1.5-million a year later, almost three times what the previous owner had paid in 2003. In September, 2008, the previous Non-Partisan Association city council approved an arrangement that provided Reliance with a $50,000 façade grant and $144,000 worth of property-tax relief in the next 10 years.

The building is now assessed at about $880,000.

Mr. Stovell said that, even with all the concessions from the city, ITC lowered its costs and his company lowered its profit expectations to shave $1-million off the cost of the building to make the economics work.

The company has to keep the suites as rentals for the life of the building, because it is on the list of protected single-room accommodations in the Downtown Eastside.

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