The fast-growing Metrotown downtown area as seen from Burnaby City Hall. (Dustin Godfrey / Burnaby Beacon)

How small is too small for an apartment?

Grosvenor Brentwood studio apartments have spurred a call for a minimum apartment size

By Dustin Godfrey | June 15, 2022 |5:00 am

How small is too small?

The City of Burnaby is looking to define just that after a massive development in Brentwood proposed non-market studio apartments at just 328 square feet—less than three-quarters the size of the development’s studio condos.

The proposal drew remarks from councillors in the May 30 council meeting, including the mayor, who called the non-market studio size “ridiculous.”

The Grosvenor Brentwood project has largely seen approval from council, save for concerns from Coun Sav Dhaliwal about the inclusion of a community centre in the development, but last month, councillors got a look at the proposed unit sizes.

Coun Alison Gu told council she had lived, in the past, in a 435-square-foot apartment, and she was forced to use a coffee table as a dining table, foot stool, and seating, along with “other very intentional furniture choices” to make the tight space work.

“In this proposal, the discrepancy between the non-market and the strata seems quite significant,” Gu said.

While the non-market studios are at minimum 328 sq ft, the market strata studios are slated to be at least 443 sq ft. Market rentals in the development will be at least 381 sq ft in one building and 394 sq ft in another building, according to a staff report.

‘The smallest sizes I’ve seen’

That’s a disparity not seen in other types of units in the development. One-bedroom non-market units are slated to be at least 546 sq ft, compared to 549-sq-ft minimums for market rental one-bedroom units and 545 sq ft for market strata one-bedrooms.

Two- and three-bedroom units are similarly comparable in size, with strata units and market rentals only somewhat larger than the non-market rentals.

And while other developments have typically seen a disparity between non-market and market units, Gu said this is a particularly striking discrepancy.

“This project [has] the smallest sizes I’ve seen—market strata or rental, or non-market [rental],” she said in an interview. “Anything below 400 sq ft is not going to work for a lot of people.”

Due to the cost of living and overall affordability in the region, Gu said it’s “simply infeasible” for many people to live alone, requiring roommates, or pushing people to live with partners. And squeezing the size of a studio apartment, she said, could lead to shrinking one-, and two-bedroom units, as well.

“Everything is going to get smaller, I think, and so those one-bedrooms that might have been possible to split in a partnership become infeasible as well,” she said.

“Then you’ve got … couples who are competing with maybe young families with babies for similar unit types, and that’s going to drive those prices up even more and continue to make the affordability crisis of housing more and more of a problem.”

Costly to go back to the drawing board

Gu said she’d raised the issue in the past, but it’s hard to go back to the negotiating table with developers after a proposal has already gone before council, as that typically will then increase the costs attached to the market strata and rental units.

“It changes their whole pro forma, and it changes the number of units and all that,” Gu said.

“What I am concerned about is that having impacts on affordability, because we know that those costs would get passed down to either the renter, for the people who are living in the market rentals, or the people who are buying.”

As a result, she, and council in general, voted to pass the project on to the public hearing stage rather than send the developer back to the drawing board.

Instead, council is looking for staff to develop an official policy on the minimum sizes of units.

Coun Pietro Calendino, chair of the planning and development committee, put forward a motion in this month’s committee meeting to direct staff to report back on a potential policy on minimum unit sizes.

Calendino said a 328-sq-ft studio apartment is “not a livable place” and further said a 450-sq-ft one-bedroom is “a very tiny space.”

“We need to look at that and see if we can improve on that,” Calendino said. “We are concerned with affordability, but affordability should come with a degree of livability as well.”

Rental-use zoning review

The city is currently reviewing its rental-use zoning policy (RUZP), and general manager of planning and development Ed Kozak told the committee that includes a financial analysis of the policy.

“We will be doing a pro-forma and economic analysis of, especially, rental-use zoning to make sure that the current provisions are still well-calibrated for the policy itself,” Kozak said.

“This will be one of the variables in it.”

As for what she would like to see in developments, Gu said she finds the market units to be “informative.”

“I think the market strata numbers are always very telling about what limits they can push for a unit to remain marketable and saleable, because that’s their ultimate goal,” she said.

“They won’t make changes to their units that make them not marketable in the eyes of a buyer. So the fact that the smallest market strata unit is 440 sq ft, that to me says something about how much space one person can live in.”

While she said there’s a frustration with the disparity between market strata units and non-market rentals, Gu said the main issue is livability.

“I just cannot imagine living in 328 sq ft of space. That seems really, really small to me,” she said.

“There’s also the aspect of what you own and what you might have to get rid of and buy new if you are [moving into] one of those non-market units.”

Having to sell or otherwise get rid of one’s furniture just to be able to fit into a unit, she said, is not compatible with affordability or with the city’s efforts to tackle climate change.

The RUZP review, including a report on minimum unit sizes, is expected to come back later this year.

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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