Waters: Is Kelowna big enough for micro-suites?

Rental suites no bigger than 300-square-feet are starting to pop up in Kelowna, But is the market ready for such small housing?

Relocating to the Okanagan has long been a dream for many who live in other places—like Alberta, Saskatchewan and even the Lower Mainland.

But their dream of living the “Okanagan lifestyle” likely doesn’t include shoehorning themselves into a 300-square-foot shoebox masquerading as an apartment.

But at least three local developers, and possibly more, are putting their money where their building sites are and planning “micro-suite” developments in Kelowna. One is planned near the UBC Okanagan campus, another on Dickson Avenue, near the Landmark high-tech office towers and the third just got a preliminary nod of approval from city council Monday for the corner of Ethel Street and Glenwood Avenue.

While the novelty of these toy apartments may result in this first crop selling—especially the ones near UBCO which could be seen as prime places for students looking to rent accommodation off campus but near school—if, as one city councillor fears, they become the wave of the future, I’m not so sure they will be the big hit some developers think they will be.

Kelowna has never been, and will not likely be for the foreseeable future, a place where density is so high living space becomes such a premium that size matters to such a drastic extent. Even the young and mobile need enough room to stretch out.

People may retire the Okanagan to downsize, but they don’t come here to minimize. There are plenty of condos on the market offering a lot more space in what the city would call a “multi-family” buildings.

And that’s just for the condo crowd. Then there are people who want a house, a yard, a picket fence and a dog to roam the back 0.40. Something they may not be able to afford in Vancouver.

Kelonwa likes to think of itself as a growing city. And it is. But it’s not New York, Tokyo, London or even Vancouver, places where micro-suites are in demand because space is at a premium.

Another reason for the less-is-more approach to this type of housing is the rising cost of property here. While the micro-suites proposed so far are slated to be rentals, the city is considering them “affordable housing.”

But with rents comparable to larger existing units, just how “affordable” will they be for folks on lower incomes?

Then there’s the question of the return for the city for allowing these mighty midgets of the housing world to pop up around town.

As was astutely pointed out by city Coun. Luke Stack earlier this week, with micro-suites being exempt from development cost charges, where is the city going to get the money it needs to help pay for the infrastructure needed to support these developments if there is a sudden flood of them in the near future?

It seems micro-suites are the developmental flavour of the month and developers here are starting to binge. But as has been shown in the past —i.e. the condo market of a few years ago—that is normally followed by an uncomfortable purge.

Of course it’s up to each developer to decide how it wants to spend its money and on what type of development. The city should not dictate that.

But when it directly impacts the taxpaying public, as the loss of DCCs will, it’s time for city hall to take a long hard look not only at what is being planned, but how much the rest of the city should have to pay to satiate developers’ suite dreams.



Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.