SELKIRK — Take a walk down Robinson Avenue and you might feel like you’re not in Selkirk anymore.
The reason you might doubt your surroundings is that between Sophia and Mercy streets, there are 16 houses that look like they’re from somewhere other than the Catfish Capital of the World: they’re 758 square feet, they’re modular, and though they might be called tiny, on the inside, they’re deceptively large and airy.
"Eighteen months ago, this was all land," says Ellery Broder, who along with co-founder Jason Vitt is behind Mezzo Homes, a housing company that builds small homes that somehow feel like big ones. This week, the last house — with floor-to-ceiling windows, in-floor heat, complete plumbing, and low-maintenance, minimalistic design— sold for $219,900.
The company, whose name is from the Latin for half, sees its homes as attainable, affordable options for demographics like downsizing seniors, first-time home buyers, adults living with disabilities, or students — a condo with its own yard, its own social community, and without noisy upstairs neighbours.
This month, Mezzo held an open house for one of its homes in Woodlands, Man. This fall, there are plans for a showhome in Gimli, where the company aims to develop a community similar to its one in Selkirk on 67 lots in one of the town’s newer development areas. There has been preliminary interest from a number of rural municipalities, Vitt said. Though Winnipeg buyers have expressed interest, the lots are frequently too narrow and too expensive to fit the company’s mandate of affordability, but Vitt said the company is open to opportunities in the city.
The structures are all assembled in the company’s Main Street warehouse, a former bus depot retrofitted as a housing factory.
While the medium-sized homes have been well-received in Selkirk, Vitt — an East Selkirk resident whose background is in construction and management — and Broder — who brings business acumen along with engineering expertise from a career in avionics — were spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic to go even smaller.
"We saw an opportunity right away," said Vitt, and the company scaled down its 758-square-foot mezzo by half to create what it calls the Micro Mezzo, a 379-square-foot insulated unit with a bedroom, living room-kitchen-dining area combo, a full bathroom, and a ductless split air-conditioning and heating system capable of withstanding whatever temperatures Manitoba’s climate throws its way.
They sell at a base rate of $99,900, equipped with kitchen appliances, laundry machines, a queen bed and mattress, and built-in storage space. It also has an (optional) full front deck, big enough to host a (small) barbecue.
The idea is to market the 11-foot wide, 32-foot long units as garden or granny suites, comfortable guest houses for in-laws or guests, or isolation units. During the pandemic, Broder said it’s become apparent that for some, such a secondary place has become not just a consideration, but an essential space to have on their property to allow for safe distancing.
The idea isn’t entirely unique, but it is timely: Vancouver’s city council has floated the idea as a form of affordable housing for the city’s houseless residents, the Tyee reported last week. Interest in the movable models built by New Brunswick’s Wee Bitty Builders has piqued in the physical distancing era, the founder told the CBC in August. Meanwhile, American remote cabin rental company Getaway had a 99 per cent occupancy spike in July and August, the Washington Post reports.
While Mezzo’s micro homes, which take about four weeks to build, are still in their early stages of development, one has already been purchased for pandemic-related reasons by a major housing stock provider in the Manitoba Metis Federation. The federation purchased a number of tiny homes this spring as potential isolation units for the Métis Nation, should members require quarantine, including the first Micro Mezzo home. Housing and property management minister Will Goodon said what was appealing about Vitt and Broder’s model was its four-season use and long-term adaptability.
"It filled an immediate need, but we also saw it as an investment that would pay off for the long term," Goodon said. For now, it’s used for community safety purposes, but in the future, it can be used as seniors housing, student residences, or an economic base for a campground or community, he said.
Vitt and Broder, who have a crew of four, say that when their first housing venture was unveiled, there was skepticism over whether it would find an audience. Sure enough, the company’s first open house in 2018 had over 800 people visit, and the Selkirk stock is now completely sold out.
"Like everything new, it takes a while for people to come around," said Vitt. "People sometimes have a tough time getting used to what (these houses) are, but once they see them, they get on board in very short order."
That’s the company’s hope for the Micro model, which currently has a show version standing next to the headquarters on Selkirk’s Main Street. It’s hard to miss — it’s the one that doesn’t look like anything else nearby.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.