Real Estate

My retirement project? Building affordable co-housing.

Bureaucratic barriers make housing inconvenient and expensive to build. If you get creative, it doesn’t have to be.
Dave Ransier
Squamish_Complex__03
A smiling man in a plaid shirt stands in front of a window
Dave Ransier has been developing housing in B.C. for decades. He believes the housing shortage is partly due to the bureaucratic application processes that make development expensive and slow. (Photography by Alana Paterson)

I have been developing townhouses and entry-level homes for people in Squamish, B.C., since the 1990s. Canada’s nationwide housing unaffordability problem hits close to home for me. I have two kids in their twenties, and friends in Squamish and Vancouver who regularly compete with 20 or more others to rent an apartment or a room in a house. This winter, I even moved some people who were living in tents into a derelict home owned by a friend—which was slated to be demolished—just to keep them warm and dry. It was not an ideal home for them, obviously, but it was a huge improvement over camping in the rain and snow. They stayed in the house for two months until they found a house they could move into.

The exterior of the house is brown and black, with two porches
Ransier wanted to develop co-housing in Squamish, so he bought a plot of land with an old, rotting house—then turned it into this new build for 12 residents

While working as a developer, I realized that our nationwide housing shortage is largely the result of a bureaucratic, onerous application process. And so, in 2016, I started wondering if I could build affordable housing that only required a building permit. I thought about how people live in other countries and became interested in communal living and co-housing models as sustainable long-term options. In these houses, people have their own private suites and share common areas, creating a sense of community, smaller carbon footprints and, ultimately, cheaper rent.

SIGN UP TO READ THE BEST OF MACLEAN’S:
Get our top stories sent directly to your inbox twice a week

I wanted to develop co-housing, but B.C. makes the process time-consuming and expensive: I’d need to apply to rezone; attend a public hearing, go through city council for approval, apply for a development permit, negotiate with local authorities about my duties to enhance the roads, sidewalks and water and sewer lines that my project would use, then make a huge payment to the affordable housing fund. I’d have to wait on city planners, the civil engineering department and an advisory design panel, as well as hire an army of specialists—such as architects, landscape architects, arborists, civil engineers and geotechnical engineers—to draft plans for every step of the permit process. Overall, if things went perfectly well, I would deliver a home in six years and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. This process would delay the rollout of much-needed housing supply and raise housing prices to pay for these additional expenses. 

One of the two shared kitchens in Britannia house has plants on the windowsill
Each bedroom suite can accommodate a queen bed, a two-seat sofa, a desk and a bathroom—but no kitchen. Instead, there’s one kitchen for every six units.

I thought: instead of building a co-housing project with 50 to 60 rooms, why couldn’t I just build one for a micro-community of 12 residents? That way, the house would conform to existing zoning laws, and I would only need a building permit, which would take one to three months to get. I could finish the project in two years, maybe even a year and a half. 

READ: This Nova Scotia co-housing community is creating connections—and more affordable homes

In 2018, I bought a parcel of land near downtown Squamish with plans to create my micro-community. It had a rotting 500-square-foot wooden house, so we tore that down. By 2020, we had begun building a duplex. I knew that if I proactively asked permission from the city or neighbours, they’d stop the project, so I only applied for a building permit. And, just as I’d predicted, once the roof was on the house and we were starting to cover the drywall, some neighbours complained to the mayor and city council that the house should not have been allowed. They were concerned that the house would not fit the family-friendly neighbourhood and would cause parking and traffic problems. I gave the mayor and some city council members a tour of the house. Once they saw it in person, they approved of the concept.

Securing a loan for the project was another problem. My go-to lenders were concerned the micro-community model might not work and that they might not get their money back. Plus, the cost of construction was higher than a typical house because I had to make many bathrooms, soundproof each bedroom suite and build two staircases to follow B.C. duplex building codes. The National Bank lent me $1.2 million, and I paid $1.4 million out of my own pocket. 

READ: I banded together with strangers to buy a group of B.C. cottages

Construction took two years, then I advertised the homes through social media, Craigslist and word of mouth. The building—or Britannia House, as we came to call it—has 12 primary bedroom suites. Each bedroom suite is soundproofed and large enough to accommodate a queen bed, a two-seat sofa, a desk and a bathroom. Residents would share two kitchens, two dining areas and a gym in the garage, among other common amenities. I also put raised garden beds in the front yard for tenants to grow vegetables and meet neighbours. We set rent at $1,400 to $1,600 per month. 

The building's gym room, which includes a weight rack and some exercise machines
Residents share several common spaces, including a gym

The first set of tenants moved in on September 1, 2022. Most were in their late twenties and early thirties. The housing is co-ed, but we struggled to find enough women to live in the house at first; for every woman who applied, we got four or five applications from men. We also had an instance where the person wasn’t a good fit for communal living and we needed to ask them to vacate. 

We hit a few other snags but created solutions along the way. For example, I thought the residents would make house rules themselves, but that didn’t happen at first. Fortunately, Teresa Berkholtz, a clinical counsellor living in the house, offered to be the house coordinator. Now, Teresa implements a cleaning spreadsheet and enforces a policy where no one leaves dirty dishes in kitchen sinks. She also organizes bi-weekly meals with residents and screens and briefs future tenants. Other people take initiative, too: one resident built a sauna and a cold plunge pool in the backyard. When it was finished, the residents celebrated with a taco night on Christmas Eve. The key, I think, is picking tenants who have a propensity toward living in a clean space and who value living with other people. 

In a grassy backyard, there's a small wooden structure connected to a walkway and benches
Residents added this sauna and cold plunge pool in the backyard

Now that Britannia House is finished, I want to scale this project up. I’ve already bought another property in Squamish that I’ll turn into shared housing, and I start construction on that this year. I also plan to act as a consultant for other people who want to build or invest in these shared homes.

I’m 60 years old now and planning to retire soon. I will spend the next year or two finishing development projects, but once I’m done with those, I’ll turn my full attention to my retirement project: bringing the Britannia House model to other locations in British Columbia and maybe the rest of Canada. One of my primary objectives was to prove that building affordable housing quickly and without government subsidies is possible, and this is one way to do it.


—As told to Alyanna Denise Chua