The Trials of Tiny Homebuilding

Photo by Johnny Sanphillippo

A Strong Town naturally blends housing styles at many different price points. Big, small, mixed-use, single-family, multi-family… A Strong Town should have options for residents with a variety of needs, family sizes, incomes and ages. One of the questions we ask on the Strong Towns Strength Test is:

Are there neighborhoods in your town where three generations of a family could reasonably find a place to live, all within walking distance of each other?

For many places, the answer is unfortunately “No.”

Tiny homes are one way to increase housing options and improve affordability. They fit on small plots of land, consume low amounts of energy, and can be built fairly cheaply when compared with a standard single-family home. 

However, they also present numerous zoning and regulatory challenges for the entrepreneurial spirits trying to build them. A recent article from Sightline Institute catalogs these challenges for tiny homebuilders in the Cascadia region of North America (primarily Washington, Oregon and British Columbia) as an example:

Across Cascadia, to pass legal muster, residential structures must comply with one of three sets of rules: building codes, manufactured home codes, or recreational vehicle certification. They also must comply with zoning codes, which dictate not how they’re built but where they may stand and how they may be used. In most places, tiny houses run afoul of every one of these sets of rules, and often in several ways. The net effect is to make tiny-house dwellers a band of outlaws.

The article explains the numerous hoops that tiny homebuilders must jump through. First, if they want to build their home on a foundation in the ground, they must comply with International Residential Code (IRC) and US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations about height and width, which are based on more traditionally-size residential structures.

A trailer platform used for a tiny home

A trailer platform used for a tiny home

Second, if a home builder chooses to circumvent these rules by putting the tiny home on wheels (a common practice), he or she must then follow the various regulations that apply to recreational vehicles (RVs), chief of which is that, in several states, an RV cannot be inhabited as a primary residence except in an RV park. That’s a challenge because, as the article points out: “For example, inside city limits, Seattle has only two mobile-home parks where you can live full-time in an RV or camper.”

If one of the major goals of tiny home living is to give residents the opportunity to live affordably in a walkable, transit-connected area, chances are, the RV park doesn’t fit the bill anyway, as they’re usually located on the outskirts of town (no doubt a result of a zoning-based desire to keep “those people” i.e. low-income people, away from the rest of the city)

A third issue for tiny home builders is zoning laws that dictate occupancy limits, size requirements, and so on. Currently many cities have yet to update these laws for the new wave of tiny homes.

The Sightline Institute article explains:

Removing the legal strictures could quickly provide affordable, sustainable housing choices to thousands of people across Cascadia and beyond, at no cost to public treasuries, in neighborhoods already provided with urban infrastructure and well served by transit, schools, community centers, libraries, and parks. And some cities, such as Portland, are already working towards policy solutions that will bring tiny houses in from the cold.

Strong Towns contributor, Johnny Sanphillippo recently detailed his own experiences trying to construct a tiny home in the backyard of a property he owned. While the cost of actually building the home would’ve been modest and a worthwhile investment, the permitting headache proved cost-prohibitive and he ultimately chose to build a simple shed with minimal electricity and no running water.

Along those same lines, one of my good friends, Jay Austin, helped start Washington DC’s first tiny home community, Boneyard Studios, although he’s had more success than Johnny. Washington DC has similar regulations about size and vehicles like the ones discussed above, so Jay and his neighbors put their homes on wheels to get around a lot of those legal challenges. However, one of the main issues Jay did encounter during his homebuilding process is that, since the home is on wheels, it is not actually viewed as a residence in the eyes of the government. He wrote on the Boneyard Studios blog

The interior of Jay's home

The interior of Jay's home

 A tiny house parked on private land can have an address—indeed, our old Boneyard Studios lot was granted one—but the address is actually for the land itself, not the house. The house is not a house and the home is not a home, and you can’t put the address on your license, and your house isn’t eligible for all the great tax breaks and legal recognition the rest of the landed gentry enjoys […]

And in that sense, living in a tiny house is a little like living with a same-sex partner in the era between the repeal of anti-sodomy laws (at least among the more civilized states that have repealed them) and the recognition of same-sex marriage as a legal bond subject to the same legal benefits (things like health insurance and the right to sit by the bedside of a dying spouse) as everyone else.

Whether you’d ever consider living in a tiny home or whether the idea makes your skin crawl, the bottom line is this: Large houses are often legally simpler to build and finance while tiny homes—which should, theoretically, be simpler because they call for a smaller footprint, less materials, less energy, etc.—often require a lot more legal footwork and hoops to jump through.

That unequal burden makes the fight for affordable housing all the more challenging. Yet nonetheless, we’ve seen tiny homes grow in visibility and prevalence over the last several years. While data on the exact number of tiny homes currently in existence in America is hard to come by (because the definitions are loose and many fly under the radar), there are a number of indicators to show us that the movement is gaining ground. Numerous blogs have cropped up from tiny homebuilders sharing their journey and walking readers through the process of how to build their own small home. TV shows like Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House, Big Living run on major television networks. Tiny home companies now sell pre-made homes under 500 square feet. Plus there’s the simple fact that the majority of you reading this article probably didn’t start by looking up the term “tiny home.” Rather, you were already familiar with the concept.

One way or another, government agencies at the state and local levels will eventually need to respond to the influx of tiny homes and homebuilders. Let’s hope it’s in a positive, accommodating manner, and that our towns are able to benefit from an increase in affordable housing as a result.

(All photos by Jay Austin)

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