More codes and regulations are being made on Tiny Houses, making it difficult and in many cases, illegal to build a Tiny House and live in it.
Some people think that Tiny Houses are part of a trendy minimalist movement.
But for many who live in Tiny Houses, it is a way to have an affordable house, whether they be millennials, retirees, low-income people and even the homeless.
As the Tiny House trend continues, many city ordinances and governmental agencies have not been amenable to it. It may be time to change some building rules and regulations.
Sarah Hastings’ 190-square-foot home was on 3 acres of farmland next to a small garden in Hadley, Massachusetts. Now it’s in storage.
The 23-year-old recent college graduate built the house last year while she was a student at Mount Holyoke College. But like many who want to live in a “tiny house,” generally defined as a home smaller than 500 square feet, she has struggled to find a place to put it.
After somebody reported her for violating Hadley’s zoning ordinances, Hastings proposed changing the town’s laws to allow for backyard apartments, but the measure was voted down in a town meeting.
Some local governments around the country are welcoming tiny houses, attracted by their potential to ease an affordable housing crunch or even house the homeless. Cities such as Washington, D.C., and Fresno, California, have eased zoning and building rules to allow them, and in May California’s housing department issued guidance to help builders and code enforcers know which standards they need to meet. They are even the subject of the HGTV shows “Tiny House, Big Living” and “Tiny House Hunters.”
But lost in the enthusiasm is the fact that in many places, it is hard to live in them legally.
Many residents and local officials fear they will drive down property values. Some state and local governments, perplexed about whether to classify tiny houses as RVs, mobile homes or backyard cottages, still refuse to allow them.
And as for tiny houses being a solution to the affordable housing crunch, some housing experts caution they aren’t right for everyone.
“People using affordable housing are a diverse group. You’ve got retired people, disabled people, families,” said Robert Silverman, a professor with the University of Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. “A 300-square-foot trailer with a loft up top may not be suited for all those groups.”
Hastings said Hadley rejected her tiny house proposal because some residents were afraid the town would be overrun with them. “There was kind of a backlash. It only takes a few people saying ‘Oh, there’ll be 500 of them,’” she said.
The ‘Wild West’ of Construction
In 2015, the median new family home in the U.S. was 2,500 square feet, 61 percent larger than homes from 1975.
Tiny houses have gained traction with people who want to live a simpler life with fewer possessions and financial obligations, and who want to have a smaller environmental footprint. Some nonprofits are eyeing them as a possible solution for people priced out of overheated housing markets.
The difficulty has been where to place them. Those built on foundations must meet local building and zoning regulations. But many tiny houses are built off-site, sometimes without knowing where they will ultimately rest. That makes it difficult to know which building codes to meet, especially if owners plan to move them from place to place.
Bill Rockhill, the founding president of the American Tiny House Association and a New York-based builder who primarily builds tiny houses, said he and other builders try to follow uniform building codes for houses or a similar set of standards for RVs. Still, not all requirements can be met — the ladders in a tiny house may not meet requirements set forth for stairs, and lofts may not have high enough ceilings.
During construction, Rockhill takes photos of everything inside the walls so that customers can talk with building inspectors about construction. He said code enforcers can be flexible on some safety requirements, such as allowing a loft as long as it has a large enough escape window.
“It’s kind of the Wild West of building,” said Tony Gilchriest, a builder based in Washington, D.C. But Gilchriest notes that the lack of clear standards makes some builders more cautious. That is especially true when the owners of a tiny house plan to move it frequently, and it must be sturdy enough to be driven down the highway at 60 mph.
“I think people overbuild because they’re afraid,” he said.
But Dan Buuck, a specialist on codes and standards for the National Association of Home Builders, insists that some tiny houses are filled with dangers. Smoke can accumulate more quickly in low-ceiling and loft areas, and ladders and small windows make it harder for help to get in and out.
Those concerns have spawned a cottage industry of firms willing to certify that a tiny house is safe. Chuck Ballard with Pacific West Associates Inc. said his company reviews architectural plans and photos of construction before issuing the certification, which costs around $2,000.
On the Ground
As of now, few cities allow stand-alone tiny houses. Most communities have minimum square footage requirements for single-family homes mandating that smaller dwellings be an “accessory” to a larger, traditional house. Many also have rules requiring that dwellings be hooked up to utilities, which is a problem for tiny-house enthusiasts who want to live off the grid by using alternative energy sources such as solar panels and rainwater catchment systems.
To have this “freedom,” you must secure your properly permitted tiny home to an approved foundation and be connected to city utilities. The property must always be mowed and the prime responsibility is “of course, paying your taxes!”