Thinking small: How tiny homes are being used to address housing affordability, supply concerns

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Call it a revolution, call it a solution. Tiny homes have emerged over the past few years from two decidedly different motivations: as a lifestyle choice by folks hoping to live within a smaller footprint and as a short- or long-term solution for those facing homelessness or otherwise finding it difficult to afford housing.

Along the way, tiny houses, whether one-off or in village-like clusters, face a bevy of obstacles from zoning rules to NIMBYism. But there’s no denying that tiny homes have developed niche applications as U.S. cities struggle to meet the housing needs of growing populations.

Tiny homes as affordable, homeless housing

One way tiny houses are finding use as lower-cost housing is through the use of accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The housing typology shares a property with an existing residential structure, and it is gaining ground, with Hawaii and Los Angeles considering them. 

Multnomah County, OR, which includes Portland, is also turning to ADUs as a possible affordable housing solution. A new project called “A Place for You,” launched by the Multnomah Idea Lab, will place ADUs on participants’ properties in exchange for those homeowners housing homeless families in the unit for up to five years. 

The project is kicking off with a pilot of four homes. Residents are clearly enthusiastic, with 1,099 applications submitted before the system closed, according to Mary Li, director of the Multnomah Idea Lab. “We were trying to look at new ideas to fill this gap between people on the street and more permanent housing becoming available,” she said. “This is really about how might we do a better job getting families, particularly children, off the street.”

Though Portland’s approach is unique, cities are increasingly turning to ADUs and tiny homes as a partial solution to homeless housing. In Seattle, for example, the city has implemented several tiny house villages among close-in neighborhoods. And in Denver, a local coalition is hoping to build a temporary village of 11 tiny houses for homeless residents, with a communal kitchen and bathroom facilities, The Denver Post reported

A chicken coop at the Community First! Village.
Community First! Village

Just outside Austin, TX, city limits, the 27-acre Community First! Village provides affordable housing to disabled homeless residents. The vision began 13 years ago, said Alan Graham, president, CEO and co-founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which created and manages the community. 

The 140 tiny homes sit on slabs and were designed and constructed by local architects and builders. Several are canvas-sided safari tents. “We want to inspire people,” he said. “We want to say that architecture and design and community are equally important for those who live in poverty as much as for those who don’t.”

Residents pay up to $375 per month plus utilities, depending on which unit they occupy. 

Just as important as the homes themselves is the village mindset, achieved through numerous communal amenities and gathering areas. “People are approaching this idea of housing in what we call transactional mode,” Graham said. “[Society] thinks housing will solve homelessness, but we believe that the only thing that will solve homelessness is community.”

Beyond homeless housing, standalone tiny homes and communities are being explored as a solution for residents who can’t otherwise afford to live where they work. In tourism-heavy Hawaii, home to two of the nation’s least affordable counties, the state legislature is considering a bill that would allow for homes under 500 square feet to be built in agricultural districts to house workers in that industry. 

"Tiny homes aren’t going to topple the residential building industry, but they’re becoming a really good option for a lot of people."

Chris Galusha

President, the American Tiny House Association

Workers in the San Juan Islands, in Washington, face a similar challenge. The locale is home to many affluent homeowners, either permanent or seasonal, which makes affordability tough for workers and other middle-class residents. The government there is weighing whether tiny homes are part of the solution.

And in Salida, CO, Sprout Homes got the go-ahead late last year for a 200-unit tiny house rental community, which intends to help relieve inventory constraints for workers and vacationers in the mountain area. 

Navigating zoning and codes

While tiny homes are becoming an option for affordable housing, there’s also a strong contingent of people drawn to the prospect of living a minimalist lifestyle and one that often breeds community-centric living. 

No matter the motivation, in the majority of cities, zoning and codes continue to lag. 

“There’s definitely demand to come up with a legal pathway for tiny houses,” said Eli Spevak, owner of Orange Splot, a Portland, OR-based consultancy and developer of community-oriented housing, including tiny homes. “Creative people are figuring out how to do it themselves, whether they’re homeless or living their values … in a smaller footprint.”

There are no universal regulations in the U.S. for tiny houses, which means each jurisdiction must address the typology — whether as villages, as infill or in backyards — as demand arises. In most instances, it’s done on a case-by-case basis, and developers and builders must navigate requirements at the local level. Often, concerns from existing residents must also be addressed.

"[Society] thinks housing will solve homelessness, but we believe that the only thing that will solve homelessness is community."

Alan Graham

President, CEO and co-founder, Mobile Loaves & Fishes

Walsenburg, CO, roughly 160 miles south of Denver, is one such municipality that sought to rethink zoning following a request for tiny-home options by a retired couple hoping to settle down there. David Roesch, chairman of planning and zoning for Walsenburg, presented the idea to the city council, which bought into it. Roesch and his team then set out to change the local zoning requirements to make it happen.

After two years of work, Walsenburg became the first city in the country to allow tiny homes in R1 and R2 residential zones, Roesch said. Tiny homes there still must be on a slab, and along with typical code requirements they must meet the region’s unique high-wind regulations. 

Meeting code with creativity

Working through — or around — zoning challenges requires a certain amount of creativity. And in most cases, individuals must research what’s permitted in their area, said Chris Galusha, president of the American Tiny House Association (ATHA), a volunteer-based nonprofit that helps individuals and developers navigate tiny house–related planning and zoning.

For example, if a city has a 1,000-square-foot minimum home size, but that minimum is in total, then one solution to accommodate smaller-scale dwellings could be to construct a duplex of two tiny houses and rent one out. In Weatherford, TX, where Galusha is planning to build a tiny home, there is a requirement for 400 square feet of covered parking on every residential property. To meet that, he is considering building two, 200-square-foot tiny homes atop a garage. 

Community First! Village is a tiny-house community.
Community First!

Graham ran into regulatory hurdles with Community First. He wasn’t allowed to build the village inside Austin city limits, but state laws allowed it to be constructed just outside, sharing a border — and utilities — with the city. 

As far as building codes are concerned, to date the International Residential Code hasn’t addressed them. However, an appendix specific to tiny homes will likely be included in the next iteration, due in 2018. The guidelines address some of the traditional single-family requirements that don’t fit with tiny house design, such as overhead clearance in bedrooms and egress.

Galusha sees further evidence of momentum in the growth of inspection companies specializing in tiny houses. The National Organization of Alternative Housing, for example, will inspect tiny homes via video as if they were on-site, make a list of corrections, and then re-inspect once the required fixes are made. 

Galusha noted that he gets a lot of calls requesting advice on how to put together a tiny house community. But he cautions that in addition to dealing with zoning unknowns, tiny house developments require just as much work as conventional single-family developments in terms of infrastructure and upfront investment. To address this for Blackland Prairie Farm, a tiny house community in Greenville, TX, that he is developing, residents are buying into development costs ahead of time under an LLC.

“People are wanting to get out and do more. A lot of people tell me, ‘I’m tired of making a house payment; I’m tired of paying for space I’m not using,’” Galusha said. “Tiny homes aren’t going to topple the residential building industry, but they’re becoming a really good option for a lot of people."

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Filed Under: Buildings & Housing
Top image credit: Community First!