On January 11th, my friend Sarah defended her tiny home in front of the Hadley Zoning Board of Appeals. Between the back-and-forth, it became clear that a conversation about how municipalities should treat tiny houses was necessary and forthcoming. While interest in the “tiny house movement” is booming, not everyone is enthralled with the possibility of having a pint-sized neighbor. Below are some of the concerns raised at the meeting to which I provide logical perspectives and solutions.
*I want to emphasize that many peoples’ concerns about tiny houses are valid and approach sensitive issues. We should listen to these concerns with respect and work towards finding mutually-beneficial solutions.
OBJECTION: “Tiny houses are mobile homes and therefore they belong in a trailer park.”
Yes, not all tiny houses are cute and not everyone wants them in their backyard. But saying that a tiny house is a mobile home/RV/camper because it has wheels is like saying a whale is a fish because it has fins! Tiny homes are built like regular homes and are meant to be lived in full-time. However, there is disagreement about whether tiny homes on wheels are mobile homes or regular homes because neither definition fits. Many RV parks and campgrounds either do not accept tiny houses or only offer a temporary place to live. There are some ugly and ill-maintained conventional homes out there, but who am I to say whether they deserve to be in a certain location? If you think that tiny homes belong in a park, why not create one that welcomes them – you will have made a profitable investment!
OBJECTION: “If we allow one tiny house then soon they will be all over the place!”
People are afraid that granting permission for one tiny home will mean that everyone who owns one will flood into the town. This argument was irrelevant to the ZBA meeting, which considers issues on a case-by-case basis and does not set precedent for future decisions. However, an influx of many tiny houses is unlikely for several reasons. First of all, tiny houses on wheels comprise a very small percentage of the houses that exist. As one resident at the meeting said, owning a tiny house requires money, time, space to build it and put it, construction skills – and not to mention a unique vision – that very, very few people have. Furthermore, not everyone with vacant land is willing to host a tiny house – in other words, the residents of a town can decide for themselves whether tiny houses are a benefit or an eyesore. Nonetheless, it is feasible to add bylaws specifying the number of tiny homes allowed per lot and where on the lot they are allowed. Tiny houses could possibly qualify as detached accessory apartments, which some towns allow.
OBJECTION: “Why don’t you buy your own land?”
Using a mobile home/RV/camper as a permanent residence is not allowed in Hadley even if you own the property it sits on! Again, the current rules do not mention tiny houses as they have not been formally defined yet.
OBJECTION: “Allowing tiny houses would give license for anybody to ignore the rules and just build whatever they want.”
Currently there are no rules for the building and zoning of tiny homes. Creating standards for tiny homes and a fair system of taxation could help them to fit in and earn revenue for local governments while discouraging people from building or living in whatever they want. To allow tiny houses that have met specific criteria is better than forbidding them and then having people live in unsafe or unsightly structures in your neighborhood behind the government’s back.
OBJECTION: You should have gotten permits first; it’s wrong to live somewhere illegally and then “ask for forgiveness.” You’re cheating the system by not paying for permits.
How can tiny house owners get permits when regulations for such dwellings don’t exist? Besides, because the home is not on a traditional foundation, building permits are not required. As was brought up in the meeting, many officials have no idea what a tiny house is and even if they do, they are unwilling to talk about it. They can’t say yes or no to tiny homes because the topic has not been addressed. I get the impression that it’s easier to say “no” (or to not respond at all) than to have a conversation about anything that challenges the housing status quo. We must modify the bylaws to make room for tiny houses so that people CAN get the appropriate permits.
OBJECTION: “Since a tiny house does not require inspections, they could be unsafe for the occupants or nearby residents.”
It is a valid concern that improperly built tiny houses could pose safety hazards. But so could any structure (unpermitted sheds, neglected buildings, old buildings, residences built “to code” that were improperly signed off on or were altered after-the-fact, etc). This is why it’s important for tiny house owners to be transparent about how their house was built and to get it inspected, but the sad truth is that they can’t do these things due to the rigidity of town governments. Building codes should include standards for tiny homes: standards recognizing that tiny homes are unique and cannot possibly conform to all the codes implicated in building a conventional house, but that ensure these structures are safe and decent-looking. You can’t regulate what you ignore.
CONCLUSION: I understand that not everyone values financial responsibility, sustainable living, or innovative housing solutions. But one thing is for sure: the housing market is evolving and interest in tiny houses is growing. If one tiny house is evicted this year, next year there will be another. We are in the midst of a cultural change that has a lot of support and merit. This is a movement that policymakers and the public should take seriously and make room for, even if it’s just a little. After all, that’s all a tiny house needs.
Learn more about Sarah’s home and the zoning meeting below: