Accessory Dwelling Units: A Pathway to Legal Tiny Houses?

I’d like to call your attention to some recent happenings regarding tiny house legality!  As you may know, tiny houses are not exactly legal in many places, especially if they’re on wheels.  But one way that tiny houses could become legal (and advantageous) additions to communities is by treating them as accessory dwelling units, where each tiny house shares a lot with a regular single-family house.

What is an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU)?
An accessory dwelling unit is a small, self-contained secondary house on the same property as a main residence.  They are also called accessory apartments, in-law apartments, or guest cottages.

What good are ADUs for municipalities?
– Increases tax revenue
– Minimizes subsidies required for affordable units
– Maximizes use of existing infrastructure & town services
– Keeps growing and aging families together!
– Preserves existing housing/historic structures

Who benefits from ADUs?
• Homeowners  – gain passive income from renting out an ADU; provide housing for elderly family members or young adult children who are saving up for their own home.  Busy homeowners may benefit from the unique skills or services of a tenant who lives on-site but independently (e.g., pet care, yard care)
• Middle-income tenants – provides greater diversity of housing options
• Local businesses – employee housing
• Real estate firms – rental stock
• Residential contractors – remodeling
• Lending institutions – home improvement loans

Who typically chooses to live in ADUs?
•  “Empty nesters” who no longer need a large home but want to keep living on the same property (they can live in the small easier-to-maintain ADU and rent out the main house).
• Younger singles/couples who want an affordable, high quality alternative to renting without committing to buying a home.  An ADU provides integration with the neighborhood that apartment complexes typically do not.
• People who travel often or who want to live in a particular town but do not need a large home.

How are ADUs built?
– Build an addition onto an existing home
– Convert a garage or barn into a free-standing cottage
– Design an ADU into new construction

More information here:…/smart_growth_toolk…/pages/mod-adu.html

EXCITING NEWS!  Three towns in Massachusetts – including Northampton (urban) and Pelham (rural), are undergoing case studies for ADUs!  Basically, these communities are allowing ADUs to see if this model for zoning bylaws should be adopted in other towns across Massachusetts.

Here is the urban case study for Northampton:…/smart_g…/pages/CS-adu-northampton.html

Here is the rural case study for Pelham:…/smart_growth…/pages/CS-adu-pelham.html

Whether the tiny house ADUs are allowed to be on wheels or foundations-only is up to town zoning boards.  As we learned in our meeting with a local building inspector, it seems that foundation-built tiny houses are the easiest to make legal because towns want to have a stable tax base and it is easier to regulate permanent structures.


LASTLY: my friend Sarah and I created an infographic summarizing the benefits of tiny house ADUs as part of our involvement with the Millennial Housing Lab.  If you are involved in tiny house activism or if you want to talk with your local officials about allowing tiny houses, feel free to share the infographic!  It highlights the key info in this post but in an awesomer format  🙂

Let’s hope that through these initial test cases, people see the reality of what it means to have tiny house ADUs.  In the abstract, some people have concerns or misconceptions about the consequences of allowing tiny houses in their community.  I’ve heard things like, “tiny houses are like chicken coops – one might be ok but I don’t want my neighborhood to turn into a trailer park!”  (Stereotyping tiny houses as being inferior-quality or low-income/student housing is a huge generalization and mostly inaccurate by the way!)  If done properly, it seems that tiny houses can be very valuable, beautiful, and – if you wish – discreet assets to the community!

How could you personally benefit from living in a town that allowed tiny house ADUs?  We would love to hear in the comments!



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