The Big Problem behind Tiny House Regulations

By Caroline Caywood

Behind a skyline pierced with construction cranes, a tiny wooden structure stands out among rows of high-reaching skyscrapers. No more than 120 square feet, the house costs significantly less to heat, cool, and maintain and has proven to be more energy efficient. With reduced costs and square footage, these tiny houses offer an innovative solution to the rising housing costs in major cities. Despite offering one tenth of the living space of an apartment, the downside of these homes comes not from the size but rather from the highly regulated building and zoning policies that make them difficult to choose.

With the growing issue of affordable housing and the popularity of television shows like Tiny House Hunters, it’s no wonder that a movement has been picking up speed to push for more availability of these miniature homes. In cities like Washington, D.C., the housing crisis has reached a new low point, illustrated by a severe lack of affordable accommodations and unsustainable levels of migration to the area. The Atlantic reports that the number of apartments costing less than $800 per month have been cut in half while incomes have remained largely the same.

But how practical is it to build and own a tiny house? The truth is that behind the cheaper costs for construction, utilities, and property taxes, there lies a mountain of red tape making this lifestyle choice extremely difficult. Only a very limited number of American cities allow for these homes to be used as primary residences due to strict policies regulating minimum square footage and ceiling height requirements. The widespread governmental overreach in zoning regulations is brought to bear on these tiny houses.

Among the states most open to tiny houses are California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Texas. In Spur, Texas – the self-declared “tiny house capital of America” – almost all zoning regulations for buildings have been rescinded to allow for increased freedom in living accommodations. Following a 2014 resolution, the city of Spur now allows “any tiny house that features wood or metal framing, flush toilets connected to city utilities and electrical work properly done”, stipulating only that it be set on a reinforced foundation. While these deregulations demonstrate tremendous progress for tiny houses, they also open up debate on what remaining restrictions are burdening innovative housing solutions. Questions over homeowners being forced to use city facilities rather than allowed to provide their own illustrate some of the remaining concerns with housing policies.

Although some states are hopping on the trend to become more tiny house-friendly, the vast majority of city ordinances prohibit citizens from living in a tiny house as a primary residence. Instead, legislation has been written to allow tiny houses as accessory dwelling units (ADU) rather than permanent homes. An ADU is a small housing structure built on the property of an existing home. While these are often permitted by city governments, the specific regulations differ from place to place. In Fairfax, Virginia, for example, ADU’s are allowed so long as they are located on “owner-occupied property where at least one resident is 55 years of age or older and/or at least one occupant has a physical or mental impairment.”

Most of these building restrictions have come about through the International Residential Code (IRC), which publishes model code regulations to streamline public home safety standards. Square footage and ceiling height specifications are among the areas controlled by the IRC. To help educate local legislators, organizations like the American Tiny House Association have composed model zoning policies aimed at retracting those standards that limit homeowners’ freedoms. Online platforms are also used to advocate on behalf of tiny houses, illustrated by the YouTube documentary “Jay Austin’s Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House”.

Sandwiched between apartment buildings and multicolored rowhomes, an unassuming matchbox-style house stands to challenge local codes. Built by Jay Austin, the 140 square foot dwelling is located in Washington, D.C., where tiny homes are outlawed as primary residences. Driven by rising costs of living and a promise of sustainability, Austin felt compelled to build this house as a defiant gesture to what many see as stifling government control on land use and zoning. Overbearing regulations on the construction and placement of these tiny houses point to a larger overall issue of excessive laws imposed on builders and homeowners across the nation. The stories of people like Jay Austin are what drive the national movement towards greater housing freedoms in the United States. While the homes may be no bigger than 200 square feet, the promise they bring for a more affordable and sustainable future is anything but tiny.