Towards a better tinyhouse

Inventing to freedom?

If we are not going to think about it, we could at least ask ourselves why we are not thinking about it.

with 12 comments

Everyone who wants to use a tinyhouse knows that the zoning problem is by far the biggest issue in the tiny house world. But it gets very little discussion. Everyone is avoiding it, admit it.

Personally I think I tend to avoid it for a few reasons, one of which is the detour factor. I think this is also what causes most people to just give up, rather than trying to change the laws: I just want to live in a small house that suits me. I have the time and money to build a house, but I’m not a wreathed-in-fire activist, and I don’t have time to be one.

Having to change the laws seems like a very long, highly unwelcome detour from what matters to me. This, I think is why people trend strongly towards telling people they should just try it, and ignore the government’s unreasonable rules. Unfortunately suffice it to say that said people fail to realize that the government is not that much of a push over.

Unfortunately that doesn’t change the fact that the laws are the limiting factor here.

Another reason is that doing something about the laws is not as easy as just sending a letter to my local politicians. If you ask yourself, “what would work to get tinyhouses practically permitted?” (e.g. tinyhouses can be placed legally in any backyard for a total of no more than a few hundred bucks worth of total government burden, in the form of inappropriate construction requirements, permitting etc., negotiating with the neighbors over view etc. is fine though) instead of “what can I do to help?”, it becomes apparent that sending a letter or whatever alone, in the absence of any other action on the part of anyone else, will in fact make effectively no difference at all.

Suppose you have a graph:

(edit: pic corrected)

I assume one letter, the politician probably ignores. Many letters, and there may be a certain probability that the scales are tipped in favor of what the letters request be done.
A lot of letters, and the politician understands that they do it, or they promptly lose their job and are replaced by one that will.

Unfortunately you need a good number of people sending letters, donating, or performing whatever other action (unless you have the dough for lobbying, or can do it yourself, which worked in the case of the medcottages tinyhouses thing, getting them permitted as-by-right in all of Virginia).

As far as I can tell, all effective movements have at least a small number of people that make it at least their part time job to organize all the other people. And know what they are doing to a reasonable degree. All of them. Clearly that means these people need to be relatively highly motivated.

Paying them doesn’t get you off the ground though, because you need someone to solicit and collect the initial money, or who can pay it themselves, so you would still need at least one motivated organizer and donor…. (although it raises the interesting possibility of a professional activist that both started things and then took some of the donations to pay for their work, that might encounter issues with people questioning their motives.)

But there is *one* group of people that could do this and have a lot of personal motivation to: Tiny house builders. Jay Schaffer and so on. I am perplexed that these people have not started effectively organizing the very large number of people like me that would totally pitch in to a movement if we had the chance. IIRC the Tinyhousedesign blog gets 50,000 unique hits a month. The Tinyhouseblog presumably gets more, could be 100K. That’s a heck of a lot of people involved. And you have to realize that a lot of people hear about tinyhouses, and then leave again later after hearing that they are not allowed. Those people don’t show up much in those statistics as regular readers do, but could be added to the political force too.

A third reason is that I view the problems around tinyhouses as symptoms of much deeper problems, so I guess it seems to me like spending a lot of time on it would not be that useful beyond the relatively narrow issue. A popular philosopher in the tiny house movement points out:

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil
to one who is striking at the root.”
– Henry David Thoreau

If people were not so quick to allow the persecution of minority groups, like people who live in trailers, or to trample freedom or borrow against the future in pursuit of short sighted goals like propping up housing prices, creating a housing bubble, tinyhouses would already be allowed. If the wealthy were not so readily permitted to get their way at the expense of the rest of us, there would be no minimum square footage, or exclusionary zoning. If the laws or political system had any respect for reality built into them, they would not be based on erroneous logic, and when they were they would be corrected when the underlying rationales were shown to be flawed (and the original creation process would be recorded and made available for analysis…).

(BTW the word “rant” might have gone through your head right about now, but dismissing a valid arguments as a rant is something people do because they are unwilling or too lazy to think about complex things. Reality is inherently complex.)

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t pitch in, though, to get the issues around tinyhouses improved. It would still be useful in itself, and could maybe help a bit with the more basic issues…

Fourthly, it seems (to me, right at present) like there is not that much need for discussion on the subject, because we *know* what the problem is already (actually there is a lot of misinformation floating around about these things, so clearing that up might actually make a lot of sense, come to think of it).

But there is plenty of room, and need, to work out the issues of how to change the laws, which might include figuring out why they are they way they are in the first place, for example.

Also, before you start thinking about ways that a tinyhouse could be used without changing the laws, consider the relative amounts of cumulative, if you assume everyone was doing it, effort involved with dodging or accommodating the law vs. changing it.

If instead of everyone bending over backwards and spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each to “hide in plain site”, or commuting in from the styx because the house was not allowed in the city, or whatever, what if all 100,000 tinyhouse enthusiasts just spent a few hours on political change? Honestly, at some level it’s about working smarter, not harder. It needs more investigating, but could potentially be a much more efficient way to get your tiny house.

So, anybody up for organizing? I think the builders are the only ones who can do it. Come on, I bet it would really pay off business wise, so there is a good excuse…


Written by gregor

March 6, 2011 at 11:41

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. Zoning is not a problem in the part of the country I live in, the Ozarks. And what I find ironic is that the places with the zoning problems tend to be the states with higher populations which is where tiny houses would be a benefit to the crowded landscape.

    Victoria - Ozarks Crescent Mural

    March 6, 2011 at 11:56

    • Well, that’s good, then. Yes, there are a lot of ironic and backwards things about zoning…. but that applies to a lot of things in the government.


      March 7, 2011 at 09:27

  2. Hey there Gregor. I think we have crossed paths on the Tiny House Forum before. I think I responded to something you called a rant but I called passion. Whatever the case, I just found your blog and I have been reading through it. I love today’s post. You make a number of valid points.

    Let me first say that I do not approach the issue as I should because of FEAR. That’s right, fear. My wife and I have dreamed of our Tiny House and have managed to get to the construction phase but in the back of my mind is the idea that if Mr. President himself found out about it he would make me remove it from our land. I am afraid of what the law can (and perhaps, would) do if they showed up at my house.

    You also raise a very valid point with this:

    “But there is *one* group of people that could do this and have a lot of personal motivation to: Tiny house builders. Jay Schaffer and so on.”

    I have wondered for months now just what Jay and Dee and others set out to do? Did they just want to build cute houses or gain some instant fame or build a blog following? Living in a backyard in Portland is not everyones idea of freedom. In fact, I am not even sure it is all that alluring. But they have the attention of the major press junkets and have become media darlings. But what have they done with it? They have sold their building plans for hundreds of dollars. Who cares? How is that advancing tiny house living at all?


    March 9, 2011 at 08:46

  3. I have not called anything a rant on the tinyhouseforum, if that’s what you are saying. To double check, I searched the tinyhouse forum with google and the forum’s search function for “rant anotherkindofdrew gregor” and “gregor rant”. There are no posts of mine with the term rant in them that I can find, and I am sure I would not dismiss something in that way. Maybe that is not what you are saying, though.

    In a way I hesitate to say anything about the builders taking the opportunities they have, because it sounds more than a little hypocritical. But it is true that few people have the opportunity, and that they do. And that they are not using it. Which is more than a little annoying, when they are going on about the benefits, selling books, and so on, pushing tinyhouses in that way.

    It smells like cream skimming, I guess – taking the existing opportunities while putting no effort whatsoever into creating more for others. And irresponsible and in some ways dishonest, the way they sing the advantages of tinyhouses while ignoring the hurdles that exist for their customers, or they know perfectly well are bound to be encountered when people try to actually go do it.

    However I appreciate that selling their books, and being on Oprah etc. actually does contribute greatly. The more people are interested in tinyhouses the more public support there is. It is also not easy to do, as there is inherent antipathy towards tinyhouses that takes some real work and time to find ways to overcome.

    But I am not just talking about the visible figures or whoever, it is people who have a financial interest in tinyhouses that have the opportunity to play the organizer role, so that would include e.g. turtleshell homes or whoever.


    March 9, 2011 at 09:49

  4. No, no. I thought I remembered you from putting up a post that I found to be passionate but you (or the author if it is not you) apologized for for being a rant. It was a great post and I responded to affirm the thoughts of the author. I felt like it was you. My apologies.

    Cream skimming is a great term. I am all for opportunities. But I also believe greatly in investing into the pool from which you receive. Just because you sold a book or on Oprah doesn’t mean you are (or aren’t) progressing a topic. If I had a nickel for everytime someone refers synonymously to tiny houses and a tumbleweed house, I would be rich.

    I have no financial interest. I can’t make a blueprint to save my life. My blog is 100% free. The sidebar advertisers are my friends who gave me a button to display and the content is copyright-free. I have a big mouth though and I can work the social media boards. That is how I can contribute. I would be happy to work with others getting legislation passed towards tiny houses.


    March 9, 2011 at 10:24

  5. “But there is plenty of room, and need, to work out the issues of how to change the laws, which might include figuring out why they are they way they are in the first place, for example.”

    I think this is the key place to start. I’m assuming your focus is on making tiny houses legal in the city. (I’ve had an interest in tiny houses but I own a 250acre forest which is zoned rural and would have no issue placing a tiny house there, so some of the issues which you raise are ones I hadn’t thought much about).

    The other assumption, I think, is that you when say tiny house, you mean a tiny house on wheels?

    So, then the question is what is the reason why mobile homes ( as you said perhaps somewhere else, this by all accounts fits the mobile home definition) are not allowed in the city? and is it that they cannot share a lot? be on their own lot? is it because they are not considered permanent structures? are they disallowed because of a bias of wealthy vs perceived poorer people or constructions? is it the threat to the real estate values of the neighbours.

    You cannot start to change the law unless you know some of its history and the concerns which they addressed.

    I don’t know if you can start a national campaign for tiny houses, more likely things will change neighbourhood by neighbourhood as values and perceptions change. Having oil prices shoot through the roof might not hurt either, as I suspect the relative ease of commuting has shaped many cities and therefore the zoning laws and bylaws.

    My guess why the press is enamored with tiny houses is that, in this age of recession and hardship, it’s a good story.

    Personally, I’ve always thought that tiny houses has limited appeal. It’s an extreme reaction to large homes and the norm might tend towards something in the middle. A smaller home with more permanent settings. Why do tiny houses have wheels anyway? simply to skirt the law? but the wheels may be its undoing because it immediately gets classed with a lower class form of housing, the mobile home. So, it satisfies no one but a small set of hip singles.

    In any case changing laws will come when either the existing laws seem ridiculous and outdated or there is strong support and desire for something different.

    I suspect oil prices will cause zoning to be seriously rethought and the continued chipping away at the wealth of the middle class will cause a downsizing revolution ( it’s already happening). The happy medium may be somewhere in the middle. Smaller lots, smaller houses, more acceptance of higher density, closer to downtown cores and more acceptance of alternatives. I suspect, though, that the wheels will have to go. I don’t want to live in a neighbourhood which embraces a a high degree of mobility. I want to create community with a lower cost of living and a smaller footprint. My guess is that these sentiments might gain some traction.

    It may turn out to work better if we work backwards. Capture the thing which people are passionate about and which they find missing in their lives and design around that. Tiny houses seem to provide only one solution and it’s not one size fits all. (Most tiny houses all look the same to me – surely there must be more creativity than that!)


    March 21, 2011 at 02:49

    • Good morning Steve. I read – with great interest – your comment and I am hoping to clear a few things up.

      You are so right on your key place to start. A number of zoning ordinances and laws are set up with expectancy. They are land provision laws and future land use laws that are enacted in an effort to promote business, development, and tourism. They are not necessarily put into place to respond to current needs. However, because many of these ordinances are up to a decade old they are considered “the grandfather norm” and no county commission is willing to change them IN CASE the development boom picks up again.

      When I say Tiny House I do mean a home built on a trailer chassis. Tiny House is kind of a nom de plume for trailer built small homes based on, of course, Tumbleweed Tiny Homes. Small homes built on permanent foundations are just, well, small homes. The mobile home/zoning issue comes about because of sewage, septic, and grid electricity. A mobile home in my municipality must sit permanently on a concrete pad and be hooked up to a septic and sewage system. There is NO allowance for anything like composting toilets or even “outhouses,” if you will. Because our Tiny House (on a trailer) design involved both composting in the bathroom as well as greywater leech/reuse systems and *gasp* solar power as opposed to grid electricity we were informed we are not a mobile home no matter how mobile our home is. The issue is not rural -vs- urban or poor -vs- rich as our county’s average income is $24k per house and more than 40% of our residents live in mobile (or modular) homes.

      I agree with you in that the movement will have to begin in towns, cities, and municipalities across the nation rather than at a national level. There just isn’t enough knowledge or demand at this time.

      You are somewhat right in that tiny houses are an extreme reaction to McMansions, if you will. They are built on trailer chassis so that they are, in fact, mobile. Our Tiny House construction is built on a 30ft. trailer but can be towed by a 1/2 ton pickup truck. My job is one wherein I transfer every two years. This is a perfect solution for us in that we have the customization of a home (as well as the comforting feel of a home as opposed to a camper) but that we can take with us rather than rent or buy/sell. There is no reason for us to skirt the law. That is done usually in the square footage, not the axles. We are hardly hip singles. In fact, we are an upper middle class couple with a baby on the way. We have no desire to bury ourselves in a mortgage and are quite happy living in the way we do.

      I hope the oil prices (as well as food prices) will cause rethought and a little more leverage in acceptable housing. Yes, downsizing is already happening but such movement is also leaving a large number of “big” homes sitting empty with for sale or for rent signs. I wouldn’t suspect the wheels have to go. Skirting may have to be put into place and “permanent” concrete pads may have to be enacted but the wheels don’t make it any less of a livable structure, methinks.

      You mention “close to downtown cores.” That is exactly why we live rurally as we do and our tiny house is part of a larger homestead for us. We grow much of our own food and purchase larger sources from other farmers/ranchers in our region. True acceptance comes with folks like you being able to cultivate smaller footprint communities as well as folks like me having the option to live on wheels or live on a concrete foundation.

      No house will EVER be “one size fits all” so that idea is probably NOT where to start, in my opinion. And while many do look the same there are a number of them out there (including ours) that look more like a home and less like a shack on wheels.


      March 21, 2011 at 08:38

      • Andrew, it does sound like you have already found a nice compromise and have made it work for you. If this is possible in other parts of the country, then the Tiny House ( I’m using capitals now to distinguish the wheeled kind) movement may not be a dead end and a legal dodging as Gregor suggests.

        I find the idea of a pad, skirting and service hookups to be quite acceptable. I believe the issue of wanting to have greywater systems, solar power and composting toilets is a common issue encompassing but also extending beyond the sphere of Tiny Houses. I live in a small town, much like yourself, in a small house and while I am obviously permanently hooked up to the power grid and water and sewage systems, this is certainly important in consideration of others who might come to live here who might not embrace ( just yet) living with fewer resources but I still collect water, practice some toilet composting and run my home office on solar. Having a hookup does not preclude you from having those practices necessarily, the hookup is really just a standard to be met for a site.

        Thanks for clarifying your situation. I think it’s quite encouraging!


        March 22, 2011 at 06:33

      • We have found a suitable compromise; yes. But honestly I want to keep moving forward to help others in this situation feel empowered by their situation while remaining legal. No good can come from a movement shrouded in illegalities.

        It may come to pass that we do put in a septic system or at least a buddy system. However, because we are on our own land I think that decision will be one we can make on our own and not be forced to adhere to. Our concrete pad will make a nice spot for us and (in the future, should we leave) and RV visitors or even a good pole barn or outbuilding for storage. Who knows? I agree with you. The hookup doesn’t mean you have to partake. The hookup is more of – or should be – more of a courtesy to the growth of your county.

        Thank you for following up. You are welcome to visit us on to find out about our adventure as it progresses!


        March 22, 2011 at 09:30

  6. Hey this is great. Why don’t you guys come to the Virtualtinyhouse conference this wednesday, 8 pm (just come to this blog after downloading Vsee and with a headset, might want to test it before you come)?

    You could talk about it by videoconferencing. Or in the Tiny house forum

    Steve, it has indeed occurred to me to try to find out why mobile homes are banned. You can read about the history of them. I have a post “the history and politics of issues around tinyhouses” or something like that that I think talks a bit about this.

    There are various vague “reasons” that mobile homes and other prefab buildings were banned soon after they became popular. My take is that it is essentially class warfare and tampering from the site built industry. Class warfare in particular is an extremely strong influence.


    March 21, 2011 at 12:51

    • Thanks for the invite. Unfortunately I am halfway around the world and 17 time zones away. Your conference falls in the middle of the workday for me ( on Thursday).

      Like Andrew says, I believe that town planners are in general looking for ways to make things work. They may never have seen a Tiny House and it may be naively lumped in with mobile homes because of the technicalities. This does not mean that Tiny Houses could eventually be treated differently and there may be a compromise solution ( like pads, skirts and hookups).

      I lived in Austria for some time and there they had these little plots set aside in the oddest of places, such as in the middle of industrial areas. They were essentially community gardens. The plots were leased and permanent structures could be built on them. They were all shedlike and each one was unique with lovely fences around the plot and beautiful veggie and flower gardens all around. They were beautiful to walk through and the locals used it as weekend getaways from their drab apartments. ( There was also a nice little pub nearby 🙂

      Class warfare perhaps, but we’ve also been lazy in rethinking how mobile home ‘parks’ or housing for different income levels could actually fit into the fabric of the local community, rather than being a means of segregation.

      Collaboration has always been a stronger force than competition.


      March 22, 2011 at 06:48

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    September 11, 2014 at 17:03

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