Towards a better tinyhouse

Inventing to freedom?

Examples of people living full time in tinyhouses and how the politics are going.

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What is the practical legality of tinyhouses in America and Canada? Especially in cities, especially yours.

Well, of course it varies greatly, but if we look at the relatively sympathetic cities, we can assume that all other cities are even worse, so that is useful. Some I know of are Vancouver (laneway housing), Seattle (“seattle cottage housing”) Portland, and Santa Cruz (search this blog) although I am sure they are not entirely alone, they are at near the extreme end. You can look them up/google them for details with the stuff in brackets.

I hesitated to post this sort of thing before because the details are of course the business of the people involved, but they are also tinyhouse enthusiasts, so hopefully they wouldn’t mind the speculating. Also, we need real world examples to get a realistic picture. Prefferably a lot more, but unfortunately there don’t seem to be very many, probably exactly because beaurocrats have a known tendency to send goons around and attack people who do it.

And secondly because a lot of people don’t share on a blog or anything. I have probably seen some rural ones but forgotten them because they are not too interesting to me, and if it is in the city it is probably for full time use, so that’s why these are…. also I don’t know of any in Canada. If anyone knows of more please post in the comments.

Jay Shafer apparently once found a place in an organic orchard somewhere in California, probably illegal, but AFAIK he never said that on his blog or elsewhere in the public sphere, so that is only rumor that I heard from someone who has met him, so it might be false or may not have lasted any length of time for some reason.

At other times he bought a home and used the backyard somewhere in California, which I saw him say in a video presentation. Apparently somewhere on the edge of a city or in a rural area, because IIRC from the picture it was a pretty big lot. It is not clear if that was legal. He did move away from it apparently, so maybe that was due to political attack. If it was legal, why could he not find a willing homeowner to rent a spot in the backyard from instead, which would be a lot easier and probably cheaper than buying a house? So presumably it was not. These are all wheeled tinyhouses, too, which shows that while wheeled helps with dodging the enforcement of the law, there does not in fact seem to be a loophole that allows wheeled tinyhouses in residential areas. Sure in some cases you could maybe use a trailer park, but that is not the same thing now is it, and it’s not a loophole.

(living in a “mobile home” -which in the Ottawa bylaw is defined as a wheeled building meant for permanent habitation, and I expect it is the same idea in other cities since a mobile home is a mobile home- in the city is almost never allowed outside a trailer park. There was a fight about this way back in the early days of mobile homes and cities have essentially universally banned them, but they were prevented by the constitution in the US from being excluded entirely from cities, hence the trailer parks. Canada does not seem to have this as far as I can tell, which might explain why there seems to be only one or two small parks in Ottawa for permanent habitation. Living in an RV full time outside a trailer park is prohibited directly in Ottawa, and it is prohibiting it from being connected to water supply/sewage, and from what I have read this is the case pretty much everywhere else too. There are some small number of examples of people who try it, to be found on RVer Fulltimer forums, and they say it is illegal. They usually are forced to move repeatedly after a few months at most when someone reports it, of course the length of time varies, and it is hard to find a place to rent. Still interesting to see how it goes from a practical standpoint.)

Dee Williams (portland alternative dwellings) is an example that everyone knows, she lives in Portland in the city limits in a backyard in a highly attractive tinyhouse with landscaping, has been on Oprah and is apparently adept at engaging in local politics. And she still has to make due with a “truce” with the city, claiming she is “recreating”. This appears to not be because she won in court or it is a loophole per se, but rather through local political pressure e.g she managed to make it so it would be bad publicity for them to attack etc. There is no plumbing, it is not clear if this is because she is not allowed to have any, but I would bet this is the case. She was also lucky enough to have a freind who was willing to let her use their backyard, in the face of political pressure most likely, as it is the property owner that would get attacked for Doing Something Satanic And Therefore Deserving Punishment In The Harshest Manner Possible.

Tammy Strobel (rowdy kittens) is also in Portland using a tinyhouse apparently in the city, but as far as I have been able to tell from searching her blog, is taking the hide-and-cross-your-fingers approach, and chooses not to make the details available.

Elizabeth Turnbull (google) example, I came across a comment on metafilter linking to the minutes of the city hall meetings on the city website where her lawyer sought a variance to allow the tinyhouse. It was rejected out of hand. She was also prohibited by the city from having plumbing, instead being pettily forced to use the bathroom and kitchen in the main house. This is a project with very favorable media attention, superb green-cred, a willing friend with a backyard, and a high-status person, a grad student at yale, probably with a bit of leverage with the local politics though the university.

Mobile cottage (google) folks have not updated their blog since moving to Seattle, where they take the hide-and-hope approach (I’m tempted to say cower and snivel approach but I would not want to imply any thing about them, rather the point being the degrading nature of being required to hide). Seattle has the cottage housing thing, but those are >$70,000 stationary guest houses (probably not allowed to be prefab), it does not permit economical tinyhouses, or tinyhouses on a trailer. They had the advantage of a fairly popular blog to find a willing individual to rent them a backyard, but otherwise nothing AFAIK. But we don’t know what has actually happened, now do we, if they have been reported, or how stressful it is to hide all the time or how having the threat of being kicked out of their home or forced to find another backyard (when they no longer have any blog readers to advertise to) on short notice has been.

Mobile Condo (google) people, are apparently living in a rented area just at the edge of a city (Detroit?), illegally, results not really known but apparently not too bad, blog may be abandoned, no posts for a couple months, but maybe not.

Also, people like to announce their victories, not their defeats or problems. ET for example chose not to mention the defeat at city council. If any of these people were or have been attacked by beaurocrats, most would probably say nothing and you might erroneously conclude that they lived happily ever after.
For none of these examples do we know what happens when, not if, someone complains or the city changes it’s mind and decides to enforce the law when no one is looking, or administration changes, etc….

This also affects financing, making it a lot harder or impossible.

Basically Santa Cruz does not allow tinyhouses at a price of less than IIRC ~$80k, or on more than a couple percent of lots in the city, or wheeled ones, or prefab ones. Seattle similar deal except IIRC something like 30% of lots are okay. Portland does not technically allow them at all apparently, but was lax with enforcement, see examples below.

Vancouver price is not allowed to be less than ~$200,000, apparently the typical one that meets requirements is ~$350k! And that has nothing to do with the price of land remember. The owner is converting a garage, they own the land aready. And when I quote the prices that is a result of taxes (permit fees are taxes), regulatory burdens like minimum sizes etc. We all know you can have built for you a very nice looking, safe, comfortable but small, stationary tinyhouse for ~$25k in actual construction costs, and probably less than $5k yourself for a basic model.

Now there are some areas where you can build tinyhouses legally, but one, any cities, and what fraction of cities. Two, how can you figure out your city’s rules and get an accurate answer you can rely on, which I have written a bit about before elsewhere, so if you are interested try the search function (“meeting minutes”?). Although frankly as I am saying, you can really just assume that it is not allowed because despite the optimistic noises some people make, the evidence seems to indicate that it is not legally permitted essentially in any city in the US or Canada.

There is only one city in the US that has no zoning, Houston (BTW 50% of housing cost is directly attributable to zoning , and this is evident in Houston, where housing is a lot cheaper for the exact same housing. I really wonder what would happen if you took the say 20% most reasonable parts of zoning and left the rest, how much the cost would be upped then), but they have other laws about land use, and covenants, so I would not be surprised if tinyhouses ended up being prohibited anyway. There is also the book “no building codes” that lists areas with no building codes but the problem extends well past building codes.

Building codes are not laws, they are guidelines for builders and the design of buildings which are sometimes used during the permiting process to base decisions on etc. Something can easily meet code and still be prohibited by zoning or other means – prefab housing is an obvious example, even though it can provide the same quality housing for 30% less cost. BTW the building codes are usually based on model codes, then modified, including the International building Code, which to his credit Jay Schafer tried to change to reduce the min sq footage.

But again they are modified to fit local politics, so IMO the local politics still seem like the limiting factor, except that beaurocrats are wont to not think, so maybe if you just did like a lobbyist, and got the codes changed, handed it to them, and waved your hand just right… .Still, we do not know why exactly tinyhouses are banned in the first place, the facts are pretty much in their favor as being beneficial to the electorate, so either it is lack of understanding and stigma etc. and/or plutocratic influence. The sound isolation between apartments, for instance was reduced greatly in the Ontario building code from the IBC 55 STC down to 42 (which is a lot) due to plutocratic hanky panky, and then they gutted the enforcement provisions to squirm out of even that, which if they could not have done they would have reduced it even further. So now hundreds of thousands of people have to suffer from noise problems, and since they do not understand soundproofing they just blame their neighbors and/or suffer the health effects.

Actually I live in a building right now that was not built to code at the time of construction in fundamental ways, although that might be because they are a corporation and therefore get an exemption to the laws… hm I don’t know how that goes. Anyway just because an area has no building codes does not mean tinyhouses are allowed, although I have not read the book and the author may be implying that there is a correlation there, he is also apparently talking more about container homes, which I would think are probably more readily accepted since they are normal size and cost, and have some real conspicuous consumption oomph (and by that I mean no detriment to the homes, just to the beaurocrats that make decisions based on those things) etc.

Of course it varies a lot by region, but the result is still the same, almost all cities ban tinyhouses of all sorts, especially reasonably priced ones.

For an example of how it varies, you can often legally build a small studio in a backyard. The obvious thing to do is to claim a tinyhouse is for work, and then just roll your eyes and ignore the beauros’ presumptious assholery in telling you where you may and may not sleep. Municipalities try to prevent this by various means, by saying such a building or trailer cannot be “inhabited” or “occupied”. Still, then people might try to go under the radar. So they usually insert a practical barrier, which they of course view as a legitimate aid to enforcement, for example by preventing you from installing plumbing, electricity or both. I have read that instead, sometimes they instead say that you cannot have a kitchen or bathroom. They may choose to do it directly by saying no such building can have e.g. plumbing, or through a permitting process that is not possible to complete because your lot size has to be a minimum of 40,000 sq feet to get a permit, you have to buy the permit at extortionistic prices, or whatever.

And yes, you can try to finagle around those rules by making do without e.g. electricity, but the point is that is it is still enough to make it impractical for almost anyone.


Written by gregor

March 12, 2011 at 05:32

Posted in Uncategorized

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