Why Tiny Houses Aren’t the Best Homeless Housing (IMO)

July 22, 2014 § 13 Comments

This is going to be a whole string of opinions and you may not like me as much at the end.  I’m okay with that, I think these are thoughts that need to be aired.  This is in regards to tiny houses on wheels.

There is a system to integrating codes.  There are categories.  There are ways in and there are ways out.  I am worried about one of the methods being used to get tiny houses legalized.  That is as a solution to homelessness.  There are a few reasons this makes me nervous, the first being that tiny houses are not the best answer for this.  They are not ‘cheap housing’.  Tiny houses are really for the middle class.  Even if you build it yourself on any sort of a reasonable timeline they will run you about $25,000 (yes you can do it cheaper as per the example of my house @ ~$11,500, it extends your timeline).  Say you have a 150 s.f. house at 25K, that is 166 dollars a square foot.  That is astronomical!  That is almost 100 dollars a square foot more than the average in this country right now (census), and that is a very cheap tiny house!  Aside from that it wouldn’t be smart growth, it would be poding together a bunch of tiny houses, not the most efficient model.

The best way to use tiny houses in a city is [in my opinion] is as a series of infill homes, aka increasing densities by adding another structure to an existing home lot.  Similar to the example being set in parts of Portland. To increase density, not decrease homelessness.  To decrease homelessness is a noble cause and should be sought but I am leery of developments wanting to use a tiny house model as a solution, I fear it may have negative consequences on the tiny house community as a whole.

To address homeless housing I believe the solution is building up (vertical), not out.  We currently do this with many examples across the country such as the apartment building model.  The shared walls are a cost savings.   Not only that, you can take a one acre lot zoned R-40 lets say, on that lot you could legally park 40 tiny houses but logistically maybe only 25-30 could fit.  You can take that same lot and feasibly build ten two-story fourplexes capitalizing on the entire lot and provide MORE housing than tiny houses would allow.  My bet is it would be much more cost effective too to provide those ten fourplexes than 25 tiny houses.  You are doing more with less money an providing a solution to more people, it’s far more efficient.

(Side note) To me, shipping containers seem to make much more sense, there are a lot of people out there trying to make apartment complexes out of shipping containers, homes can be built off site and shipped, making them cost effective, the best part is that they can be easily stacked and use less space, similar to this:

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They can be attractive, they can be durable, they can be made inexpensively, they can be stacked and they can work.  Tiny houses don’t fit the bill as well [in my opinion], I digress.

Furthermore, I feel we are doing tiny houses a disservice to call them ‘homeless housing’.  I don’t like that it does, but calling them homeless housing DOES put a bit of a stigma to a tiny house.  They are thought to be ‘less’ than ‘normal housing’.  The fact is that they take money to construct, either in dollars or in time and location costs.  If you are paying for one to be constructed they won’t be as cheap as the ones you see online a good portion of the time.  My house is a great example, I paid $11,416.16 cents to build my house.  I spend A LOT of time finding and conditioning reused materials.  If I had to buy things new it would have cost about 22-25k I estimate.  I have family with land i could build on, i didnt need to rent that space. They also had tools to use that i didn’t need to purchase and store. If I were to hire it built it would have cost 50-55k I estimate.  That gets less and less feasible and wise (I am sure that that is the reason this is largely a DIY movement).  Tiny houses are another option for the middle class and not the best solution to low income or ‘homeless housing’.  But calling them low income housing makes them less appealing to some who could greatly benefit from them.

On that same note and perhaps the most scary part for me, we would be doing tiny houses a disservice to get them legalized as ‘homeless housing’.  Codes would then be making exceptions to legalize in a specific category (similar to section 9 housing).  Tiny houses would only become feasible if you are homeless or financially strapped, putting tiny houses out of reach for the standard person.  Personally I want to live in a tiny house and still be able to make decent money, if they were legalized as low income/homeless housing I would not be able to.  I fear that we are going to get them legalized that way and, without knowing it, put them into a category that is out of reach for many people.

IF they were going to need to be categorized under any special category I would much rather see them come in as 55+ housing.   They make much more sense in THAT category (to me).  They can be paid for by the sale of a larger, family home.  They can enable seniors to stay independent.  They are very fitting of empty nesters and singles.  Retirees are a good portion of the audience who are interested.  They would be a solution to get people out of feeling the need for a reverse mortgage (which I have a personal vendetta against).  They offer a much needed alternative to standard retirement communities and enable people to truly enjoy their ‘golden years’.  With the state of the nation it is doubtful the retirees in the future are going into retirement with much of a savings or pension, tiny houses offer a solution to all of that.   I would MUCH rather see that code ‘category’ pursued.  It may not seem as ‘noble’ but it makes SO much more sense in my opinion.

I DO like the models which are being built by homeless individuals as a way to give them a skill, enabling them to then get employed but I also believe that that model can be applied to other, more logical types of housing.

In conclusion, I feel that tiny houses are a luxury of the middle/upper class, I feel there are better solutions to cure homelessness, I am fearful that tiny houses will be put into the category of ‘low income housing’, putting them out of reach for the average person.

I know that there are going to be differing opinions on this and I would LOVE for you to state your opinion below in the comments!

And… just some quotes I liked:

 

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Where Can You Park A Tiny House?

June 25, 2014 § 12 Comments

Parking

This is probably the most common question I get, “Where can you park a tiny house?”.  I have no idea why I haven’t just done a post on this, I’ve answered it individually at least 300 times… So, here is the answer:

You can park it almost anywhere it will fit for at least a little while (ha! not helpful, huh? :)).  Parking and living in a tiny house… Legally… very few places (so far).  The answer to this is pretty much ‘parts of Portland’ as an accessory dwelling unit to another structure only.  I have heard from Portland folks though that this is even a blurry line, some say it’s still taboo some say they live tiny and have gone through the process of making their tiny ‘legal’.

Where to live is the one major sticking point (understandably) that prevents a lot of people from choosing tiny.  It is a big investment to take for limited security.  This is the ‘grey area’ that you hear a lot of tiny housers having to make themselves comfortable with in order to live the lifestyle.  My feelings are that, in order to effect change, you have to have pressure and a wave of people pushing in order to change feelings/zoning, that is the reason I felt comfortable building even with this grey zone.  I am willing to have that discussion with officials to try to shift the paradigm if/when it comes up (I think it is coming up very soon all across the country, Vina even had 30 planners over to her house just the other day in California!).

This is Vina's picture, hopefully she doesn't mind me using it (I'll take it down if you like Vina!)

This is Vina’s picture from her event with various planers at her house, proof that very important conversations are in fact taking place, hopefully she doesn’t mind me using the image, I just think it’s great! (I’ll take it down if you like Vina!)

Legalities…

So, here is how tiny houses are viewed by the legal entities:  There is currently no ‘tiny house’ classification as codes/zoning see it (I would like that to change), generally they are classified as an RV or mobile home (though you can get them classified as other things depending on location.  I’ve heard of them being classified as a ‘neatly stacked load’ on a utility trailer, or as a semi trailer, neither of which are able to be occupied legally at any time and require different registration/permitting fees).  MOST tiny houses are classified as RV’s (mine included).  Because they are on wheels the building department doesn’t touch them in any location that I’ve heard of so far.  Licensing and registration happen through the transportation department (I personally wish there was some sort of structural analysis required, I have seen far too many sub-par construction techniques used in some tiny houses that I hope I never find myself behind on a freeway…).

Mobile Home: If you are registered as a mobile home you can live fulltime in a mobile home park legally or in any zone that allows mobile homes (a lot of downtown districts surprisingly are not anti mobile home).  The caveat here is that sometimes the mobile home parks require that the home be built by a licensed manufacturer for safety reasons (understandable), not always but sometimes.  That is a sticky point if you are a DIY tiny houser.  If this is the path that makes sense for you I would encourage you to have the conversation with potential locations prior to starting construction.  This option typically has higher registration and permitting fees (as well as taxation).

RV: If you are registered as an RV then you are legally allowed to live in RV parks.  The same rule above applies here though, a lot of RV parks require you to have a ‘current RV’ manufactured by a certified manufacturer (a lot of tiny house builders are getting licenced to be recognised as ‘certified manufacturers’).   If this is the route you are going and you are having someone else build your tiny home ask them if they are certified.   If you are a DIY it probably isn’t feasible for you to get that certification on your own.

Other Options: The ‘neatly stacked load’ and semi trailers don’t ‘legally’ allow for occupancy no matter where they are.

OK, so you want to live in a tiny house but NOT in a mobile home park or RV park, what are the next options?  ..The ‘Grey Area’…

Well, you now fall into the ‘grey area’.  You are at risk of being told you can’t live somewhere.  In which case, you may be glad your house has wheels… :) What a good portion of people do is find a location, move there and take the risk that you may be asked to leave.  It does happen… but not that often from what I have heard from others.  In a lot of cases neighbors think it’s cool.  In some, they don’t.  My best advice is, once you find a place, before going through all of the effort of moving your house, knock on doors.  Ask the neighbors if they have any qualms with a tiny house neighbor.   If they do then look for a different place, that is their right.  It is their neighborhood too, and more so because they can’t just move… like you will likely be able to.   It is best to inform everyone PRIOR to getting to invested.  The fact is that most of the laws prohibiting RVs to be lived in full time (most places have time limits on that, here it is 30 days) in zones other than RV parks are only enforced if reported/complained about.  If you’re a good neighbor you will likely have no issues.  Sure there are ways you can get around that… spend the night at a friends house once a month (or however often your time limit is), move forward 10 feet, register as a mobile home rather than an RV etc. but if the neighbors are complaining then it is probably a hostile situation that you don’t want to be in the middle of, you are backing them into a corner and not being a good neighbor = not good for anyone.  The best thing to do is chat with them beforehand to get their feelings on it.  You may be surprised, a lot of people think it’s great!  You’ll never know if you don’t ask though…

Ok, so how do you go about finding a place and what are the options? 

  • My favorite option would be to purchase an existing house, one with a large enough yard to park your tiny.  Then, rent out the house to cover that mortgage and live rent free!  I do understand many people get into this as a way to NOT get a mortgage but that is one way to use debt as a tool to propel your own finances forward.  So long as you found a place with the right set-up and the ability to rent it out for more than the mortgage payments would be… buying a piece of property also offers a couple other benefits, first being camouflage.  Plain and simple, the right house will hide a tiny house well.  Second, you MAY be able to take it up with the city to have your tiny house recognized as an ADU if necessary (see above linked info if needed, if this comes up it’s good to site other cities as a reference).
  • You can put an ad on Craigslist looking for a place (or look for ads with RV parking).  You’ll want to be specific about what hook-ups you’ll need.  Keep this in mind in your build too, having some hook-ups may limit the places you’ll be able to park.  having a 30 or 50 amp plug for example is not as easy to find as having two 15 amp (standard outlet) plugs.  My house is wired with two separate 15 amp plugs for this reason.  Also having a clean-out required (for a flush toilet for instance) is not as easy to find either.  It can be done but it will be more limiting.
  • Go to TinyHouseParking.com, look for places in the area you want to live.  This is a new-ish site and it is very hard to engage non-tiny house people who may have property but don’t necessarily know that they could make some extra bucks a month by leasing it out… for this reason, TELL PEOPLE ABOUT THIS SITE.  There are lots of interested parties that may have the land, like tiny houses but have no intention of downsizing themselves.  You may have a mother/aunt/uncle/friend who lives alone, struggles to pay bills, faces foreclosure etc. (in your state or not) and an extra $300 a month and/or someone near to them who can check in on them would mean a lot… those people need to find this site.  There is no shortage of tiny housers looking for land all across the country who will gladly rent it for cash and/or in exchange for chores. There is a disconnect in finding the property owners that would happily rent the land to them… check this site often for updates and share, share, share!
  • Stacey started Tiny House Hosting (TELL PEOPLE ABOUT THIS SITE) on Facebook for the same purpose, matching tiny housers with hosts.  For all the same reasons above share this site if you know someone that may be interested in hosting a tiny house and making some cash.  It is important to note that in both the Tiny House Parking and the Tiny House Hosting sites the hoster is under no obligation to provide anything extra.  Generally the tiny houser provides monitoring of their own utilities and reimburses that (it is mucho convenient if the hoster has that already though) or utilities can be set at a flat rate, whatever works best for the parties involved.  If the house becomes unwelcome via the host or any neighbors they may still be asked to leave at no risk/expense of the hoster, it’s just one of the risks that the tiny houser takes on when living in the ‘grey area’.  It is a situation that could be mutually beneficial, the hardest part is getting word out to the property owners that they may be able to pull in some rent.
  • You can of course buy your own bare property as well.  It is important to note that you may still be asked to leave your own property even though you own it if it is not zoned for an RV/mobile home… it is a risk.  It is MUCH less likely to occur in a rural area which is why you see a lot of rural tiny houses.  In this article you can also see that the city of Brainerd okayed small houses (their minimum is 500 s.f.) on foundations.  These have to be located on sub-standard lots and on foundations but this could be a very good situation for some.  I will be keeping an eye on this for sure but this will most likely set a precedence which others cities will/could use to do similar things.
  • What I was planning on doing prior to finding my current location is to simply knock on doors in the location where I wanted to live.  Because people don’t know much about tiny houses they don’t generally know about the opportunity to make some side income.  Tell people about your project, ask if it would be appealing to make some extra money and host your tiny house.  Make sure they know their rights, they know the risks (and that they know that you know the risks), ask how much they would want (and have an idea how much you want to pay).  You can help by having an image of your house or something similar to what your house would look like.  A good place to start (this is not meant to sound horrible, I realize it might) is with the elderly.  In my experience they are the least judgemental about going with a tiny house because houses used to be tiny, it isn’t foreign to them as often.  Not only that, in a lot of cases they may not live near family and would be comforted knowing someone was near if they needed help… this can build community, you can offer them services they may not otherwise have AND help them with expenses (bypass a reverse mortgage which I HATE the practice of…but that’s a different story).  It seems like the ultimate mutually beneficial situation.
  • Also… You can find a place to build your house via these same methods if you don’t have access to one…

It’s important to note that codes/zoning/laws vary a lot by location, these are just the general rules.  I have heard that Michigan is one of the hardest states to live tiny in while Oregon/Washington seem to be among the easiest… If you do choose to live in the grey zone, in my experience it’s the first month that’s the hardest.  Even if you do all your homework, meet all the neighbors, it stinks wondering if anyone will up and change their mind and decide that they don’t want you there.  In all likelihood things will be just fine though, especially if you’ve prepped for it!  And if you have to move, well then you have to move… I have also experienced the fact that finding a place to live isn’t nearly as hard and daunting as it first seems, there are a lot of opportunities out there if you look for them! (and they get easier as you get closer to the end!)

Again, this is my urging for those reading who know others…if you know someone with property and no aversion to tiny houses, maybe a willingness to make a couple/few extra hundred bucks a month share these two sites with them, TinyHouseParking and TinyHouseHosting there may just be a mutually beneficial relationship to be gained!

My goodness that was a long post, hopefully it helped clear things up, if not it probably muddied them up even further!  Fortunately Ryan wrote a great book on Tiny House Codes that can explain things further!  With that though I will end it.  I want to ask if I missed some options, let me know in the comments if you had/have other plans that you’ll be using or have used to find a location for your tiny house.  Also, if there are any questions I am happy to help track down answers!  All the best!

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