Tiny Houses Are Becoming a Big Deal

Very small homes can provide big opportunities for people of all ages — and the cities, towns and rural communities where they live

4. The Economy and Development

Tiny homes can make use of unused land that can’t be zoned for regular buildings or homes. Chmael says he’s frequently approached by cities and communities that are looking for possible solutions to abandoned city lots. 

"Typically, cities tear down structures, clean up the spaces, then offer tax breaks to developers, who then reestablish communities," he says. "But this tends to be socially displacing. Maybe these structures offer another way to address urban challenges. Tiny homes don't require massive investment."

Although tiny houses have all the basics — heat, electricity, water, a kitchen — they typically don’t have the luxuries many now consider to be standard home appliances, such as a washer and dryer, dishwasher, a full-sized stove and refrigerator-freezer. However, because they don't have such appliances, tiny house residents will seek out the services of local businesses.

Teeny Tiny Houses

Many tiny homes (including this one in Washington, D.C.) have wheels and can travel. — Photo by Melissa Stanton

Since tiny homes don’t have a lot of room for extended food storage, residents are more likely to consume what they buy soon after they buy it, so fresh foods (such as from a farmer's market) are especially useful — and healthier, too.

Since the homes rarely have washer-dryers, local Laundromats are used or laundry service providers are hired. The community benefits by having existing infrastructure (the Laundromat) used and jobs created (such as laundry pickup and delivery services). Over time the laundry costs to the tiny house resident could be the same or less than that of buying a washer-dryer and paying for the water, gas or electricity and detergents.

5. Zoning Law Benefits and Blockades  

Since tiny houses aren’t permanently installed to a site, they typically don’t require building permits and are often treated by law as a type of recreational vehicle. As such, in many communities a tiny house owner could place their structure in the yard or on the grounds of a property they already own or rent, or that of a friend or relative. Campsite and RV parks are also location options.

Brian Levy, founder of Minim Homes, a firm that assists people who want to build micro homes, parked his own 210-square-foot tiny house — which sits on a trailer and was built for around $30,000 — in a vacant lot he bought in Washington, D.C. The space, which serves as a tiny house showcase, has room for multiple tiny houses and features a common fenced-in area with a vegetable garden, fire pit and outdoor dining area.

Tiny house owner Lee Pera has organized community-building activities for the once-neglected space and leads tiny house design workshops. "Integrating places to live into an already existing community, and not isolating them," Pera says, could be valuable option for older citizens. "We're definitely seeing the interest" in the sold-out workshops she helps organize.

However, due to local zoning laws, the tiny house owners in D.C. can't permanently reside on the lot. (All have residences elsewhere.) The lack of standard zoning for such structures can be a conundrum for communities, many of which don’t allow RVs to camp on city lots or even private spaces.

"Also, it's hard to convince cities to give up tax money," says Mitchell, who’s written a book, Cracking the Code: A Guide to Building Codes & Zoning for Tiny Houses. "Building codes are set up in a certain way, and tiny homes often don’t fit into any one box." Mitchell believes that it’s only a matter of time before municipal governments are forced to figure out what to do with tiny-sized homes.

Next page: Tiny pros and cons. »

Published January 2015

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