By Karina Ioffee
East Bay Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The tiny house movement where floor boards double as closets and kitchens morph into living rooms, is picking up steam. However, it may time sometime before lawmakers catch up with how to handle the influx of tiny home enthusiasts. Is a tiny home a residence or and RV and where can you “park”it?
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Those are questions communities will have to grapple with as zoning and square footage issues start to bubble up.
SAN BRUNO, Calif.
Tired of watching their earnings evaporate every month to cover rent and other basics, Aaron Castle and his fiancee, Candace Anderson, made a decision to go tiny.
They downsized their closets and got rid of many other possessions and today live in a 139-square-foot cedar shingle cottage on wheels that they built. The dwelling is smaller than a two-car garage but has everything they need: a kitchen with a three-burner range and stove, a bathtub, bathroom with a compostable toilet and an upstairs loft that’s big enough to fit a king-size bed.
But when it came time to find a spot to park their little abode, the couple quickly ran into problems. City inspectors in Redwood City, Calif., where they initially set up, told them they could not live in an RV, which is what they classified the home, while parked in a residential neighborhood. They were then cited for blocking a view and then for causing a public nuisance. They are now parked in the backyard of a church in San Bruno but are trying to keep a low profile.
“Tiny houses are a new idea, and it’s going to be a couple of years before the bureaucracy makes space for it,” said Castle, who is 38 and makes a living as a handyman. “It takes awhile for people to learn.”
For a growing number of Bay Area residents, the American dream is no longer a four-bedroom home in the suburbs but a tiny house where floor boards double as closets, the kitchen morphs into the living room and where every square inch has function.
The owners say the homes offer a way to save money in the Bay Area’s exorbitant housing market, as well as a chance to travel (if the home has wheels) and leave a smaller carbon footprint.
But cities have been slow to address these Lilliputian dwellings, creating a patchwork system that can quickly become a massive headache for anyone looking to build one. Then there is the challenge of finding a suitable location for a tiny house, since most cities require residential dwellings to be at least 350 square feet.
In San Bruno, where Castle and Anderson live, mobile homes can only be inhabited if they are located on the same parcel as a detached single-family home and are at least 320 square feet and 40 feet long, restrictions the couple’s home does not meet. The city does not have an RV park.
“The biggest hurdle is finding a place to put the tiny house because most zoning doesn’t allow for a tiny house on wheels, either on its own land or in someone’s backyard,” said Elaine Walker, co-founder of the American Tiny House Association, a clearinghouse of information about tiny houses. “Are they an RV? Are they a home? Most cities have not yet addressed the issue.”
Many tiny house enthusiasts prefer homes on wheels because they can be moved. But most Bay Area cities ban tiny houses on wheels in backyards unless the person living in them works as a caretaker for someone on the property or is cared for by someone living in the main house. And RV parks often won’t allow them unless they can meet appropriate length, width and electrical and plumbing requirements, which can add thousands of dollars to the home’s cost.
Nevertheless, municipalities are slowly becoming more receptive to the idea, said Tiny House Association’s Walker. But local governments can do more by eliminating square-footage requirements and creating special zones where tiny house communities can set up, as has recently been done in Rockledge, Florida, Walker said.
“This movement is about individuality, self-expression and creativity, but the biggest obstacle is governments’ perception of what density housing can look like,” said Keri Gailloux, a San Francisco resident and a member of a group trying to form an eco-village of tiny homes in the North Bay. “It doesn’t have to be a block of apartments but something interesting where people work in community and have a sharing environment.”
When Heather Stewart and her business partner, Luke Iseman, approached the city of Oakland with their plans to build a tiny house village out of cargo containers, they were shocked that the city wanted around $3,000 for just the permits.
Today, the business partners operate their village inside an Oakland, Calif., warehouse and get around city prohibitions by calling their project a “24-hour maker space,” although it’s technically in violation of city zoning ordinances.
“The city has been hesitant to look beyond condos to solve the demand for housing,” Stewart said.
Rachel Flynn, Oakland’s director of planning and building, said the city shut down the tiny house village out of safety concerns and because the dwellings didn’t meet minimum standards, which require secondary dwelling units to be at least 170 square feet and not have wheels.
“We’re not against innovative thinking and do consider green solutions, but we need to make sure no one gets hurt or sick,” Flynn said.
Some Bay Area cities are also looking into tiny houses as a solution to homelessness, through opportunity villages consisting of tiny homes where people can have access to private sleeping quarters along with a communal area for showers and bathrooms.
San Jose has identified suitable parcels of land for such a purpose. But it has also seen a backlash from residents who said they support the idea but not in their neighborhoods, a problem that has also surfaced in Oakland.
Regardless of the challenges, the trend toward tiny houses shows no signs of abating.
“It gives us the opportunity to live without the stress of paying a mortgage but owning something,” said Robert Smith, 23, who is building a 300-square-foot home he plans to put on a friend’s property in Livermore. “This way, we don’t have to worry about the government ever taking it away.”
Despite having to repeatedly pick up and relocate since building their home, Castle and Anderson, the San Bruno couple, who blog about tiny living at canander.com, say not paying rent or a mortgage has freed them to spend more time volunteering, reading and hanging out with family and friends. And they are saving, something they haven’t been able to do in a long time.
“It’s the first time in awhile that I’ve had some extra money in my wallet,” Castle said.
The American Tiny House Association, americantinyhouseassociation.org, offers many resources, including building plans and information on zoning.
East Bay Tiny House Enthusiasts Meetup, www.meetup.com/tinyhousebuildeastbay, hosts workshops and other networking events.
Other recommended sites: tinyhousetalk.com and tinyhousefaqs.com