Tiny house owners across the country are facing the struggles of zoning ordinances that exclude tiny homes.
Zoning differs from state to state and even from community to community, so tiny house owners need to work with their local governments to pass tiny house-friendly ordinances if they don’t exist.
Brianna O’Brien said she was forced to move out of her tiny house after she parked it on her parents’ property in New Hampshire and the zoning board told her it wasn’t allowed.
To avoid eviction, another owner, Tina, told Insider she lived under the radar in her tiny house for two years in Pennsylvania, which caused her a great deal of stress.
“There is nobody that is satisfied with the grey area that these homes fit under. Not the clients, not the builders, not the government,” said Zack Giffin, host of “Tiny House Nation.”
After graduating from college, Brianna O’Brien decided to move back to her hometown of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, but she couldn’t afford a house of her own.
“I was looking at apartments and other spaces to live in the area and everything was so expensive, and I had just started a job,” O’Brien said. “All the pieces aligned for me to start looking into tiny houses.”
While looking through Facebook Marketplace, she found the “perfect” tiny house built with refurbished and salvaged wood. Using a low-payment loan, she purchased the home for $29,000 in September 2018 and quickly figured the best place to park the house was on her parents’ property.
But six months later, she got a letter from the local building inspector, explaining that her tiny house violated local zoning laws. Even though her parents owned the property on which it was parked, O’Brien learned she couldn’t live in her tiny house full-time. After a long battle with the local zoning board, O’Brien was forced to move out.
Like O’Brien, many tiny house owners across the country are facing the struggles of zoning laws that exclude tiny houses, and owners are being evicted, forced into RV parks, or compelled to live under the radar.
Owning a tiny house isn’t as simple as parking it on somebody’s property
After purchasing her tiny house, O’Brien initially wanted to work with the local government to get it legalized but her research advised her otherwise.
“I did a lot of crowdsourcing for advice and the majority of folks who live in tiny houses on wheels recommend keeping it as under the radar as possible because the red tape is so difficult,” she said.
She didn’t think anyone would even notice the tiny home on her parents’ land: “It was in a little nook on the side of the property … It was so hidden in the bushes.”
Still, her tiny house was brought to the local building inspector’s attention when a neighbor spotted it and went to the zoning board out of curiosity.
When O’Brien received the notice, she began a conversation with the local building inspector. She learned that her house broke several zoning ordinances: It had no formal plumbing, it had only one form of egress, and it was too close to the property line.
“There is no building code for tiny houses, so you have to get an occupancy permit to get it zoned,” O’Brien said. “It’s a cycle that feeds into itself. Without a building code, it automatically breaks any zoning ordinances.”
Determined not to give up, O’Brien decided to fight for an occupancy permit and eventually get her house properly zoned. For the next few months, O’Brien said she worked diligently to create a presentation for the next zoning board meeting, explaining how her tiny house was safe and how she could fix the ordinances she broke.
“Despite these things, it doesn’t mean my tiny house is an unsafe dwelling,” she said. “All of it could be fixed, so I said I could do that. I could hook it up to septic, I could put it on foundation, and I could install a skylight. I was excited where this would lead.”
O’Brien presented her case to the Hampton Falls Zoning Board of Adjustment on August 22, 2019. The board, however, denied her request for an occupancy permit, blocking her path to properly zoning her tiny house.
According to the Hampton Falls Zoning Board of Adjustment’s meeting notes, the board denied her variance because it’s “contrary to the public interest because the structure is currently existing, therefore the modifications are not in compliance and should have been discussed prior to the particular building of the structure.” Additionally, the board felt that the tiny house would diminish property values.
“They discounted my entire argument,” she said. “I was devastated, embarrassed, and humbled. I was really hoping this board would see this issue as a leverage point for something much bigger.”
Eventually, she moved out of her tiny house and left the structure on her parents’ property – the tiny house is allowed on the property, she’s just not allowed to occupy it, according to local zoning ordinances.
In the end, O’Brien had to move out of the hometown she fought so hard to live in.
“It was a bummer. It felt like they didn’t want me,” she said. “Not that I took it that personally but there was this element that I was saddened by.”
These strict zoning ordinances are found all over the country
According to the Financial Times, there are about 10,000 tiny houses in the US, and 15.5% of tiny homes are located in California because it is the most tiny house-friendly. Home Advisor found that Florida, Colorado, Texas, and Oregon are the other top four states that are most welcoming to tiny houses, but even there, homeowners can experience problems and are forced to contend with confusing rules.
Dan Fitzpatrick, the president of the Tiny Home Industry Association, is at the forefront of legalizing tiny houses. After working in local government for decades, Fitzpatrick has a unique understanding of zoning ordinances and now helps people get tiny houses legalized in their home states.
Speaking to Insider, he explained that traditional tiny houses on wheels face a unique set of problems with zoning. Some zoning codes, for example, enforce a minimum square footage requirement for full-time dwellings.
“Tiny homes by definition are under 400 square feet,” Fitzpatrick said. “Well, most municipalities require 700 or 1,000 square feet for the minimum size of a house.”
But this rule differs from state to state – in Oregon, there are no minimum square footage requirements, making it fairly easy to own a tiny house, while in Durham, North Carolina, a single-family home must be at least 400 square feet, bigger than a traditional tiny house.
It’s typical to see local zoning ordinances differ from state to state in this way, but they even differ from community to community. For example, in Wilmington, North Carolina, someone can live in a tiny house if it’s at least 150 square feet. Just 200 miles away in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a tiny house must be on a foundation, and only a relative or caretaker of the property owner can occupy it. The latter is known as an accessory dwelling unit, and the laws for these also vary dramatically across the US.
Another issue: In the eyes of the government, movable tiny houses are considered recreational vehicles, and most local governments only allow RVs to be parked in certain locations, like RV parks or campgrounds, making it impossible to park a tiny house in a backyard or on a private piece of land. RVs are also not considered inhabitable for full-time living, so many municipalities limit the number of days a person can live in their tiny house.
“There are some places where you build a tiny house and put it in an RV park, and they won’t let you live there for more than 90 days or six months at a time,” Fitzpatrick said. “These are issues that need to be dealt with.”
Fitzpatrick has laid out a pathway for tiny house owners to work with local governments to allow for more parking options and to create a more cohesive ordinance for tiny houses across the US.
“Municipalities need to recognize that movable tiny houses are a totally different animal than a recreational vehicle,” he said. “The way you do that is you write in your local ordinance a definition for a movable tiny house to distinguish it from a typical RV.”
So far, Fitzpatrick and tiny house owners across the country have been successful in doing this in places like Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, and San Jose.
But it’s not as easy to do that in local communities like the one O’Brien called home in New Hampshire. This forces some tiny house owners to move into RV parks, which wasn’t necessarily their vision when they decided to live tiny.
RV parks and tiny house communities are another option for tiny house owners, but they can come with their own set of problems
When you think of tiny homes, you might think of a minimalistic, quiet lifestyle on a beach or near a forest. Yet that isn’t the reality for many owners.
Since movable tiny houses are not allowed in most parts of the country, some owners turn to RV parks and tiny house communities, which are usually just RV parks with a few tiny houses.
“For 97% of people that have been drawn into the dream of tiny houses, being in a trailer park wasn’t part of that dream,” Zack Giffin, the host of “Tiny House Nation,” told Insider.
In 2018, Betsy Barbour bought a tiny house and moved into a tiny house community in central Florida, which she does not wish to name. During her year there, her experience was “disappointing,” she said.
Barbour said she lived in constant fear that she was going to be kicked out of the park because she had no lease agreement or contract. A few of her neighbors were kicked out at a moment’s notice, she said.
“We had no protection,” Barbour said. “That’s partially my fault. I shouldn’t have moved in there without some kind of protection. [But] it puts you in a very vulnerable position because you have no rights. You can be asked to move at a very short notice, and you have no recourse.”
Barbour said she eventually decided to leave the park because she felt the electrical wiring was “life-threatening.” “I thought, ‘I have to get out of here. This is not safe,'” she said.
While this is far from everyone’s experience at an RV park, Barbour, who is now living in a larger, established community in Pennsylvania, said she thinks tiny house owners in some parts of the country are forced into less-than-ideal RV parks because there’s a lack of understanding from the wider community. She said some municipalities are against passing zoning ordinances because they equate proposed tiny house communities with traditional trailer parks.
“There’s a lack of information,” Barbour said. “Real estate agents and property owners didn’t want trailer trash in their backyards, and that’s what tiny houses are in some cases being viewed as. They think it will reduce property values and increase crime in the neighborhood. These are all stereotypes that need to be broken, but they are all urban myths, and they are very entrenched.”
Tiny house owners who decide not to deal with zoning ordinances or RV parks end up living under the radar
One woman who only wishes to only be identified as Tina lived in her tiny house in stealth for nearly two years.
Tina, an art teacher, said she changes school districts regularly because her programs are often nixed during budget cuts. Instead of dragging her husband and daughter around with her from school to school, she decided to build a tiny house that she would live in by herself.
In 2018, she was offered a job in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and couldn’t find an RV park in the area that was tiny house friendly. Luckily, a colleague at the school offered up her backyard as a place for Tina to park, but there still was a problem.
“I looked at the ordinances and saw that you could park an RV on your property, but you couldn’t live in it,” Tina said. The zoning ordinance for Bucks County reads that recreational vehicles cannot “be designed for use as a permanent dwelling, but as a temporary living quarters for recreational, camping, travel, or seasonal use.”
However, the property owner and Tina reached a deal: Tina could park her tiny house in the backyard next to the shed if they kept it under the radar and if Tina paid the fines if they were caught by the zoning board.
“I laid low,” Tina said. “I kept the curtains closed at night, I kept the lights low, I didn’t hang out in front of the house like I would have loved to, and I didn’t hang plants outside. I didn’t do any of those things like I would have wanted to. I was trying to make it look like I wasn’t living there.”
Tina said she was constantly worried that someone in the community would report her, especially because the tiny house was noticeable from the road.
“I lived under that stress for two years,” she said. “You work all day and then you go home and you’re holed up in your tiny house because you’re worried about getting caught. It was kind of sad. What was the harm of me being there? It didn’t put a strain on my colleague’s resources. It was a totally harmless thing. I worked in that area and paid taxes in that area.”
After two years of living in Bucks County, Tina now parks her tiny house in the backyard of her permanent, traditional home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a move that came with its own set of issues. In 2020, the town’s zoning officer fined her $500 because they thought she was living in it full-time. When she explained to the zoning board that she only used it as an art studio these days, they waived the $500 fee.
“It’s still so new that people have not pushed zoning in enough places, on the East Coast especially,” Tina said. “It’s so new that they don’t know what to do with it and don’t know what it is, but the way [tiny houses] exist now, they do push you to live under the radar because you have no choice.”
Tiny house owners are fighting back by challenging the system and changing ordinances one town at a time
Spur, Texas, for example, bills itself as America’s first tiny house-friendly town. The town, which is about 70 miles east of Lubbock, used to be home to several thousand, but many left for Texas’ bigger cities. Today, the town only has about 1,000 people and a bunch of vacant lots.
Spur’s city officials saw an opportunity to revitalize the area by approving an ordinance in 2014 that allows tiny house owners to buy lots for $500 to $5,000 with working infrastructure and park their tiny houses there legally. Today, there are nearly 40 tiny houses in the small community.
“People who just want to live a simpler life, this is a really good option for them,” Allen Witters, a resident and one of the founders of Spur, said. “[Spur] has everything that you need. It has a hardware store, grocery stores, and restaurants. It’s a quieter life.”
Likewise, Orlando Lakefront, a tiny house community in Florida, has been successful in turning a dilapidated RV park into a thriving community for tiny houses with a community garden, movie nights, and neighborhood barbecues.
“There’s something about the fact that we’re all living simply that brings us together,” Amanda Burger, a resident of Orlando lakefront, said. “Everybody comes from so many different walks of life, but [this lifestyle] brings us together on a different level.”
The people of the tiny house movement hope that in the future more communities like Spur and Orlando Lakefront will be more common, but for now, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“There is nobody that is satisfied with the grey area that these homes fit under. Not the clients, not the builders, not the government,” “Tiny House Nation’s” Giffin said. When the rules are finally unified, “it will take this industry out of adolescence and into maturity,” he said.
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