‘Tiny Housing’ Movement Pits Millennials Against Regulators

Published October 28, 2014

Advocates of the growing “micro-housing movement” are trying to promote smaller housing alternatives for people pursuing simpler lifestyles. “Micro-apartments” and “tiny houses” are typically less than 300 square feet in area, a fraction of the average American home’s 2,600 square feet.

Often weighed down by credit cards and student loan debt, millennials in particular find these minimalist dwellings—many selling for $23,000 or less—an attractive path to homeownership,  allowing them to avoid 30-year mortgages.

However, local-government zoning laws and homeowners associations’ regulations are suppressing this innovation.

In a dismal job market, parents are taking out student loans in their own names, in order to send their kids back to school. In a rush to move out of Mom and Dad’s place, twenty-somethings are finding micro-housing an affordable alternative. With the additional long-term trend of shrinking family sizes, the emergence of micro-housing as an affordable housing solution is quite understandable.

However, regulators have been slow to accommodate this phenomenon. Local zoning laws often require living areas to exceed 500 square feet, serving to make micro-housing illegal in most places.

Hacking Around Regulations
To get around these limitations, micro-housing enthusiasts have become creative.

Seattle micro-apartment developers have exploited a unique loophole in which kitchens, not sleeping units, are counted for the purposes of regulating development. To bypass the rules, developers attach multiple micro-apartment units to one communal kitchen.

Also, because recreational vehicles do not require a building permit, tiny houses are often built on wheeled trailers and classified as mobile homes. Regulatory problem solved—for now.

Though ingenious in their legal maneuvering, builders and residents remain stuck in a legal grey area. Cities have withheld utility services, condemned properties, and even bulldozed homes in communities where the micro-housing movement is considered an unwelcome intrusion.

Some municipalities, however, have altered their zoning laws to attract micro-housing. In August, Spur, Texas became the first self-proclaimed “tiny house friendly town” by removing square-footage regulations.

Seattle, Washington, already home to several burgeoning micro-apartment complexes, lowered its minimum area allowed for individual apartments to 220 square feet in October 2014.

No Small Feat
Micro-housing is gaining media attention, but it’s still a small portion of the overall housing market. Only 1 percent of U.S. buyers acquire homes of less than 1,000 square feet.

The micro-housing movement will probably not dominate the U.S. landscape anytime soon, but the entrepreneurs who have spearheaded this cottage industry have enabled a previously underserved population to avoid accumulating large amounts of additional debt while owning their own homes.

That’s no “tiny” accomplishment.

Matt Kelly ([email protected]) is a DeVoe L. Moore Center policy analyst with Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy.