For the millions of Americans struggling to put a roof over their heads at an affordable price, a patchwork of state and local regulations stands in the way of one attractive option: tiny houses.
A recent Harvard University report noted that 38.1 million households were cost-burdened in 2016, including nearly half of renters. “Cost-burdened” is defined as spending more than 30 percent of one’s incomes on housing.
Last November, the Housing Affordability Index indicated that a family would have to earn 144 percent of the median regional income in order to buy an average home, meaning that traditional home ownership is out of reach for a large portion of Americans.
In particular, millennials are buying homes later, and in smaller numbers, than previous generations. Many young people who carry significant student loan debt are having trouble saving enough for a down payment on a typical home or would rather not add a hefty mortgage to their financial obligations. Increasingly, retirees and empty-nesters are also looking to avoid the costs of a typical home.
For those who embrace a minimalistic lifestyle and seek to limit their housing expenses, tiny houses — typically under 400 square feet — offer financial security and independence. The average price of a tiny home in 2016 was only $23,000. By comparison, the median price of a new house in the U.S. exceeds $300,000.
Tiny houses bear little resemblance to the mobile homes and trailer campers of the past. Although the style and interior layout of tiny houses are as varied as their occupants, many homes have full bathrooms, cozy kitchens, and all the basic amenities of larger structures. With fewer square feet to build, owners can spend their money on quality materials and thoughtful touches.
For all its advantages, a major obstacle to tiny house living is the fact that the vast majority of state and local building codes and zoning ordinances discourage or out-right ban these structures. Minimum square footage standards, mandated utility hookups (problematic for tiny houses with off-grid capabilities), inflexible building codes (especially for tiny houses built on wheels), and other restrictions require tiny house enthusiasts to navigate a formidable thicket of regulations.
Localities in a few states — especially California, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida — have adopted more tiny-friendly policies, enabling whole communities of tiny house dwellers to crop up. But progress has been slow and large swaths of the country remain hostile to tiny living.
Local opposition to tiny houses often stems from a belief that inviting smaller structures will erode housing values in the community, disfigure neighborhood aesthetics, and cut into property tax revenues. These are valid concerns, but shutting the door to tiny houses is not the solution.
Much of this opposition is rooted in misconceptions. Many people associate small homes with low-quality structures, mobile homes, and trailer parks — not the beautifully crafted tiny houses being built today. Local policymakers should also understand the benefits of assimilating smaller structures into their cities and towns and expanding affordable housing opportunities for their residents.
America’s housing market is changing. For a significant portion of our population, the prospect of owning a full-size house is either financially unrealistic or doesn’t conform to their lifestyle. Tiny house living is just one option among many, but it clearly is attracting more than its share of interest. Outdated government regulations shouldn’t stand in the way of this movement.