Real Estate News

Tiny homes yield bigger problem: Where to put them?

Jeremy Spencer and his husband, Ryan Kelley – and their tiny home – are pioneers.

Their sub-400-square-foot home is part of a two-unit tiny house cluster that sits in an Isleton RV park. Park Delta Bay – perhaps the only legal settlement of tiny homes in Sacramento County – describes itself as tiny home friendly, but a vast majority of the 132 slots are occupied by traditional travel trailers and permanent cottages.

The couple relocated with their home from Rochester, N.Y., to Isleton after Kelley landed a technology job in the Bay Area. Moving the home 2,600 miles across the country wasn’t the hard part – finding a place to put it was.

“A lot of (RV) places, either they don’t want tiny homes or they don’t have spots,” Spencer said. And in most cases, living on private property within city limits isn’t an option.

While tiny homes, which typically range in price from $30,000 to $45,000, generate plenty of fanfare, press and excitement, locally it’s hard to find someone who lives in one. The biggest question facing owners of tiny homes: “Where do you live in it once it’s done?”

First a definition: A tiny home is a customized or partially customized dwelling unit 400 square feet or smaller, often constructed on a trailer chassis. Generally speaking, tiny homes employ traditional building techniques, so they look more like shrunken traditional homes than pre-built homes or recreational vehicles.

The movement – fueled in part by several cable television series – encourages people to reject the “bigger-is-better” mentality in favor of economic freedom and personal mobility.

But for governments, the question is: “What is it?” An auxiliary dwelling unit, an RV or a modular home? How these new hybrid homes fit in with existing rules governing housing remains to be sorted.

While there are pockets of communities rewriting rules to accommodate tiny homes, the state has yet to adopt rules governing tiny homes – or defining them. For most municipalities, if it is on wheels it’s considered a recreational vehicle.

Fresno is one of the few California cities with a more friendly stance toward tiny homes. In early 2016, it changed its zoning laws to treat tiny homes – even if on wheels – as backyard cottages.

It “allows you to put tiny houses on your property and live in them legally, full time,” Pat Mosley, owner of Fresno builder California Tiny House, told The Fresno Bee. Fresno is believed to be one of the first communities nationwide to adopt a zoning code making tiny houses legal. The city has received calls from people in other communities wanting to find out more about the code, a city official said.

The city of Sacramento may also be on the road to adopting new rules for tiny homes.

Bruce Monighan, the city’s urban design manager, wants to see tiny homes as part of Sacramento’s urban mix.

“I see a broad range of people that could use them,” Monighan said.

The city’s urban landscape needs more lower-cost options, he said. But he doesn’t want to see tiny homes plunked down on full-size lots. Rather, he’d like to see lots subdivided into tiny home villages – preferably near transportation hubs.

“I’d love to see us looking at tiny home subdivisions,” he said.

He would also like to make it easier for residents to build them on sites as an auxiliary-dwelling unit built on a platform and conforming to building codes. Monighan said he’d like to hold a workshop about tiny home rule changes this summer.

An upcoming addendum to the International Residential Code will make it easier for tiny homes to meet building rules, Monighan said. The new 2018 addendum creates tiny home exceptions to rules governing bedroom lofts and stair construction, among other things.

Andrew Morrison, who has been teaching people to build tiny homes since 2004, is the primary author of the rules change. As he pointed out in a March blog post, the challenge is ensuring governments across the country adopt the changes.

While the California Department of Housing and Community Development can unilaterally adopt changes to building codes, it generally leaves it to individual municipalities to adopt or reject addenda to the code, said Shawn Huff, a state HCD official.

Eric Chiu, who manages Park Delta Bay, said he gets many calls about placing tiny homes there, but few meet his basic requirement: They must adhere to the RV building certifications.

Computer programmer-turned-aspiring screenwriter Mark Belski is among those who found that placing a tiny home was more of a chore than he expected. He moved his home to Park Delta Bay about two months ago.

“It was the only reasonable location I could find,” Belski said. “I was looking for a place near the Silicon Valley.”

When construction of his tiny home began, he expected to live in it on land owned by a relative, but he soon learned that wasn’t a option. He looked at RV parks in the Bay Area before finding Park Delta Bay.

“Going into it, I didn’t understand all of the legalities,” Belski said. He encouraged those following in his footsteps to know the rules before building. He said he likes the Delta views, but is farther from his family and Silicon Valley network than he expected.

From Park Delta Bay, Kelley faces a two-hour commute to his Bay Area technology job. That commute will be cut dramatically when he and his husband move their tiny home to a Castro Valley RV park this week. The couple have been on the waiting list for the Castro Valley location since October 2016, when they moved into Park Delta Bay.

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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