Television shows such as “Tiny House, Big Living” and “Tiny House Nation” have focused on the budding trend of the tiny house lifestyle, the phenomenon of people occupying dwellings about the same size as sheds.
The tiny house movement hasn’t taken hold in San Luis Obispo County like it has in places such as as Spur, Texas, the so-called “Tiny Home Capital of America”; Portland, Oregon, where a housing crunch drives the move to miniature homes; or Fresno, which now allows tiny houses on wheels to be used as permanent backyard dwellings.
A San Luis Obispo County nonprofit organization, Hope’s Village, has promoted the idea of a tiny-house community if it can find the land, and local leaders such as newly elected San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon and county Supervisor Adam Hill say they would support tiny-house initiatives.
That’s the direction that younger people are moving in, to use less space and not necessarily have a need for a big yard and a fence. I’m a big fan of tiny homes and legalizing them.
Heidi Harmon, San Luis Obispo Mayor
Harmon campaigned in support of facilitating tiny homes, while her opponent, incumbent Jan Marx, opposed them and instead advocated for cottages as a means to increase the housing stock. Harmon’s election may signal a pathway for a new policy on the issue.
“That’s the direction that younger people are moving in, to use less space and not necessarily have a need for a big yard and a fence, and provide affordability and reduce the carbon footprint,” Harmon said. “I’m very interested in tiny homes. I’ve heard from a lot of folks who are interested in them.”
As part of a campaign platform for increasing affordable housing options in the city, Harmon promised to work toward changing city zoning laws to allow tiny houses as secondary dwelling units.
As she embarks on her tenure as mayor, Harmon said she plans to learn from other cities that have implemented tiny-home policies, such as Fresno, to see how their programs work.
“I’m interested to learn from the city what the challenges are and the barriers,” Harmon said. “I know that density with the limited amount of space is on people’s minds.”
What is a tiny house?
According to the state Department of Housing and Community Development, tiny houses come in many shapes and sizes and tend to range from 80 to 400 square feet.
They can be built on wheels and hauled easily by trailer from place to place. Others are fixed units built on foundations, fully equipped and plumbed with sinks and bathrooms.
Tiny houses typically cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $40,000 or more, depending on design and materials, not including any land costs.
Tiny-house advocates say they can be a means to help relieve the local housing crunch, serve low-income residents, offer retirees a downsizing option and get homeless people off the street.
“The tiny-home village concept is not that dissimilar from a mobile home park or manufactured home park, a kind of last bastion of affordable housing,” Hill said. “And getting someone off the streets and a roof over their head greatly increases their chance of self-sufficiency.”
Fluid policy on tiny homes
Without a defined, specific state law on the general use of tiny homes, they can fall under a variety of regulations.
“One of the challenges with tiny homes is that it is a general description that might apply to a variety of different housing types,” said Michael Codron, San Luis Obispo’s community development director.
Depending on how it’s used, a tiny house could fall under regulations for residential, mobile homes, manufactured homes or recreational vehicles, among other habitation guidelines.
County supervising planner Ryan Hostetter said state housing officials are considering changes that could define tiny houses as a category under state standards and facilitate their construction.
“The California building code is going through some changes to make it easier for really small living units,” Hostetter said. “As it stands, as long as a tiny home meets our code requirements, we’ll allow them. But there’s no specific policy for tiny homes themselves.”
In Portland, Oregon, the city allows fee waivers on sewer and water hookups for accessory dwelling units, which are small, fixed structures built on the same property as an existing home.
In San Luis Obispo County, no such policy exists. But a hypothetical county building permit for a 200-square-foot secondary dwelling would be approximately $8,000, said Marty Mofield, the county’s building division supervisor.
In the city of San Luis Obispo, a tiny house on wheels would be classified as a recreational vehicle. That means it may only be lived in at a lawfully operated mobile home park, travel trailer park, campground or safe parking facility. An RV in the city may only be parked in a residential parking space or driveway for up to seven days “for the purpose of housing guests of on-site residents only,” under city code.
A secondary dwelling unit in San Luis Obispo under 450 square feet, on an R-1 lot, would require more than $8,000 in impact fees, and either the secondary unit or primary residence must be occupied by the property owner.
The city of San Luis Obispo will undertake its zoning update in the new year, which could include taking a look at how to address tiny homes, possibly relaxing those policies and examining its fee structure.
“There will be a variety of things that we’ll be looking at to implement the updated Land Use and Circulation Element,” said Codron, the community development director. “Updating the zoning could mean including a definition that could distinguish tiny homes from RVs.”
When considering the impacts of tiny houses in a backyard, the added noise and density to neighborhoods probably would come up as points of concern, Codron said.
“Whenever you choose to address the need for housing, there’s going to be a balance between neighborhood wellness and housing opportunities for more people,” Codron said. “To the extent (that) tiny homes (are) perceived as increasing density, you’d have legitimate concerns that neighbors would raise.”
For the past few years, Becky Jorgeson, an advocate for the homeless who started the nonprofit Hope’s Village, has been promoting the idea of a village of 30 tiny homes on 5 acres to provide housing for about 50 homeless people.
Ideally, she said, the site would be somewhere near San Luis Obispo within range of social service offices. The group has about $25,000 to use for the proposal, but a land donation isn’t easy to come by.
Jorgeson has parked a 77-square-foot tiny home on wheels outside the United Church of Christ at 11245 Los Osos Valley Road as an example of what a tiny home to serve those without shelter would look like. The cozy dwelling features a bed, desk, bookshelf and windows and cost $3,900 to build, she said. The home does not have a kitchen or bathroom beyond a “sanitary bin” for emergencies, although many standalone tiny homes include those amenities.
The tiny-home village concept is not that dissimilar from a mobile home park.
Adam Hill, county supervisor
The village would be a drug- and alcohol-free space with a “common house” where residents could cook, shower and wash their clothes. Jorgeson said county supervisors with whom she has met individually have been supportive of the idea.
“We have been looking for about 5 acres of county land for four years,” Jorgeson said. “Our dream is to have the villagers themselves construct these tiny homes. It could change the lives of people who are struggling so badly on the streets and in our creeks. All they need is a roof over their head.”
Jorgeson said she envisions a village with three managers on site. The setup would encourage social interaction between the residents to promote their mental well-being and shared living responsibilities.
“One of them will always be around to tackle problems or issues,” Jorgeson said. “Between the six of us on the board of Hope’s Village, we have over 150 years working with homeless and addicted populations. ... Our focus is to make a stable, sustainable village and give people access to safety, food and showers.”