Here’s a dirty little secret about tiny homes on wheels: They’re illegal in many parts of California, including San Luis Obispo County.
It’s not the homes themselves that are illegal. It’s living in them that’s the problem.
Tiny homes on wheels — or THOWs — are considered recreational vehicles, and its illegal to permanently live in RVs.
However, the rules could be changing. Both the county and city of San Luis Obispo are considering revisions to their zoning regulations that would treat self-contained tiny homes on wheels as secondary dwelling units, rather than RVs.
That means any homeowner who is entitled to build a second unit could could legally install a THOW in a backyard as living quarters for an adult child, an in-law or parent. They also could be used as rental units.
We like the idea. If there’s a genuine interest in tiny homes — and we believe there is — we should capitalize on an opportunity to increase the supply of affordable homes.
Not everyone agrees. Especially in the city of San Luis Obispo, there are concerns that greedy landlords will cram tiny homes into single-family neighborhoods, creating more congestion, parking and noise problems.
“Mobile homes (aka “Tiny Homes on Wheels” ) belong in mobile home parks, on rural residential property, or within new planned developments exclusively for ‘tiny homes,’” wrote one Tribune reader.
There also are concerns that the city is trying to shirk its duty to provide more conventional affordable housing.
To be sure, tiny homes aren’t for everyone.
They are, well, very small and compact, and they obviously aren’t good for people with a lot of stuff.
But for singles, young couples and empty nesters, they can work. In fact, some SLO County residents already are living in tiny homes.
“There’s a number of people who have tiny homes that are kind of hiding and hoping they don’t get caught,” said Carolyn Huddleston, the organizer of a tiny homes meetup group in San Luis Obispo County. “I find that pretty ridiculous in that we have a shortage of affordable housing.”
Ridiculous doesn’t begin to describe it.
Consider: To afford a typical, two-bedroom apartment in San Luis Obispo, a renter needs an annual salary of around $57,000. Yet the average salary in San Luis Obispo is $52,396, according to the website payscale.com.
Something has to change. The city of San Luis Obispo has done a reasonably good job of providing affordable housing — it was one of the first cities to pass an ordinance requiring developers to either include affordable units in their projects or pay a fee — but it has not been able to keep up with demand.
Tiny homes aren’t the answer, but they are a solution for people priced out of the conventional housing market. High-end THOWs can sell for well over $100,000, but there are plenty in the $40,000-$60,000 range, which is basically just a down payment for a traditional, stick-built house.
As to worries that tiny homes will overrun San Luis Obispo, ruining the quality of life, the city’s secondary dwelling ordinance provides a built-in safeguard. The city has an owner-occupancy requirement for secondary dwellings, which means the property owner has to live in either the main house or the second unit. That deters absentee landlords from building secondary units behind rental houses.
The county no longer has an owner-occupancy requirement for properties with second units, but that hasn’t done much to encourage their construction. County planning staff estimates that fewer than 10 percent of homes in the unincorporated areas have second units, even with the relaxation of restrictions.
That could change if the county OKs tiny homes on wheels, but just because an enabling ordinance is passed doesn’t necessarily mean people will rush to take advantage of it.
Example: Fresno passed an ordinance allowing tiny homes on wheels a couple of years ago, and while there have been some inquiries, so far there hasn’t been a single taker.
Dan Zack, assistant director of the city’s development department, suspects demand may be low because Fresno’s housing prices are more reasonable than in coastal cities.
He has a point; high housing prices in much of SLO County are what’s driving the demand for alternative, less expensive types of housing.
The city of San Luis Obispo will consider relaxing restrictions on tiny homes on Aug. 21 as part of a package of zoning changes.
The county also is due to meet Aug. 21 to discuss housing policy, including whether to instruct staff to move forward with a tiny homes ordinance.
We strongly urge elected officials in both the city and county, as well as in other Central Coast communities, to update their policies to legally accommodate tiny homes on wheels — at least on a pilot basis.
This won’t solve the housing crisis — no single solution will. But for some people, tiny homes on wheels are a viable option, and they shouldn’t have to break the law to be able to live in a home they can afford.