Tiny houses—homes sometimes as small as 150 square feet, popularized on reality shows such as Tiny House Nation—have had a longstanding challenge. You might be able to buy or build one for relatively little money, but because they’re typically constructed on a trailer with wheels, the zoning codes in most cities make them illegal. Tiny-house forums online are filled with people asking how they can find a place to park their new homes. But a growing number of cities are beginning to change local regulations to allow the houses, and that could make a meaningful difference for affordable housing.
San Jose, California, with a population of more than a million people, is one of the latest cities to legalize movable tiny homes. A new ordinance took effect in May. “We see it really as a way to help address the housing crisis that we have here in the city,” says Rosalynn Hughey, director of San Jose’s planning department. “We know that we have to use all of the tools in our toolbox in terms of building affordable units, and this particular housing type can be done really cost-effectively and can be done really quickly.”
The city, like the rest of California, already allowed accessory dwelling units or ADUs, small backyard cottages that are built on foundations, which the state has pushed as a solution for the housing shortage. But tiny houses on wheels (sometimes called THOWs, in a field that loves acronyms) are even less expensive to build, in part because they’re sometimes built in factories with economies of scale, says Dan Fitzpatrick, director of government relations for the Tiny Home Industry Association, who has been working with several cities, including San Jose, to help put new ordinances in place. “You’re not going out and hiring an architect to do plans and submit it to the city, and you’re not paying the city a lot of fees to review those plans,” he says. “You’re not going out and hiring a general contractor to put all of the project together from A to Z.” Even in cases where ADUs are also built in modular factories, tiny homes are usually far less expensive. In a backyard, they sit on simple pads instead of a foundation. And there’s less red tape involved; they come certified from the factory instead of requiring more inspections.
“ADU units here in the city are averaging about $250,000 per unit,” says Hughey. “For a tiny home, it’s about $50,000. I mean, that’s significantly less. Not only that, in terms of building them and getting them in the backyard of a homeowner, it can be done in weeks versus months.” For a homeowner who wants the extra rent but doesn’t have a large budget, a movable tiny home could make a backyard house feasible; tiny homes could potentially make new housing units grow much more quickly in an area with a deep housing shortage. They’re also far less expensive than building larger affordable housing complexes, which can cost as much as $750,000 per apartment to build in parts of the Bay Area.
Movable tiny homes can range in size, though San Jose’s new law defines them as between 150 and 400 square feet. The law requires that they have all of the basic functions of larger homes—room to sleep, cook, and a bathroom. They can be hooked up to utility lines at their sites.
In late 2019, Los Angeles became the first major city to allow movable tiny homes. Advocates didn’t have to fight much for the change, says Fitzpatrick. “In a lot of ways, it wasn’t that difficult of a sell, because all of these communities are desperate for timely and cost-effective, safe, and habitable housing. Affordable housing is a top priority.” When he met with the mayor’s task force, “Los Angeles was like, where do we sign up? Let’s get it done,” he says. “Once we got L.A. down, it was very easy to move to the other cities because they knew L.A. had done all the heavy lifting to get from point A to completion.”
San Jose was able to use L.A.’s ordinance as a model. San Diego followed, approving tiny homes on wheels in July. The laws include design criteria that distinguish tiny homes, which are technically RVs, from typical RVs that people drive on vacations. (Tiny homes have to look like houses, essentially, and can’t drive on their own.) The homes can’t have a flat roof. Windows have to have double-pane glass and trim. The exterior walls have to have cladding and trim, like larger houses.
In San Jose, the change in law was pushed by a local youth development program, the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School, that saw its own students struggling with homelessness. “We realized that we couldn’t wait for somebody else to solve our problem—that we needed to be really proactive and find the solution to our really most pressing problem, which was housing,” says Dorsey Moore, executive director of the San Jose Conservation Corps.
In a new program, students learn to build simple tiny houses, which Moore describes as portable dorm rooms, themselves, and then live in them. Some are now housed on the program’s campus, but the group will also work with local residents who need extra cash and will lease space in their backyards for $500 a month. Moore says that this type of solution could be critical for low-income students in the area, many of whom struggle to stay in community college because they can’t afford housing. He argues that the State of California should help remove the barriers to tiny homes on wheels statewide, just as it did for backyard homes on foundations.
In other cities, the process to legalize tiny homes may be different. In Minneapolis, for example, which currently allows tiny backyard homes only on foundations, Fitzpatrick says that the change will require changes at the state legislature level first. Advocates recently changed a similar state law in Maine. In other states, such as Texas, changes can happen more quickly at a community level. Some areas are beginning to also legalize “tiny home villages” where people can live in small communities. But in the largest cities, filling in empty space in existing backyards may be the quickest way to add new housing.
“This solution, I think, is a great one,” says Hughey, San Jose’s planning department director. “Again, it’s a lot cheaper. It can be done quicker. We’re going to continue to focus on our large affordable housing projects. But those take years. We have to get funding to get built. And here—for ADUs and tiny homes on wheels—these things can just happen so much quicker. We can get our residents housed in the city, and that’s really the big focus. Particularly now, during the pandemic.”