Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Details on Austin's 200-unit Micro-Housing Community

Community First Village—a 27-acre master-planned community being developed in Austin, Texas—has been touted as a solution to chronic homelessness. Once complete, the village will include 200-units of micro-housing along with supporting common facilities.

I recently had a chance to chat with Alan Graham—president of the non-profit organization behind the project, Mobile Loaves & Fishes (ML&F)—which provided a bit more insight into the project compared to what has been presented in the news thus far. 

"If you want to understand homelessness you have to understand home," said Graham,  "and we believe home has very little to do with the physical structure."

Instead Graham talked about permanence, affiliation, orientation, hospitality and safety as the real defining factors of home—all of which he has made the focus of Community First Village.

ML&F has raised $7 million to complete the housing project—all of which has come from private donors. Graham estimates that 80% of this funding came from between 15-20 people. The village will have full-time staff on site with an operating cost projected at $1.2 million per year.

It's important to note that Community First Village will actually be an example of low-cost housing and NOT a "housing first" type model for the chronically homeless (I'd been led to believe otherwise based on what I had read about the project). There will still be rent and residents will have to have some source of income in order to live there. But by building small, ML&F will be able to keep rent affordable to low-income individuals independent of ongoing public subsidies.

Three different housing options will be offered with monthly rent being a variable of the accommodations of each housing type. This includes:

Screenshot from Mobile Loaves & Fishes website (

1) Canvas Sided Cottages $120/month (8'x10') - $180/month (8'x12')

2) Micro-Housing: $210/month (12'x12') - $250/month (10'x18') 

3) 5th Wheel RVs: $400/month

The canvas sided cottages and micro-housing will have electricity but no plumbing. Instead they will be supported by common restroom facilities scattered throughout the site. The 5th wheel will come equipped with both electricity and plumbing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Legal Path for Tiny House Communities

In my book Tent City Urbanism, I layout a vision towards tiny house villages—however, the physical form of this housing type is not currently within the scope of most local land use and zoning codes. The villages that have been realized thus far have required a lengthy and costly public process each time. As I reported in my last post, there has been recent movement toward legalizing tiny houses, but what about tiny house communities?

I’ve compiled an early proposal for a demonstration ordinance that could be adopted at the municipal level to make the tiny house village an acceptable residential land use—inspired primarily by cottage housing ordinances around the Seattle area. This would allow the housing option to be more readily deployed, and in a variety of styles (i.e. low-cost or upscale). In essence, it is a hybrid of both single- and multi-family housing along with the addition of a social dimension that has gone desperately missing from those conventional options.

Tiny House Development (THD) Demonstration Ordinance

Primary Goals:

1.  To increase housing diversity in ways that are compatible with existing residential zones 
2.  To promote housing affordability and sustainability for all income levels by encouraging smaller homes
3.  To allow for a limited number of regulated THD demonstration projects
4.  To set forth a review process and general parameters for THD demonstration projects
5.  To evaluate demonstration projects to inform the adoption of a permanent ordinance


1.  Provide an opportunity for the development of small, detached housing clustered around common open spaces
2.  Combine character of single family housing with affordability and density of multi-family units
3.  Increase affordable housing options for one and two person households and small families
4.  Reduce per unit development costs of conventional low-income housing developments
5.  Permit THDs in residential zones
6.  Provide opportunity for infill development (clusters of tiny houses can fit on standard residential lots)
7.  Allow for higher density standards in exchange for reducing impact by limiting house size
8.  Create a range of affordability by allowing for varying levels of support from common kitchen, bath, and gathering facilities

Development Standards (preliminary):

1.  Redefining Density: Housing developments may increase the per unit density standard of the underlying zone by 50% when in compliance with the standards set in this section.
2.  House Size Limits: The maximum allowed gross floor area is 950sf per unit. The maximum gross floor area for the ground floor is 750sf per unit.
3.  Common Open Space: cottages fronting at least two sides. Each unit must have x amount of common space. Reduced in-unit kitchen/bath requirements if supported by on-site common facilities.
4.  Parking Standards: 0.5 parking spaces per dwelling if within 0.25 mile of transit stop.
5.  Non-conforming Structures: Existing structures that are non-conforming to the standards for a THD are permitted to remain, provided that the extent of the non-conformity shall not be increased.

Precedent: Kirkland, WA—Cottage Housing Ordinance:

1.  The City of Kirkland began review of cottage housing under an "Innovative Housing Demonstration Ordinance" in 2002, with similar goals to the ones set forth above
2.  An interim ordinance was adopted to test the idea of cottage housing before adopting a permanent ordinance, and a formal evaluation was completed in 2006
3.  The demonstration projects were successful in implementing a new and smaller housing option, though the actual affordability of the housing was questioned. The projects became highly desirable places to live.
4.  A permanent Cottage Housing Ordinance was adopted and has been listed as a best practice by HUD:
5.  Cottage Housing has been adopted in several cities in the Seattle area, which has informed this resource: “Cottage Housing in Your Community: A guide to drafting a Cottage Housing Ordinance"

Interpretation of Minimum Area Standards as defined by International Residential Code:

The size of the housing units would be limited to the minimum area standards set by the building code. This includes:

1.  R304.1 Every dwelling unit shall have at least one habitable room that shall have not less than 120 square feet of gross floor area**
2.  R304.2 Other habitable rooms shall have a floor area of not less than 70 square fee (except kitchens)
3.  R304.3 Habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet in any horizontal dimension (except kitchens)
4.  R304.4 Portions of a room with a sloping ceiling measuring less than 5 feet between floor and ceiling shall not be considered as contributing to the minimum required habitable area for that room.
5.  R306.1 Requires that every dwelling have a water closet, lavatory, and bathtub or shower (which could be as small as 18sf while still meeting spacing requirements in Section 307)
6.  R306.2 Requires that every dwelling have a kitchen area with a sink 
7.  There are no minimum area requirements for a bathroom. There are space requirements for the various bathroom fixtures, which could be accommodated in 18 square feet.

** The provision for one room of at least 120sf has been eliminated in the 2015 International Residential Code

Conclusion: There is no requirements that the sleeping area or kitchen has to be in a separate room, and with the 120 square foot requirement removed, the legal permitted limit for a tiny house could be as small as 88 square feet (70sf room + 18sf bath)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Movement growing toward legalizing tiny houses—120 square foot requirement eliminated from building code!

According to Tom Meyer, a building official active in the revision of modern building codes that inhibit affordable and sustainable residential construction, the requirement that each dwelling have at least one habitable room of 120 square feet has been eliminated in the 2015 International Residential Code. Below we see a view of the new 2015 IRC, courtesy of Meyer:


This came as a surprise to me as I recently wrote a post titled, "Navigating minimum square footage requirements for tiny houses WITHOUT a trailer — International Residential Code says it can be as little as 138 square feet"

My point was that the minimum area regulations were not that bad, and that it is in fact municipal ordinances—not the building code—that are the real legal barrier to building tiny houses. But this change will make the building code even less of an issue—allowing for a legal dwelling under 100 square feet.

Now all habitable room just have to meet the minimum area of 70 square feet and height of 7 feet (already the requirement for all "other habitable" rooms besides the previously required 120 square foot room).

In a previous post back in 2010, Meyer notes that he is also responsible for adding the exemption for kitchens not having to meet minimum area requirements, allowing the kitchen to not have to have its own designated room:

"Kitchens are deeded habitable, but are exempt from the minimum room area. Earlier editions of the code required 50sf for this location. The current exception was also one of my code changes. If was quite a battle to get the ICC membership to delete this requirement. However, we prevailed. Based on this experience, it may be quite difficult to delete the 120sf and 70sf minimums in future codes. However, I think that a proposal to do so is certainly worth consideration for the 2015 edition."

And it looks like his proposal was indeed worth consideration. See his argument for removing the 120 square foot room requirement below:


Meanwhile, Eli Spevak has put out a proposal titled "A Legal Path to Tiny Homes in Portland." The proposal would allow for both small auxiliary structures (under 200 square feet) and tiny houses on wheels to be legally accepted as habitable structures, provided they meet a property maintenance code and receive a "temporary certificate of occupancy."

Read Spevak's full tiny house proposal here.

I have been working on a proposal of my own for a municipal ordinance that would allow for tiny house developments (THDs)—allowing for the development of tiny house communities on parcels in residential zones. To develop this ordinance, I'm drawing from Ross Chapin's extensive work with "pocket neighborhoods" and the "cottage housing" codes he helped craft around Seattle. More on that soon.

Pocket Neighborhoods by Ross Chapin

Follow-Up Post: "A Legal Path for Tiny House Communities"

Monday, October 20, 2014

An aerial view of Eugene, Oregon's alternative approach to dealing with homelessness

Between 2013 and 2014, two new non-profits have added 60 spaces of safe, dry shelter in Eugene, OR. This includes 30 units of micro-housing by Opportunity Village Eugene and 30 "rest stop" spaces by Community Supported Shelters (known as the Safe Spot and the Vet's Camp).

While this may be a drop in the bucket when looking at the estimated 1,300 citizens going unsheltered in Lane County's 2011 point-in-time count, it's a relatively quick and drastic move in the right direction—especially when compared to the rate at which more conventional non-profits have been adding shelter beds.

Google recently updated their satellite imagery, and now we can see what this shift looks like from above (click here to see for yourself). Quite a contrast to the large, sprawling scale of surrounding development. Below I take a historical look at the site on which Opportunity Village is located (111 N. Garfield St.), courtesy of good ol' Google Earth.

1995 - the two acre site hosted a 34-unit trailer park
2005 - empty spaces begin to appear at the trailer park
2006 - only a few trailers remain at the site
2011 - the property is acquired by the city through eminent domain and
rezoned as industrial - the property is lightly used for storage of city vehicles.
2012 - plans are put forth to develop a large city storage facility, but no
funding is available to begin the project
2013 - city council approves the site for a "transitional micro-housing project"
 as a one-year pilot project, pending the acquisition of a conditional use permit.
OVE develops the above illustrative plan and acquires a CUP for the site.
2014 - Opportunity Village opens in August 2013 and piecemeal development occurs through May 2014.
Following a recommendation by staff, council has since extended the lease through June 1, 2016. 

What do you think about the view of Opportunity Village from above?

Read more about how Opportunity Village came to be and how to start a similar model in your town by picking up a copy of the new book—Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Upcoming Presentations

I have four presentations coming up in Northern California in mid-November that will cover content from the book as well experiences in starting Opportunity Village—with the intent of building momentum for getting similar projects started in other areas. I'm excited to give these presentations is such close proximity to each other to demonstrate that there is a regional demand for this type of shelter model, and that it is not a fringe idea that would put politicians out on a limb. Dates include:

November 9 — Chico, CA

November 10 — Nevada City, CA

November 11 — Martinez, CA

November 15 — Eureka, CA

To find out more information about one of these presentations, or to arrange one in your town, contact me here.

Below is a recent article about the Nevada City event:

"Nevada County has a housing crisis. Many people, not just our chronically homeless, are finding themselves without shelter. There are not enough affordable rentals. Individuals and families are having to share anything that is available. A single paycheck is no longer adequate to pay rent and then cover remaining living expenses and food. As a result more Nevada County residents are becoming homeless.

On Nov. 10, Sierra Roots, a 501c3, based in Nevada City, is hosting a presentation on the micro-house village model, Opportunity Village, which has already gained success in Eugene, Ore. Andrew Heben, author of “Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages,” will be the speaker for the evening. He will discuss the kind of collaboration that has emerged simply by making a space available for local community resources."

Read the full article here:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Two Ends of the Ever-Evolving Tiny House Movement

Below are a couple of new videos that have featured Opportunity Village. The first is by PBS and the second was produced here in Eugene. I've also included a third called "Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House." The short film begins at Boneyard Studios, and highlights the urgent need in DC for new affordable housing options, such as tiny housing. It also takes a historical look at zoning in the US—a major legal barrier to tiny houses—and claims that the one major city that has remained without zoning—Houston, TX—is actually the most affordable large city in America.

You may notice that the housing in the first two videos looks quite different from the tiny houses in the third video. This juxtaposition illustrates the two ends of the spectrum of the ever-evolving tiny house movement—simple, bare-bones structures at one end and elaborately detailed structures on the other. One aimed at providing a very basic housing option for those with little to no income, and the other aimed at  providing a novel housing option for the middle class that preserves many of the conveniences of the modern house.

OVE's next project, Emerald Village, will fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum—offering the next step in the legal evolution of tiny house communities.