Saturday, April 2, 2016

Does HUD really want to make tiny houses illegal, or is the movement just entering a new phase?

I've seen a ton of misinformation being spread in regards to the legality of tiny houses, and decided to get in on the conversation to try and articulate the irony of this particular juncture in the tiny house movement. The article and video linked below seems as though it must be an April Fool's prank, but these concerns have been circulating for awhile.

"HUD Wants to make living in tiny houses illegal!"
Source: Activist Post; Photo by Guillaume Dutilh

The current controversy is around a new rule proposed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which "proposes to revise the exemption for recreational vehicles that are not self-propelled from HUD’s Manufactured Housing Procedural and Enforcement Regulations... which would define a recreational vehicle as one built on a vehicular structure, not certified as a manufactured home, designed only for recreational use and not as a primary residence or for permanent occupancy..."

While I strongly disagree with policies aimed at delegitimizing transient lifestyles through definitions of what is "permanent," the policy being discussed is not as big of a deal for tiny house enthusiasts as it's being made out to be. In fact, it's a non-issue.

As a recent press release by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) clearly states: "The laws and regulations governing the use of RVs are set at the state and especially at the local municipal and county levels, not by HUD. So the new rule does not affect full-time recreational RVing in any way."

The issue was further clarified here by Andrew Morrison: 

"The new proposal would dictate that a tiny house, if built to ANSI or NFPA standards, is an RV and thus not suitable for permanent occupancy. The reality is that it is already illegal to live permanently in an RV in most places anyway. That is something that local zoning ordinances specifically dictate. So the problem here is the idea of certifying your tiny house as an RV rather than seeking permanent residential status through the building codes division."

Basically, recreational vehicles are typically already disqualified as permanent dwellings anywhere local zoning ordinances are enforced. This is why I did not support recent approaches to legitimize tiny houses by certifying them as RVs, which by definition are not permanent. It shouldn't come as a surprise that HUD is not willing to recognize something on wheels as permanent housing. 

After all, the entire idea of placing these alternative housing structures on wheels in the first place was to escape the formal regulation under the building code!

While placing the humble abodes on trailers was a creative approach for allowing the structures to be built legally, it is very unlikely a path to establishing them as a primary residence. However, this first phase of the tiny house movement was incredibly important in that the trailer provided a vehicle (literally and figuratively) to put forth imagery that persuaded a diverse range of people to rethink housing.

Jay Shafer did not invent the tiny house in the early 2000's—there is a long history of alternative, minamalist architecture. What he did was successfully market a product that had previously been dismissed by the mainstream media as too radical and fringe.  But Shafer's tiny houses were so damn charming and, most importantly, they looked like traditional, idyllic homes, albeit on a miniature scale. Previous iterations, such as those displayed in the 1979 book Rolling Homes, were much more makeshift and not nearly as polished. Likely because these older examples were more often carried out by owner-builders not as concerned with marketing and selling their homes as a product.

Following the media’s initial fascination with this subject as symbols of an economic recession in the mid-2000's, tiny houses on wheels have gone on to capture the hearts and imaginations of a growing number of people. And maybe even more importantly, they have started a public conversation around the over-sized nature of modern housing trends in general.

In the process, the trailer has become an iconic component of a "tiny house"—so much so that some now include it in their definition—but do we really love these simple homes because they are on wheels?

If so, you may not actually be looking for a “permanent” dwelling at all, in which case this this new HUD policy is irrelevant to you. Most legal places to park RVs allow you to stay in one location for a certain amount of time, often up to 30 days. And so if you’re looking for a nomadic lifestyle this is not problem—aside from the deeply entrenched governmental attempts to discredit you from being a legitimate citizen through their definitions of “permanent.” As Tim McCormick pointed out in a recent piece on Medium, the entire idea of “permanent housing" is "a slippery concept, when you consider it.”

But, in my experience hearing from and reading about people living in tiny houses, they hardly ever relocate the structures more than once or twice, in which case designing around the confines of a mobile trailer doesn’t seem entirely practical.

In other words, I'm arguing that the trailer has served its purpose of putting the “tiny house” on the political map, and we are now in a position to move towards a second phase of the tiny house movement.

I agree with Andrew Morrison’s assertion that "the best approach for legalizing tiny houses is not through HUD, it is not through the RVIA [Recreational Vehicle Industry Association], it is through the IRC [International Residential Code].” However, I'm not as concerned as Morrison that the current IRC (the standard building code used in the U.S.) is a major roadblock needing to be overcome.

As was pointed out in a Eugene City Council work session last year, "There’s nothing in the building code that prohibits a tiny house. The building codes seldom prohibit design elements and instead establishes minimum standards. Many tiny house designs incorporate specific elements that them themselves have code challenges—such as ladder access to a sleeping loft or the size of a bathroom. For that reason they are often made mobile by putting them on wheels to avoid being subject to building code. This probably is the cause of the misconception that the tiny house can’t meet the building code requirements.”

And a critical amendment to the 2015 IRC made building tiny much more doable, removing the arbitrary requirement of having one room of at least 120 square feet.

So if the goal is to live full-time in your tiny house in a consistent, long-term location, then put it on a foundation. 

There are a couple of approaches to accomplish this: 1) building the tiny house directly on a foundation, or 2) moving the house by trailer, and then anchoring it to a foundation.

SquareOne Villages is demonstrating the first approach—building on foundations with it’s Emerald Village project in Eugene, OR. You can check out the plans for this permanent, 24-unit tiny home community here. (Note that when I use “permanent” in relation to housing, I mean security of tenure where you have a permanent right to stay in the dwelling).

The second approach of setting a tiny house on a foundation may be suitable to many existing tiny housers, who relocate their houses but on a very infrequent basis. The building code would require the structure to be anchored to the foundation, but there are methods for doing this within existing codes so that it could be dismounted from the foundation and moved by trailer if desired. 

You could even build it on a trailer, remove the wheels, and then anchor your structure to the foundation if you wanted to. "Manufactured dwellings", formerly known as mobile homes (note the rebranding of these structures seems to be a pivot away from any connotation with mobility and transiency), already do this using helical anchors, so no need to reinvent the wheel here. 

In summary, the recent HUD proposal is not as devastating as those click-bait titles suggest. It just means that certifying your tiny house as an RV is not the route for you if your goal is full-time residency in a consistent, long-term location. However, that goal can be achieved through various strategies for attaching tiny houses to foundations.

I don't think HUD has anything against tiny houses in particular. What I do know is that the disconnect between HUD and the American people runs deep.

There is an unmistakable demand for this type of simple housing option, but it appears they are unsure how to adapt something outside of the norm to their convoluted funding streams and requirements. HUD is recently tasked a group of UC Berkeley graduate students to advise them on if and how they should fund tiny house villages as a means to address the lack of affordable housing. Let's hope that this might be a first step in beginning a productive conversation.

For more information on this subject, check out this press release from the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

Follow-up Post: HUD commissioned study recommends building Tiny Home Villages to increase Affordable Housing