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


  1. thanks Andrew for spending the time to write this. Scott Kimball

  2. This is a great article, with some hopeful solutions. Please send updates as they come to you. I'd love to know more about the UC Berkeley grad student study. Is there a link/reference to this project?

    1. Thanks Teri! It's currently in the works, but I will make sure to post about the findings when they are released.

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

    This is really two articles but let's address each question separately:

    1) Does HUD really want to make tiny houses illegal?

    First of all, HUD is not trying to make tiny houses illegal. The intention of the proposed rule making is essentially a revision in the language of what is and what is not a manufactured dwelling and is brought to us by, um, manufactured dwelling special interest groups aka the MHCC, the committee who introduced the revision. I suspect proponents of manufactured housing want to tighten up the definitions so their certification process can continue unchallenged--they don't want tinys mucking it up!

    2) Is the (tiny house) movement entering a new phase?

    Yes: the movement needs to advocate for new standards called tiny houses. The movement has been attracting the attention of planning departments who are tasked with deciding how to include tinys: are they permanent or are they temporary? While some will debate this question based on the presence of a trailer, the real determination must be whether they meet safety and health guidelines. Consider modulars: dwellings that arrive on a trailer and are made permanent by attaching them to a foundation. One could argue definitions of modular standards could be revised to include tinys. Or, as our own special interest group, we can advocate for the development of standards specific to tiny houses.

    1. Is there anything on wheels currently permitted for permanent occupancy? I'd support it, but politically it would be an extremely difficult sell. Unfortunately it is not simply whether they meet health and safety guidelines (though that is important!). For centuries public policy has been designed specifically to stamp out transiency and mobility (i.e. hobos).

    2. There's this happening:

  4. It would seem to me that the big builders will be lobbying strongly against changes in the building code.

  5. Everything is temporary... my life, my pets, my home. HUD is there to protect industry, not people. There will be people in HUD and other agencies that see the rules as more important than the lives. These people are quite comfortable in their homes tonight. Any proposal that lessens safe, warm, dry shelter that is affordable to the residents should be opposed. If it is not, it should be ignored, nullification by citizens of oppressive regulations affecting life, liberty and happiness is now mandatory, no?

    1. I agree that any proposal that lessens access to affordable shelter should be opposed, but the proposal being discussed here does not do that in any way.

      "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." - RVIA Press Release

  6. Hey, just to let you guys know, you're supposed to give me credit for the photo being use, per the creative commons copyright it's under:

    1. Hmm... I got it from the Activist Post article that I linked to, which didn't provide a source. Are you the photographer?

  7. G'day from Brisbane Australia, This is a very interesting and well written article. But it appears things are a bit different here in that we have lots of retirement villages with transportable (factory built) houses some arriving in 2 halves etc. And there are "cabins"in caravan parks like the mining construction accommodation Locally known as "Dongas". But our issue is the place you can put them is not freehold (you can't own the site you have to pay someone else rent) what our town planners need to do is allow subdivisions only big enough for tiny houses. It is silly now because in the big smoke (the city) you can live in a tiny flat (apartment) but when you want a tiny house on a tiny block they will only do it if someone takes responsibility for the whole complex (you have to pay rent.

  8. Thank you for this article. You make several good points. I would add that the movement not only encompasses recreational enthusiasts and/or those with foundational aspirations. While it's true that code-mandated square footage minimums would have been cost prohibitive for me, and a 3' door (for example) would have limited creative and practical space planning, land purchase was also beyond my means. Furthermore, neither mobile home parks, nor recreational nomadics appealed. Homeownership was my goal. The tiny approach allowed me to build community with big house owners who rented me a corner of their garden. I will say that by current codes, certifying one's tiny house (the wheely kind) as an RV makes it eligible for insurance in several states now. I am not familiar with the insurance options for a foundation-bound tinies that fall short of square footage minimums. ~MightyMicroBuilt

  9. The Tiny House Movement give people the freedom to have a better quality of live without the stress and financial burden associated with a big mortgage payment

  10. I came here via, and I posted this question there first.

    Personally, I am not a fan of Tiny Houses on Wheels (I LOVE the houses, hate the wheels), and I agree that ZONING codes should allow more alternative building styles. That being said, "zoning" is purely local, and based on keeping property values high, whereas "building codes" are meant to address safety. These HUD regulations screw over Tiny House ON WHEELS owners, and that is JUST WRONG!

    I have a SERIOUS PROBLEM with these new HUD regulations, and because of these regulations, the local "zoning codes" are going to crash head-first into these new "building codes" when it comes to Tiny Houses ON WHEELS. And, even though I personally would rather have a foundation house, there are in fact quite a lot of new Tiny House on Wheels owners who actually DO move their homes around quite often, and these people are now going to be SCREWED OVER by HUD.
    That is DOWNRIGHT WRONG!!!

    This was my post to MiniMotives explaining EXACTLY what is going to happen:

    Why do people compare Tiny Houses on wheels to RV's in the first place? Aren't they more accurately compared to Mobile Homes - the ones that fill Trailer Parks? Those are mobile in the sense that they can be hitched to a truck and moved, but for the most part they sit stationary. Isn't that EXACTLY THE SAME as a Mobile Tiny House???

    My guess is that the decision to compare them to RV's early on was a class factor. As in, nice neighborhoods do NOT allow "mobile homes" in their zoning, but having an (expensive) RV on your lot (not permanently occupied) is ok.

    I was glancing through those HUD regulation links you listed, and to me it sounds like HUD plans to BAN mobile Tiny Houses altogether. In other words, to me, it sounds like Tiny Houses on Wheels will be LIMITED TO ONE STORY - no loft living / sleeping space, based on the height clearance and stair codes alone.

    In that case, the ONLY DIFFERENCE between a "trailer park" Mobile Home and a Tiny House on Wheels will be, at best, the aesthetic look of the design. BUT, if that happens, you can bet your bottom dollar that any jurisdiction that WAS considering allowing a "cute" Tiny House a variance will quickly say "NO!" for fear of being sued by the "trashy" trailer park Mobile Home owners.

    KEEP THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT OUT OF ALTERNATIVE BUILDING!!! The FEDs only care about BIG BUSINESS (NOT small Tiny House and alternative building contractors), such as the Manufactured Housing Lobby, and their POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS.

    Local government cares about their tax base, so bigger = higher taxes, but in over-crowded cities they may be cool with "high-class" Tiny Houses that do not negatively affect the property values of the surrounding properties. Those local jurisdictions are put at risk by building codes limiting Tiny Houses to one story "Mobile Homes" since they cannot legally discriminate between the wheat "high-class Tiny House" and the chaff "Trailer Trash."

  11. oops, forgot to hit notify so I can follow this thread. Ignore.

  12. I really think that you are stretching the point to think that this is some kind of government conspiracy to prevent people from living in tiny houses. If I say that they should have to conform to building codes then I am obviously in the pocket of big business who hates freedom and has deep pockets. The reality is that they need to be SAFER. With more and more people choosing to live in an alternative dwelling, there are more and more opportunities for things to go bad. How can you tell if your builder followed standard safety practices if there is any confusion over what is standard for these kinds of dwelling. This might not seem important but what happens when there is a fire and 2 people are trapped in a sleeping loft. Or a propane stove catches a wall on fire. As more and more builders create these tiny homes, how can you hold them to a standard without specifying what the standard is?

    There is currently a standard for RVs that says that this safety level is acceptable for occasional use as a recreational vehicle. There is another, more stringent, standard for manufactured homes where people are expected to live year round. Tiny houses need these regulations if there are going to be more of them. And frankly, they need to be safer. It would not take that much to add an additional exit in the rear, or push out windows in the loft, or specify fireproof material around heat sources, etc.

    People like to complain about government being involved in where we live, but modern building codes save thousands of lives per year. Just look at the trends in deaths in fires over the last 40 years (down about 50%). And, when there is an accident, and the homeowner is looking to sue someone, there is a clear cut set of rules to check out the builder and make sure that the structure was built properly. That makes it better for the consumer, better for the builder, and better for the insurance company that usually bears most of the financial burden.

    1. I think Unknown is misinterpreting things. Most tiny home types would not argue against sensible rules, in fact I have heard people, like Jay Schafer arguing for them in an effort to make them more legitimate. The main ruling that I have heard people upset about in the current climate is that any thing classified as an RV can only be used in a temporary capacity. That is really not a safety issue. People have been living full-time in RVs for years, thus the term full timers. People live full time in RVs safely even in northern states during the winter. All of the above arguments would be easily addressed with regulations already on the books. I do not need/want a nanny state to protect me from myself. If necessary, I would sign a legal statement that I would not hold the builder, government, etc. responsible for harm, especially some thing as mundane as living in my TH full time. Trying to have them registered as RVs does seem to have backfired, that seems more like a categorization/taxation issue, rather than safety. Regardless, of what they are legally called, I should be allowed to live as I see fit in my travel trailer or TH, without issue.

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