Every time my daughter gets to choose the show we watch on television she picks some variation of a show where prospective buyers are searching for a tiny house. The programming on HGTV includes shows like Tiny House Living, Tiny House Hunters, and Tiny House Builders. This programming, which seems to run constantly, is reflective of the wave of new consumer interest in bucking the American tradition of “bigger is better.”
The tiny house phenomenon makes sense for the consumer. The initial investment is much smaller than what is needed for a typical single-family detached home, which is particularly appealing to new college graduates with high student debt and retirees on a fixed income. Moreover, the ongoing costs of maintaining the tiny home are comparatively lower as well. The tiny house options also create a much smaller carbon footprint, which is appealing to environmentally-conscious consumers. Therefore, the interest in tiny houses likely will continue to grow at a rapid pace.
But like most new housing trends, the consumer interest is ahead of the land use regulations and municipalities are playing catch up. Most land use ordinances regulate residential development on the assumption that the residential development will be in the form of post-World War II single-family detached dwellings on subdivided lots. The regulations also likely contain a minimum habitable floor area requirement that was adopted originally to ensure a safe dwelling size but later may have been increased to require larger homes as a way of protecting home values.
Municipalities should consider updating their land use ordinances to permit tiny housing options. The tiny house options provide great opportunities for in-fill development and redevelopment. Moreover, the tiny housing provide a more affordable housing option that provides greater housing diversity for communities. Municipalities need to regulate tiny housing expressly rather than rely on existing regulations that apply more broadly to all forms of residential development. The Air BnB boom should have taught municipalities the risk in not regulating a use expressly.
Municipalities that choose to regulate tiny housing options expressly will have a number of typical land use issues to consider. For example, how will the tiny house be served for sewer and water? What kind of access and off-street parking is required? Will the unit be permitted on the same lot as other units or an existing dwelling? Some regional planning agencies, like the Lancaster County Planning Commission have issued reports to support municipalities in their efforts to plan for tiny housing options. These reports are great resources for municipalities that choose to take a tiny first step to properly plan for the tiny living trend.