JAN 28, 2016 11:16 AM PST

Is the Tiny House Revolution Legal?

The idea of living a sustainable lifestyle has become more popular in the last decade due to our growing population and changing climate. With this global realization and commitment emerge individuals who are determined to embrace an uncluttered simplicity within the actual spaces that they live in. Tiny houses, which often measure to less than 200 square feet, are becoming a movement. There are now three tiny house television programs, a Netflix documentary called Tiny: A Story About Living Small, and hundreds of blogs supporting the tiny house community. As far as architectural design and energy-efficient innovativeness, no one can argue that tiny houses demonstrate a broad platform of creative ingenuity.

However, tiny houses and their owners face complicated controversy coming from the rigidity of zoning laws that fail to encompass this new movement. For tiny house owners who are in search of a place to reside, the processes of obtaining land and residency permits present limitations both on state and local levels. Many of these issues come from antiquated laws that do not include tiny houses in their stipulations - leaving tiny house owners in the gray area without legal means of pursuing their sustainable lifestyle.

Sarah Hastings, a recent graduate from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, is one such tiny house owner. A dual Architecture and Environmental Studies major, Hastings created a somewhat unconventional project for her senior thesis: her own tiny house which she calls Rhizhome, built entirely from salvage or recycled materials collected from a 200 mile radius. After she graduated, she moved her home from her college’s parking lot, where she had been constructing it, to a Hadley family farm where she pays $300 a month for rent. There she lived happily ever after.
 
Hastings's tiny house on the left, next to the farm where she resides in Hadley, MA

Until she received a zoning violation from the town of Hadley stating that her mobile dwelling was in explicit violation of the town’s laws.

Hastings, like other tiny house owners, is very conscious of the obstacles she faces as a pioneer in the tiny house revolution. As of now there are few models of local and statewide laws that specify regulations for tiny houses. Nantucket is the only case in New England that allows and regulates alternative, secondary, and tertiary dwelling units and attached bedrooms. Five counties in California also now have bylaws for alternative dwellings on wheels, which Hastings clarifies are defined differently from mobile homes. In these Californian counties, some of the bylaws are under the condition that the tenant be a caregiver or helper on the land which the house resides. Boneyard Studios, a DC-based tiny house cooperative, commented on the new zoning changes in our nation’s capital and how they could impact the evolution of tiny house legalities: “Tiny houses aren’t illegal in the District of Columbia, and though those choosing to reside in them aren’t given the same rights as those living in larger-footprint homes (like tax benefits or a certificate of occupancy), neither DC’s current code nor the rewrite would criminalize where one chooses to spend their days with permission of the landowner.” Which is to say, the process to regulate tiny houses is as tedious as any other government process in our country. In an exclusive interview, Hastings said of her town zoning laws battle: “This whole thing is exciting and gives me purpose,but it is a struggle because I am spending an unprecedented number of hours at the library typing, rather than living. [However] The fight will be worth it, regardless of the town’s vote in May.” To support Hastings's efforts and sign her petition, visit her Legalize Tiny Homes movement. 

Like Hastings, for many the arduous legal process is worth the tiny house pro list. Not only do composting toilets, greywater reuse systems, and solar panels make one feel good about minimizing her or his ecological footprint, but the cost involved in building a tiny house is a fraction of what it costs to build a larger home. In fact, given that tiny house construction can cost anywhere from $5000-$50,000 in materials and implementation, building a house might cost less than a new car! For more information, get involved with the American Tiny House Association.



Sources: Boneyard Studios, Rhizome, National Geographic 
About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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