Making the rounds this morning is the news that the City of Seneca, Missouri, located about an hour and 20 minutes Southwest of Springfield at the Oklahoma state line, is proposing enacting a tiny house ordinance that is being championed by a local insurance agency owner, Eric Lofland. The tiny house community is of course enthused, but before people hook up and move, they need to understand what is going on.
The City of Seneca, like many other communities is sensing the groundswell of popular support for the tiny house movement as evidenced by the influx of popular shows on cable and the increased buzz around the tiny house movement. As a small town (population 2,348) they may consider the cachet of tiny houses as being a way to attract more residents to their city.But, as the city council members are most likely business men active in the local community, there is probably a bit of pragmatism combined with a conservative outlook in their world view. (I don’t know them, however in my interactions with small town city council members across the nation, there are enough commonalities found that I feel fairly confident in that assessment). As such, I am not surprised that the ordinance to regulate tiny houses as part of the building inspection services the city offers was tabled for further discussion, pending “…feedback from other city’s who have a tiny house ordinance to determine when it will go into effect in Seneca.”
As the local NBC affiliate explained;
City leaders say the guidelines are needed to prevent people from setting up sheds or mobile units to live in that the current ordinance doesn’t allow.“We don’t want something that looks terrible. We don’t want something that’s going to fall down in 10 years. We want a good, well built house. We want people to be proud to own one. And we want the neighbors to be proud to live next door to one,” said Vance.
In other words, lets not be hasty here folks! This is some newfangled fad, and if you open the door to this, there is no telling what sort of undesirables may flood the place! People will be putting up shacks and turning the place into a homeless camp!
Now, reading the snarky commentary above, you may think that I am among those who feel that regulation of tiny homes is a bad thing. To the contrary, I think regulation of tiny homes is a good thing, to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the tiny house denizens. BUT, the regulations need to be written such that they encompass not only site built tiny homes, but also tiny houses on wheels, and not just commercially built / purchased ones, but also those built by the owners.
Building codes in the United States were developed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the building occupants. They are are a result of the tragedies incurred by the deplorable condition of the slums and factories of the late 1800’s – early 1900’s, and serve to set minimum standards that all buildings must be designed to meet, by building and use. Developed organically by different regional regulatory authorities to meet the needs of the states within their respective regions, the three major code developing organizations recognized the need for a unified, nationwide code and came together to form a consensus code combining the best of all three legacy codes. This unified code is known as the International Building Code and covers all buildings other than 1 and 2 story residential structures aka houses. Houses are covered in the International Residential Code.
Although there later versions have some requirements that I believe are overkill, the ultimate goal of the code is to ensure that in the event of an emergency (such as a fire, earthquake, wind storm, etc.) the occupants are able to survive. This is a good thing. And as I explained in a previous post, the current form of the International Residential Code is tiny house friendly.
Where some people get confused however, is that there is another form of regulation that towns and cities put in place for buildings, and that is zoning. Zoning regulations are designed to allow a jurisdiction to control what is built, how, and where. They were first enacted in New York City as a reaction to the increasing number of tall buildings being built in the early 20th century, along with the encroachment of factories and industrial uses into incompatible residential and commercial neighborhoods. They are typically found in towns, cities, and more populated counties. At their worst, Zoning Regulations codify NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) and serve to keep undesirables out of town.
Most tiny housers run afoul of zoning regulations, as tiny houses fall into a grey area not normally address by the regulations. As such, the enforcing agency typically states that tiny houses are not allowed. Some classify them as RVs, which are typically forbidden from being used as permanent residences. Others classify them as mobile homes, and forces them into mobile home parks only, if allowed at all. Regardless, it is the zoning regulations that need to be made tiny house friendly.
Many jurisdictions categorize tiny houses as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and regulate them in that manner. An ADU is typically defined as a secondary residence on a property within a residential area, or in laymen’s terms, a second, smaller house or apartment on a building lot. These traditionally included servant’s quarters turned rental units, such as carriage houses or garage apartments, or even a servant’s house behind the main house.
Most jurisdictions that allow tiny houses as ADUs require that they be built or mounted to a foundation, and have connections to the city’s water, electrical, and sewer systems. This by definition outlaws Tiny Houses on Wheels (THOW) in these jurisdictions. Some locales have modified their laws to allow THOWs as ADUs, but regardless, the tiny house is not allowed to be the primary residence on a property.
However there are a few forward looking communities that have specifically addressed tiny houses within its zoning regulations, to include THOW. These communities have realized that not everybody’s idea of the American Dream involves a 5,000 s.f. McMansion on a quarter acre lot.
Rockledge, Florida, just south east of Cape Canaveral, is one of these forward thinking communities. Rene’ Hardee, head of the Florida Chapter of the American Tiny House Association, has worked with them to enact a model zoning code for tiny houses that not only includes THOW, but also pocket communities of tiny houses within residential neighborhoods.
Her post on Tiny House Talk; How Do I Get Zoning Passed for Tiny Houses in my Area? is an excellent primer on how to approach your local officials on modifying their Zoning regulations. A copy of the Rockledge Tiny House Model Codes can be found here.
If you are serious about working with your local jurisdiction on getting Tiny Houses legalized, the American Tiny House Association can help!