A Plan For the Micro Home and Micro Apartment Industry

Following is a letter written by Walt Barrett to the Mayor of Providence, RI. Walt would like to encourage you to pass the letter on to the mayor of your town or city and try to make some changes across the country.

Guest Post by Walt Barrett

Dear Mr. Mayor,

This is a very flexible framework of an idea to help the cities and the citizens. There is a growing movement in the world today towards building and living in smaller homes which are often referred to as micro homes, or micro apartments. The idea being that smaller homes are less expensive to build, to heat, and to cool. Smaller homes also require less space which is an ideal situation for any crowded city with a housing problem. Micro homes are very green in design and take a lot less material and labor which keeps the prices down and enables people who may never have had the opportunity to purchase their own home or to rent a decent home to do so.

Now if you consider that most cities need tax revenue, and that we have such a high rate of unemployment, I think that my suggestion has merit and everyone concerned should give it careful thought.

Basically, I am suggesting that the cities and towns that are experiencing revenue and housing problems amend their zoning laws and building codes to allow the judicious building of these micro homes and micro apartments. For example, if there is a home located on a decent size lot, and the home owner wishes to invest in a rental unit to be placed in the rear of the building, and if there is room for a proper parking space etc. then he, or she should be allowed to file for a permit. Let’s take a large three family dwelling that needs rehabbing for example. The investor who buys it should be able to either gut it, or tear it down, and turn the property into perhaps as many as twelve micro apartments. This part of my plan is not rocket science and should be doable with some minor zoning changes.

Now, the second part of my plan is that through building an experimental model, our company has realized that these smaller homes (128 sq ft to 800 sq ft) are highly mass producible and simple to build either in kit form or in certain sizes fully assembled and delivered to the site. It is also noteworthy that many people are powering these homes either fully, or partially off the power grid with solar and small wind power. We find this inexpensive if you stick mostly to lighting systems and hot water. One hundred percent off the power grid is still pricey, but partial systems save money and have the added incentive of tax credits in some areas.

Here is where we create the jobs. I suggest that in a city, like Providence RI, where there appear to be many abandoned factories and other buildings, that they take one of those buildings in a partnership with private industry and set up an assembly plant to produce these homes and prefabbed apartment walls sections etc. A precondition of such an agreement could be that the workers would be hired and trained only if they were residents of the city of Providence only if it is legal. A program like this would add additional tax revenue to the city, and it would also provide some decent jobs. Also, all building materials would be purchased locally as part of the agreement. The cost of the homes should be limited to approximately one hundred dollars a square foot or adjusted as necessary to local conditions. Another idea is to have local businesses that benefit from the program contribute to the program either financially or by providing free training.

My personal philosophy in business is that there does not always have to be a huge profit in every business deal. There are times when we all have to give something back. I pray that idea has not died in this new day and age. When I was a young man everyone pitched in and pulled together to solve the problems in the cities and towns. We can still fix things if we all pull together. I can tell you this. If we don’t fix things soon, we are going down. This is a serious problem.

This is the spine of my idea, and basically it is pretty simple idea and can be tested on a small scale. I’m sure that there are some rough edges that need to be trimmed, but like I said, “It isn’t rocket science,” and sooner, or later is is going to have to be done anyway. Why not take the lead in the race to the future of our cities.

Our Governor has recently, publicly asked Rhode Island business people for their suggestions to help make up for the huge deficit in our budget. This is one of my suggestions, which I think is better suited for the city of Providence than for the State of RI. I believe it needs to be executed primarily by the private sector and the states role should be to strictly enforce the building codes, rules, and regulations, and benefit from the fees, permits, and taxes. We realize our cities need money to operate.

Respectfully yours,
Walt Barrett, President
A to Z Global Marketing Inc.

Note: Permission to reprint is granted. Please give credit to this blog site. © 2011 Walt Barrett

Photo Courtesy Katz Architecture

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Walt Barrett - April 19, 2011 Reply

Good Morning,
I am not saying that this idea I have submitted is perfect, but it is the seed of an idea. It can be bent and shaped and molded into something that could really help solve our poverty and housing problems. The proper rules and regulations can be made to keep the housing under the proper control and not abused by unscrupulous developers etc. You all know the drill. Please consider passing the idea on so that we can at least try to develop an atmosphere to develop the micro home industry and create new jobs and affordable housing.

Les Wes - April 19, 2011 Reply

It all sounded good until this paragraph.

“A precondition of such an agreement could be that the workers would be hired and trained only if they were residents of the city of Providence only if it is legal. A program like this would add additional tax revenue to the city, and it would also provide some decent jobs. Also, all building materials would be purchased locally as part of the agreement. The cost of the homes should be limited to approximately one hundred dollars a square foot or adjusted as necessary to local conditions. Another idea is to have local businesses that benefit from the program contribute to the program either financially or by providing free training.”

If it were your business, I’d say “great! way to be ambitious and work within those ethical constraints”. But don’t ask government to place onerous burdens on other people’s businesses. I won’t be sending this letter to my governor.

    Walt Barrett - April 19, 2011 Reply

    Hi Les,
    I knew that this paragraph would be a bone in someone’s throat. That is fine with me, but please don’t condemn the whole idea. Just change what you don’t like, and let’s keep moving forward. I think we are all on the same team in the long haul.
    The paragraph was in there because without it there is very little control over political corruption in the program if you stop and think about it, but please, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The consumer must be protected.
    Thanks for commenting.

      Tim - April 19, 2011 Reply

      Hi Walt, I really like the letter and hope that it generates some dialog with the Major for you, and hopefully even more in the way of them taking action.

      As far as workers having to be hired from within the city this is very common in colorado, all City of Denver Fire and PD must be residents of the city…some were grandfathered that were hired a long time ago, but all others must live in the city to be able to work there. Another way that Denver generates tax revenue is that if you live outside the city and commute into the city of denver to work you must pay a privilge tax, $69.00 a month, I have paid this for over 25 years now just to be able to work in the city of denver, just a thought and maybe something to think about.

      I want to be able to live in a Tiny home of my own chose someday, and I want to be able to do it legaly if possible, I hope that progress is made in this area for all concerned.

        Les Wes - April 19, 2011 Reply

        Thanks for the replies, Tim and Walt. Two things:
        I realize it may be tempting to try and skew the letter to highlight all the wonderful taxes that could be collected, thinking that this is what governor’s are interested in. I would argue that it is more important to let governor’s know that we are self-possessed, charitable, social people who are committed to making our own choices with our own time and money. The governor’s work for us after all.
        Two, it saddens me to think that all this time Tiny Homes have struggled against protectionist regulations and special favors aimed at the status quo house building industry, and now, instead of seeking to be free of these regulations, we just want to enact special favors of our own. People who care about local materials and green energy, will pay for those things voluntarily. What about people who just want a cheap tiny house? Should they not be allowed to deal with a company who buys their countertops from Asia?

          gregor - April 19, 2011 Reply

          I think this is great. I have taken a bunch of notes on what I want to say to my local politicians, most of it quite different.

          I think, as a constructive suggestion, those here who differ in opinion on the details (such as myself) of this letter could maybe write a letter too, which reflects your ideas and opinions on the matter.

          Then post it on your blog or in the tiny house forum as well so people can see the letter being sent.

          I will try to get around to writing one and posting it in the next few days. It would be interesting to see what the politicians say if they answer, and I can send it to several of them.

          Plus it is sort of satisfying to kick the can…

mybluemake - April 19, 2011 Reply

Now, this is the stuff. I’d love to see an initiative like this started elsewhere.

I’d also love to see the legal/code/design followers of this blog get together and write a model ordinance that would allow for tiny homes, and smaller homes, and multiple small homes on mid-size or larger lots in jurisdictions that prohibit such. I like what Shoreline, WA (so I’ve been told) did to allow single user cottages on larger lots. Creating a model ordinance, or a set of model ordinances would be helpful for those who would wish to advocate for change in their communities.

Lars - April 19, 2011 Reply

There are issues stemming from an increase in micro dwellings that often will dissuade local legislators from adding micro housing and especially micro apartments to code and zoning statutes. These types of dwellings can be seen as places that would attract low-income renters/dwellers which in turn could hurt neighboring property values and “attract the wrong kind of people”. In particular micro apartments in what were larger homes are deal breakers to legislators besieged by neighbors afraid of getting “undesirables” for neighbors. I have seen this happen in my own home town. A large home that had been converted into apartments back in the 70s had sat abandoned and was recently bought at auction by a person who was willing to completely restore the “eyesore” as rentals (I think there were between 8-10 apartments). The neighbors all petitioned the town to disallow the restoration because they “remember when that place was full of trouble makers”. So the eyesore still sits there as the owner debates with everyone else (he even was willing to reduce the number of apartments to 6, but to no avail). And it’s easy for us as proponents of micro dwellings to reply that it isn’t the case but unfortunately the history of smaller dwellings indicates to legislators and their constituents that sooner or later, no matter how nice the dwellings are, the bad element will move in and cause trouble. It’s a matter of perceptions changing along with the zoning and codes and that’s a whole lot harder to accomplish. All the benefits that I see in the article can be brushed aside by ignorance and fear.

    Walt Barrett - April 19, 2011 Reply

    Hi Lars,
    You make a lot of very good points, but as I see it these are problems that have to be handled sooner or later. They need ideas from smart people that think things through, or suffer the consequences.

    gregor - April 19, 2011 Reply

    Yes, an ancient problem, unfortunately.

    Unfortunately people as a group can be pretty vicious and unthinking. Which is one of the things the constitution/bill of rights (in my case) is supposed to protect people from.

    Also, the term “undesirables” is an excellent term. It belies the persecutors for what they really are.

    At the same time, cities do tend to realize that less wealthy people will live somewhere in the city, and a more even distribution throughout the city may be the way to go, rather than forcing everyone to live in slums.

    Stand alone tiny houses in backyards are of course a nearly ideal way to add low cost housing in the middle of regular neighborhoods.

Holly - April 19, 2011 Reply

Thanks for posting such a great letter, Walt. I too plan on writing my mayor in Boston and will include the blueprints of the tiny house I’ve just designed for my own use. In visualizing a “tiny house,” one needs to see the potential of much more than a cheap, metal shanty. Hopefully more tiny house enthusiasts will also write their mayors to request change to the minimum square footage codes.

David - April 19, 2011 Reply

Has anyone designed or built and Art Deco type micro yet?

Walt Barrett - April 19, 2011 Reply

I have always said that when you put yourself out there on the internet, or any other media source that the people will come down on all sides of any idea, especially as to what government should or should not do. Any part of what I suggested is bound to offend someone. I realize every time I write something that some folks will hate it and others may love it. I always maintain that ideas are made to be modified, and adjusted for the good of everyone. That is how successful organizations are run.
I know there are places where my ideas as presented will not work, but there are also places where they will. That’s why they put delete keys, and back spacers on keyboards. We have some very serious problems in this country today that are getting worse daily. The growing number of poor people is alarming. If we cant pick through the bones of these ideas for change, and sort things out, then as a people, we have a serious problem. I also realize that some people are negative about everything, and come down on the opposite side of any discussion. It’s all part of the program. How about we all get together, and sort the ideas out so we can move forward and try to improve housing conditions for our working poor. Many times, neighborhoods get trashed because local governments allow it to happen because they do not enforce their own laws. I can give you a thousand reasons why any idea will not work. How about someone giving me one good reason why it could work. I did not cast the idea in concrete, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I am simply asking the positive people to pass it on and let the various recipients thrash it out for themselves. You never can tell what will come out of the other end of the grinder.

Patty - April 19, 2011 Reply

The only thing I would like to add is the use of reclaimed materials from some of these unused factories, homes and other buildings would also be very eco-friendly. A cooperative effort by residents of communities should also be encouraged. Definitely the movement to micro-building should be embraced by local government. Thanks for addressing this issue.

frank - April 19, 2011 Reply

i think the idea is good as long as home built tiny houses qualify as well as the manufactured home described in the article.

Walt Barrett - April 19, 2011 Reply

I have read all the responses so far today and they are all great. I am only allowed limited time at my computer because of suffering four strokes this years so I am going to try to cover several objections in one response.
1. We need building standards, or people will build dangerous unsafe buildings.
2. We are a nation of laws, and like it or not the law should be obeyed. If the law is unjust then go through the proper process and fix it.
3. We need a certain amount of business regulation or the consumers would be totally ripped off.
4. We cannot allow people to build poorly designed shanty towns with yards that are nothing but trash dumps, junk cars and raw sewerage running around the neighborhood with rats running everywhere, and all the rest of the deal that goes along with the package. I lived in a neighborhood like that in the nineteen thirties and it’s not a good way to live.
5. There is a lot of anti government sentiment going around these days, but in the case of safe clean, economical housing there is no room to skip any steps in the equation. We have to always consider public health, and safety in whatever we build. There has to be a normal degree of control. I have seen the consequences when there is not.
6. I never said I had the best idea, or all the right answers. All I’m saying is that its time we take a hard look at the problem and address it before we have an even bigger problem.
Thanks for responding,

    Les Wes - April 19, 2011 Reply

    Hello Walt, Thank you for your thoughtful replies. I’m sorry that in my original comment may have, in the spirit of internet comment sections, been overly adversarial. I do appreciate that you are taking more progressive and proactive action than a majority of the human race. So, thank you for that.
    I’d like to respond to your summary by asking you exactly what is “a certain amount of business regulation”, the “steps in the equation” and “a normal degree of control” and who gets to decide those amounts, steps and degrees?
    We (Americans) already have many, many pages of building standards, some are common sense, some are needed public education, some are special favors to industry, and some are contrary to safe and environmentally conscious building and design. Is that really any better than the decisions a private builder would make? The tiny home movement especially is filled with people who are building their own structures making many of these regulations unenforceable, unless they are trying to sell the structure.
    Keeping everyone out of trash filled shanty towns is an admirable goal, but “we” (society, I guess) allow it all the time. Paternalistic crusading is a never ending path, especially when the crusaders aren’t using their own money to do it. I think the Tiny House movement as a whole is a rejection of paternalism. It’s a declaration that we can live however we want to and that the guidelines that have been encoded in law are wrong for us. Well, ours may be wrong for someone else so let’s not just replace the old scheme with our new version of it.

      gregor - April 19, 2011 Reply

      I have read about shantytowns in the past, and one thing that needs to be remembered is that in countries that are not very poor, they are *always*

      – Not almost always, but always –

      a *result* of government action, not a lack.

      In the developed world like the US and Canada, police will destroy anything people try to build, so they can’t spend any money at all on it. Plus they are forced to move often by police action. Read up about “the mad housers” for just a starting point to jump into learning about this.

      It’s a matter of persecution, predation and victimization on the *part* of government in the first place which causes this sort of squalid conditions in the developed world, not a lack.

      Then people gripe and moan about the cost of correcting the problem with social programs and traditional housing, and in the end decide not to do it, and blame the victims for their plight.

Pat Boice - April 20, 2011 Reply

I just bought an interesting book entitled “Pocket Neighborhoods” by Ross Chapin, in which he tells of neighborhoods and cities who have allowed zoning changes for more concentrated housing – small houses but maybe not tiny – but the concept is the same. For anyone interested in the ideas of smaller housing with more shared open space, this is an excellent book. Thanks for your great idea, Walt Barrett!

    Walt Barrett - April 20, 2011 Reply

    Thanks Pat,
    Now that’s what I’m talking about. All we have to do is get people thinking in the right direction, and we can work things out. You know, government never works right unless everyone participates in the process. That’s the way it used to work back in the day before the people abdicated their rights to participate in the process. We have a chance to revitalize the home building industry, and create thousands of jobs but I sense a lot of hostility and negative thinking out there from several sides, and we have to get by it. Frankly, I shared a lot of those thoughts at one time or another but I am hoping to inspire some change in government attitudes toward small homes and small businesses. Let’s give government another chance to prove that they are not the number one enemy of small businesses and to the small home industry. We have to make it work, or come up with a whole new set of options, and make the necessary changes. Young people that are coming up these days deserve to have a home just as we did in our time. Honest businessmen who wish to build and sell decent homes for our future generations should be able to do so, and crooked politicians who try to extort money from them for permits should be reported directly to the FBI with no hesitation – It works. We have several going to federal prison right now as I write this.
    It is time to stand up and take our country back. It’s our country the last time I checked.
    A quick story – We had a problem here locally with an illegal concrete wall that was blocking the view on a very dangerous intersection. The town ignored all the complaints for years. When I moved back to the neighborhood after being away forty-five since the Korean war I recognized the problem and organized twenty-one of the neighbors to go to the next public safety meeting and we got the town to remove the wall and rebuild it properly. It cost $40,000.00 but they did it. Around here twenty-one votes can cost you an election. Politicians understand votes. Have I made my point?
    Thanks for commenting.

      tnrkitect - April 20, 2011 Reply

      Courtyard Houses were popular in Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 30’s. These were essentially tiny houses situated along or around a common yard or courtyard. Some were attached, some detached. They were marketed to the single people that were able to afford better accommodations than apartments, essentially condos before there were condos. They were built to a high quality, and are still very desirable and holding up well 90 years later. They have been researched extensively and the results published in the book Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles.

      I mention all of the above as an additional parti (to use an architect’s vocabulary) or option that may be more palatable to your local zoning officials, who are by nature, adverse to anything “new” and unproven.

      Great letter, and a good start to the discussion!

Cheryl - April 20, 2011 Reply

Walt thank you and will mail a copy to my governor. She needs to get this. It didn’t surprise me you wrote this…we think alike. Let’s hope you and all the rest of us can get them to listen.

    Walt Barrett - April 20, 2011 Reply

    Hi Cheryl,
    Thanks for commenting. I know that eventually all this will get worked out. Unfortunately these things do take a lot of time,guts,and patience, but we will prevail.

Bob H - April 20, 2011 Reply

Maybe try the same thing at your local ( town & county ) level.

Les Wes - April 20, 2011 Reply

Just curious Walt. . . Are you really the president of China Depot?
“China Depot is a volume distributor of imported Chinese products specializing in tractors and generators”

This seems a bit at odds with your main tenants in the letter above.

    Walt Barrett - April 20, 2011 Reply

    Hi Les,
    Actually, http://www.chinadepot.com is one of several small internet companies that I happen to own. I was 65 when I started China Depot as a hobby business. We tried to purchase American made products for resale but found out that all compact tractors and most diesel generators are made in Asia. So I named the web site China Depot. I never thought it would be a big deal but at one point grew to over 1000 pages. We assemble tractors in Connecticut.
    We also manufacture products in the USA. Battery Chem is used in Recycling millions of batteries. I invented it 25 years ago. We sell granite and marble, we make films, and we build solar water, lighting, and power systems here in the USA.
    We have built a test bed micro home and are prepared to go into mass production when the time is right, and when we do we will pop them out like model T Fords. I always like Chairman Khruschev’s quote better though, “we’ll make them like sausages” when referring to the nuclear missiles. We do any legal business we can do.
    Sorry, I’m rambling.

      Les Wes - April 21, 2011 Reply

      Not at all! It’s interesting stuff. I wonder why, when you’ve found such success in dealing with resources from all over the world, you would seek to limit businesses in the tiny home industry to only using local materials. Is your test bed micro home that you are ready to start manufacturing, made using only local materials?

alice - April 20, 2011 Reply

An experiment in social housing using containers in Vancouver BC is in the works, waiting for approval. http://www.montrealgazette.com/business/open-house/Shipping+containers+pitched+cheap+housing/4549459/story.html http://www.journalofcommerce.com/article/id43853 Interesting that this video shows up on a construction industry website, which may give it more legitimacy with other jurisdictions considering similar projects.

    Brand - April 20, 2011 Reply

    That seems pricey at $85,000/unit for 320 sqft. Did that include the land cost? I love the concept of container housing, particularly as a solution for low-income areas and university towns.

      alice - April 20, 2011 Reply

      Does not include land cost which in Vancouver is unbelievably high but it does include all permit and other related development costs. They are still several thousand dollars per unit cheaper to build than regular apartments would be in this area and a lot faster to complete, also can be set up as temporary housing if needed. This lot is right in the middle of the poorest area in Vancouver, possibly in all of Canada yet still cost over $300,000. They are going all out to make these extra nice since they’re the first and have some pretty high hurdles to get over for approvals. There are extra costs involved for safety features as well since they are social housing. They are not for sale, only provided to a limited group of people.

      There are market rental tiny apartments built by other groups, actually smaller than the container apartments at 270 sq ft but I don’t know what they cost to build, supposedly rent for around $675. http://www.6717000.com/blog/2010/02/burns-block-small-space-residency-has-a-big-history/

      A 381 sq ft co-op apartment well outside the downtown area is currently listed for sale at $108,000 (for comparison).

Brand - April 20, 2011 Reply

Subtracting out land costs, most condos in the U.S. run about $100/sqft. There’s nothing special about being in a city that should triple the raw construction cost for a low rise apartment. Especially when the frame is a recycled shipping container.

    alice - April 20, 2011 Reply

    Well, the first step is getting the things approved, then the costs can start to come down as they get more common. Some of the high cost may be due to a lot of extra engineering reports and whatnot required to get them accepted in the first place. Average construction cost here is supposedly around $200 to $300 per square foot at the moment.

Walt Barrett - April 21, 2011 Reply

I just wanted to comment that as of this morning 4/21/2011 at 6:36 AM I have not knowingly received any responses from any Mayors, or City officials. Also, I’m not worried about the current cost of micro homes because after being is business for many years I have learned that people will only pay what they can afford, or what they think is fair and there is always a business person around that is willing to take a smaller profit to get the business,it works,They can’t eat those vacant homes and apartments.

patio deck - April 28, 2011 Reply

Nice article! Micro homes are very green in design and take a lot less material and labor which keeps the prices down and enables people who may never have had the opportunity to purchase their own home or to rent a decent home to do so. Thanks for very helpful information.

rocky mountain element 30 - August 26, 2013 Reply

Croce’s. Very cool, nice place, even if you have no idea who Jim Croce is!

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