Following is a guest post by one of my readers.
Approximately an eon ago, I sent an email to Kent saying I think the issue of where to site a tinyhouse needs more discussion. Apparently he’s a genuine time management ninja, because he threw the ball right back at me and invited me to do a guest post, so I finally got around to it now.
I have tried to find a solution for this in my own context, in Ottawa here, and for a wheeled tinyhouse. Unfortunately, after looking into practical solutions, and into what it takes to change the relevant bylaws, I’ve come to the conclusion that changing the bylaw(s) might just end up being the best way to make placing a tinyhouse practical, if only people want it enough to cooperate just a tiny bit (and I meant that to apply to other cities, too). It might not be all that hard, all things considered, I think, because as I’ll elaborate on below, there are some cities that do allow them in one form or another.
Anyway, I have tried to find out:
A) Why there are there rules banning RVs in one form or another, anyway, (since tinyhouses usually get treated as rvs).
B) What are the relevant sections of the laws, and can they be accomodated somehow?
C) What are the penalties for breaking the bylaws?
I still haven’t managed to get an answer to C, not even a ballpark figure, because the city keeps giving me the runaround saying that would depend on what the bylaw officer decides. For B, the defective law is the “zoning bylaw”. It’s just one “law” with a bunch of subsections, which you can find on the web. Now, the relevant section – brace yourself for this, now – basically, they ban everything except certain, narrowly defined things in each zones. Which obviously inherently bans any sort of innovation or improvements, of any sort.
Anyway, the legislation has a definitions section, and it looks like wheeled tinyhouse would be cassified as a “mobile home,” which by their definition has wheels. “Recreational vehicles” (presumably the same) can be parked on your property here, at least, and are treated as a “heavy vehicle”.
A, of course only really matters with regards to changing or challenging the law/unfair enforcement, and maybe avoiding complaints from the neighbors. If we could figure out what people hate about RVs so much, or object to about tinyhouse-like concepts, maybe they could be designed around or away. From what I can tell (though I might be missing some that are out there), there are 5 main complaints:
This is the doosy for Rvs, which have beened banned entirely in some cities from being parked on residential lots for more than a few days, apparently solely because of people’s dislike of the look of RVs. It seems to apply to other objects, though, like a stationary tinyhouse, I quote: “The physical look of a Garden Suite is often the deal-breaker with [neighboring] residents – if this unit does not fit well into its surroundings, residents are not forgiving and will likely resist the entire concept (as witnessed in North Vancouver).” (A “garden suite” is a basically a nonwheeled mobile home in a backyard. That doc is pretty interesting, BTW). Fortunately this doesn’t apply to e.g. the tumbleweeds, because most people seem to find the appearance appealing. Why some people are such assholes they demand control over every visible thing, I don’t know, but I would point out that the good guys actually did triumph in vancouver, where “laneway housing” is now allowed, though there are some aesthetics-based restriction on them.
I just can’t resist adding that, although Jay gets some flack sometimes for the relatively fancy or expensive designs, personally I can’t think of any better way to further the concept than making really charming houses. Unless we could amp that up to breathtaking beauty, now…
2. Changes surrounding housing prices.
This actually goes both ways, if you can believe it. Everyone knows the gripe about reducing surrounding house prices, but if you read the saga of seattle cottage housing and/or vancouver laneway housing, a lot of people are complaining just as much that it might increase their taxes by increasing their (land+) house’s value. But I guess that opens up an interesting possibility, that done carefully, tinyhouses could be as welcome as RVs are reviled in this regard, if they increase the surrounding housing values.
3. Hatred of the sort of people that usually use rvs.
This is an ugly one. I think it was Michael Janzen that described this as viewing them as “bad neighbora.” (I’m not saying at all that he holds that view). But personally I think it’s no better than hating Amish or Jewish or gays, and that society is still happy to openly prosecute a minority group, through the law even, is pretty shameful. For tinyhouse-like things, there are fewer of them, so I don’t know if a stigma problem has developed here.
4. Privacy sight lines.
Basically people don’t want a window that looks into their backyard or own window. Fortunately this could be solved pretty easily by not putting a window on the relevant side, or even solved with set-backs from the property line.
5. People regard them as uncomfortable places to live, and feel threatened by that.
This having nothing to do with concern for the people who live there, and being detached from the hatred of the people who might live there. People just seem to feel threatened, maybe like the bar is being lowered or something. Of course it’s totally irrational, but it does seem to be one of the objections, and one of the kneejerk reactions to tinyhouses, too, though fortunately to a much lesser degree. Also, fortunately most people are smart enough to realize it’s silly.
Fortunately it looks like safety is not a real concern, though of course that is a favourite bogeyman of anyone who objects to something. Some areas require sprinkler systems to be built into the tinyhouse if it is relatively hard to access for fire crews.
But.. how can we practically site a tinyhouse, in a suitable place, right now?
I don’t know, but I know the usual advice is to find a locale that doesn’t have unreasonable building codes, or rent in a trailer park. But for me, and I suspect most people, I need to be in this city, preferably close to work etc. I just want a house that is a bit smaller than usual, and why should that be such a stretch? There’s got to be some way. Some ideas:
A) Just go for it, and when someone complains, deal with it. A few people seem to be taking this approach, but there are still some issues to resolve before even getting started with this one. There may not be a fine, you might just have to move somewhere else and it might take a while before someone complains, but you still have to find someone willing to rent you their backyard to get started. Obviously that problem is going to be compounded, too, if you have to find a new one frequently. People might hesitate even more to rent to you if they think there is the possibility of getting fined, or when they hear you have to plumb into their sewage line. Maybe you could put something in the rental contract that says the fine is your responsibility, so long as you get power of attorney (so you can take it to court, somehow). The city might well win the court case, though. A network of tinyhouse lovers in the city could sure help, especially if some of them were landowners looking to rent some of their land.
b) Rent a backyard, but claim you “live” in a room in the house, or maybe even at another location, and this is just your office. The definition of where you “live” seems to hinge on where you sleep at night, and frankly that’s none of the governments business, so I don’t feel bad lying about it. The municipality might not believe you, though, so you need to be able to take it to court. Same problem here of repeatedly finding a new landowner. Ultimately you need the permission of the owner in the city, since nothing is crown land, hence the focus on backyards. I don’t know what other sort of land there might be, in a light industrial area or something, it could be even harder to persuade the owners.
c) Get a zoning amendment or variance for it. In Ottawa it is an amendment, and I have not been able to find much on how this is done, it could be a lot of work and take too long. While I think you can apply with just the permission of the land owner, you’d probably need them to at least lift a finger in the process, and that could be a barrier. But, if the workload is small or can be applied in duplicate to other amendment applications, one idea might be to apply for amendments at many different properties, and hope one goes through. I found one example of someone who tried an amendment sort of thing for a non-wheeled mobile home, and while it was allowed, the zoning board people demanded that the mobile home only be used for the parents of the owner, and continously, and that in a wooded rural area. I can’t find the exact doc again, but here you can see them alluding to a “Standard Garden Suite Agreement”. However, I have seen 2 foundation-mounted “detached accessory dwelling units” for rent here in ottawa while looking for housing, so maybe it’s doable somehow – would they be anal about if it is on wheels or a foundation? Arg, actually I wouldn’t be surprised. Just calling and asking seems to be the way to clarify this sort of thing, and reading the minutes of meetings.
I don’t want to invade the privacy of the individual of concern here, but I have read the minutes of a town hall meeting where a mobile tinyhouse owner applied for a variance, and the council just tossed it out. For a variance in most areas you are supposed to show that you need it to avoid hardship because of the unusual situation of the property, e.g. it’s too narrow to meet the required setbacks when building a garage, because it’s an unusually narrow lot. Needless to say, this didn’t meet that requirement. I have read, though, that the job of council and the zoning board is to apply the rules literally (and mindlessly). So the bright side is that, although they seem like total assholes, they might just be doing their jobs, and still be open to rule improvements.
d) Confuse them, or go for the cracks in the law.
I have no idea if this would work, but just for example: first it’s a mobile home, then when they ask you to remove that, remove the axles so it’s an unlicensed building, then make it an unlicensed addition to the main house, then it’s a garden suite somehow, then you are not living in it, it’s your office, then either the neighbor stops complaining, or…. move. However the bylaw officers have some discretion about giving fines, so there would have to be a rule about not being able to fine someone for the first of each particular offense, or they might just fine you anyway. Apparently Dee http://portlandalternativedwellings.com managed to use some part of the law that said you could “recreate” in a backyard. Ottawa doesn’t have that anyway, but in any case in a different situation, the city might not agree, and finding a landowner willing to do something different is still a problem.
e) Pay the fine. I wonder what happens next? Probably increasingly large fines, so that’s probably not practical.
f) Just change the stupid laws.
By this point you are are probably thinking what I am thinking. One way or another, by various increasingly convoluted and time consuming methods, you might be able to accomodate these unreasonable law(s), but at the end of the day, changing them might be less work overall, when you add up all the work that would be done by many people using tinyhouses, and over a longish period of time.
I started a facebook group for my city: The Ottawa tinyhouse club. If everyone searches for tinyhouse+(your city) and, if there is no group, starts one, or if there is one, join it, we will self-assemble spontaneously into local tinyhouse lover chapters, and then have the ability to change the laws with a letter campaign, petition, lobbying, or whatever. Like I said, there are some cities where tinyhouse-like things are legal, and the case for tinyhouses is pretty strong. Like Matt Ridley says, it’s whether people actually work together or not that determines what they can do far more than their individual abilities.
Lastly, I just want to say I think this deserves to be discussed more, until it’s solved. A look at the blogosphere indicates that there are a lot of people that agree this is one of the biggest, maybe the biggest, issue facing anyone who wants to use a tinyhouse. Especially so because, unlike the technical and engineering problems with building a tinyhouse, this is a political problem that none of us can solve alone. And yet there is relatively little said about it. We can either work together, or tinyhouses will continue to be smothered by the people who do work together – the government. And big business. Frankly I think we all know they’ve got a big hand in this nonsense, of banning a perfectly sensible concept. And I do think it is the government, not the people, because very few people I have talked to object to the tinyhouse concept, and studies indicate that something like 83% of people approved of or didn’t mind the vancouver laneway houses, which are a much bigger deal to have next door, I would think.
Some links, if your interested: