For Vacationers, Seasonal Workers, Downsizing Seniors, 'Tiny Houses' Might Fit

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

The architecture of tiny houses can be adjusted to fit well with other structures in the community. TOMAS QUINOA PHOTO / CREATIVE COMMONS

Cape Cod's housing shortage is a big problem. Some say help could come in the form of tiny houses.

Very, very small houses – think about the square footage of a big garden shed or a garage – increasingly have appeal to people who want to live with a modest footprint. It's called the “tiny house” movement, and while they aren't for everyone, these diminutive domiciles have distinct advantages. They also have a major problem: regulators don't know what to make of them.

Good Fit For The Cape?

Set aside the practical questions for the time being, and consider some of the unique housing needs on Cape Cod. More and more people each year are seeking to own a piece of the peninsula as a vacation home, but land is scarce. Affordable summer rentals can be hard to find, too.

“Obviously, they'd be good for rental properties,” said Chris Galusha, president of the American Tiny House Association. Many tiny houses are used as lakefront cabins or deep woods getaways, offering the comfort and amenities of a fine mobile home, with a more permanent feel. Tiny houses can be rustic or luxurious, and can be designed to fit almost any style of architecture. Flip through the home improvement TV channels, and you'll find whole series devoted to tiny houses.

It's also not an entirely new idea. Stroll through the campground neighborhood in Harwich Port or the Old Village in Chatham, and you'll see historic cottages that are far smaller than today's traditional homes.

As they age, many longtime local residents find themselves looking to downsize, reducing clutter and possessions and moving into smaller homes with less need for upkeep. Tiny houses can work here, too, Galusha said.

“I get a lot of [inquires from] people who are 55 or older,” he said. They're looking ahead at retirement and see their existing homes as an investment that will make it possible for them to travel or spend time with grandchildren. Rather than “mow this lawn, paint this trim and keep up this house,” they can build a tiny house and cash out their remaining equity for retirement.

Tiny houses could also provide living space for the region's surging summer workforce. Galusha said a few tiny houses could easily be clustered around a building that provides communal kitchen facilities, a full-sized washroom and laundry and a common area, while giving workers the ability to each sleep under their own roof.

There are few places where the housing crunch is more acute than Cape Cod, but one of them might be Nantucket. There, a resident brought a tiny house bylaw amendment to the 2016 annual town meeting and it passed on a two-thirds vote.

Against The Rules

That Nantucket bylaw allows dwellings of less than 500 square feet, on a key condition: they have to be built on a movable trailer, even if they're unlikely to ever be moved. Ray Chesley, the Harwich building commissioner, knows why.

“The codes have not kept up with this [tiny house] movement,” he said. In Harwich, where the building code is based on the international building code, habitable rooms must be at least 70 square feet, or 10 feet by seven feet, and sleeping lofts with low, sloping ceilings don't qualify. In fact, most rooms in a house must meet that 70-square-foot standard. This month, the state is expected to adopt the 2015 edition of the international building code, but it doesn't make provisions for tiny houses.

But if you put a tiny house on wheels, it's no longer the purview of the building inspector. It falls under the jurisdiction of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Chesley said. So is it possible to circumvent the building code by putting wheels on a tiny house?

“Yes,” Chesley said. “You see trailers everywhere,” he said.

“As Americans, we are always looking for a loophole,” Galusha said. Many people love the idea of building a tiny house, putting it on wheels to make it a recreational vehicle and dodging a real estate tax on the structure. But regulators don't like that, and if enough people use the loophole, there is bound to be a public backlash, Galusha said. That would be a setback for the tiny house movement. The development rules established by communities, whether they are building codes or zoning rules, “are there for a reason,” he said.

And zoning can be a key issue. Building a tiny house on a standard size lot would certainly be less of a challenge than trying to allow tiny lots. In many neighborhoods on Cape Cod, zoning requires large lot sizes as a means of discouraging dense residential development. But even if small lot sizes were permitted, setbacks and site coverage requirements would make tiny houses a tough sell.

The Future Of Tiny Houses

Galusha said people who believe in tiny houses, and in simpler living with fewer possessions need to advocate for zoning and building code changes in their communities, rather than trying to circumvent the rules.

“Cities are starting to come around,” he said. In a recent conversation with one regulator in Georgia, Galusha said they discovered that there were, in fact, no minimum sizes for homes on permanent foundations. The official said it would be possible to issue yearly habitation permits for the tiny houses, provided that they had certification of insurance. The rules, naturally, vary by community. To that end, there are chapters of the American Tiny House Association in each state, each led by a volunteer advocate who's familiar with local requirements.

In some locations, for instance, zoning requires a minimum amount of habitable space in a building, a square footage that is too large for a tiny house. In these places, it may be possible to build duplexes or primary units with accessory apartments, he noted.

Building codes, too, are starting to change. Though it won't likely be adopted by local communities for several years, the 2018 version of the International Residential Code actually codifies a size threshold for tiny houses at 400 square feet or less. That could be a sign that codes are, indeed, catching up to the movement.

For those who are eager to forge ahead today, Galusha has clear advice.

“They need to contact their planning or zoning department first,” he said. The key is “to open the dialogue about whether it's going to be on a permanent foundation or if it's going to be on a mobile foundation,” and then discuss the possibilities allowed under the law. Some ideas usually emerge, “as long as both sides kind of keep their minds open.”