Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House


"Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House," produced by Todd Krainin. About 10 minutes.

Original release date was August 7, 2014 and original writeup is below.

Demand for housing in Washington, D.C., is going through the roof. Over a thousand people move to the nation's capital every month, driving up the cost of housing, and turning the city into a construction zone. Tower cranes rising high above the city streets have become so common, they're just part of the background.

But as fast as the cranes can rise, demand for housing has shot up even faster, making DC among the most expensive cities in the United States. With average home prices at $453 per square foot, it's every bit as expensive as New York City. And the struggles of one homebuilder shows just why the city's shortage looks to continue for a long time.

"I got driven down the tiny house road because of affordability, simplicity, sustainability, and then mobility," says Jay Austin, who designed a custom 140-square-foot house in Washington, D.C. Despite the miniscule size, his "Matchbox" house is stylish, well-built, and it includes all the necessities (if not the luxuries) of life: a bathroom, a shower, a modest kitchen, office space, and a bedroom loft. There's even a hot tub outside.

Clever design elements make the most of minimalism. The Matchbox's high ceilings, skylight, and wide windows make the small space feel modern, uncluttered, and open.

At a cost that ranges from $10,000 to $50,000, tiny homes like the Matchbox could help to ease the shortage of affordable housing in the capital city. Heating and cooling costs are negligible. Rainwater catchment systems help to make the homes self-sustaining. They're an attractive option to the very sort of residents who the city attracts in abundance: single, young professionals without a lot of stuff, who aren't ready to take on a large mortgage.

But tiny houses come with one enormous catch: they're illegal, in violation of several codes in Washington D.C.'s Zoning Ordinance. Among the many requirements in the 34 chapters and 600 pages of code are mandates defining minimum lot size, room sizes, alleyway widths, and "accessory dwelling units" that prevent tiny houses from being anything more than a part-time residence.

That's why Austin and his tiny house-dwelling neighbors at Boneyard Studios don't actually live in their own homes much of the time. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they've added wheels to their homes, which reclassifies them as trailers – and subjects them to regulation by the Department of Motor Vehicles. But current law still requires them to either move their homes from time to time, or keep permanent residences elsewhere.

The DC Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission, the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Office of Planning all declined to comment on the laws that prevent citizens from living in tiny houses. But their website offers a clue:

Outdated terms like telegraph office and tenement house still reside in our regulations. Concepts like parking standards and antenna regulations are based on 1950s technology, and new concepts like sustainable development had not even been envisioned.

Complex as it is, the Zoning Ordinance of the District of Columbia was approved in 1958. That's over five decades of cultural change and building innovations, like tiny houses, that the code wasn't designed to address.

Exemptions and alterations to the code are possible—many are granted every year—but they don't come cheaply. Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conference estimates that typical approvals add up to $50,000 to the cost of a new single-family unit. That's why large, wealthy developers enjoy greater flexibility to build in the city, but tiny house dwellers… not so much.

Fortunately, a comprehensive rewrite of the zoning code has been in the works for much of the last decade. Efforts to allow more affordable housing are underway, although many of these solutions favor large developers. Future plans still forbid tiny houses. Austin estimates that, given the current glacial pace of change among the city's many zoning committees, tiny houses are "many years, if not decades out" from being allowed in the city.

For now, Jay Austin is allowed to build the home of his dreams – he just can't live there. The Matchbox has become a part-time residence and a full-time showpiece. The community of tiny houses at Boneyard Studios are periodically displayed to the public in the hopes of changing a zoning authority that hasn't updated a zoning code in 56 years.

Runs about 10:30

Produced, shot, written, narrated, and edited by Todd Krainin.

Additional music by Lee Rosevere.

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  1. “We need people to have access to low income housing!”
    “Here, I designed a cheap, tiny house”
    “No no no, not that kind of low income housing! How about you give me some of your money and I’ll give it to those people over there so they can buy a more expensive house than they could normally afford.”

    1. exactly

      The same people who claim to have giant hearts bleeding for “the poor” are the same one insisting that the “”DC Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission, the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Office of Planning…” etc. are necessary because without them…*chaos!!*

      Clearly these people see things like The Wire and think, “Gee, its great that MY local bureaucracies don’t function like *that*!”

      1. For honest to goodness progressives, bleeding hearts must yield to the prime directive: rule by experts (preferably committees or commissions of).

      2. You know what I can see both sides so people dont make enough money to meet the Cost of live others just dont try to budget correctly and live out of their means.

    2. Wasnt that the plot of The Fountainhead?

  2. 1. Ban apartments, mobile homes, and tiny houses from suburbs where jobs are.

    2. Add regulations that make single family dwellings, the only legal housing allowed, more expensive and large.

    3. Lament lack of affordable housing created by regulations; use it as pretext for GSEs to buy subprime loans.

    4. Home sellers raise prices, making housing even more unaffordable, because banks are willing to lend huge sums of money due to risk not being on originator.

    5. Force low income people to take out these mortgages and buy more housing than they can afford because cheap housing is illegal where jobs are and home sellers have raised prices in response to GSEs removing risks from lenders.

    6. Claim to be party that helps poor and minorities, say that those who oppose programs that inflate housing prices oppose affordable housing.

    1. Nah, all of those things have happened because libertarians want to oppress people and deny them affordable housing. Kochtopus!!!

      /the proglotards

  3. 7. Watch as those who you were forced to buy mcmansions default and are relegated to homelessness and economic stagnation due to poor credit scores; rejoice that you have created a new class of welfare dependents to vote for you.

    1. I like it Bob.

      But please don’t use the term McMansions. All it means is big homes on small lots. In other words density and really no different then the brownstones that at the turn of the century planners hated but for some idiotic reason they love now but make illegal to construct today because of lot line set backs and building codes.

      Also are there really jobs in the suburbs vs urban? Pretty sure the planner outlawed those as well.

      1. Oh yeah and this:

        4. Home sellers raise prices, making housing even more unaffordable, because banks are willing to lend huge sums of money due to risk not being on originator.

        Close but you missed some points. Without Urban planners constraining supply with zoning and other regulations that prevent new homes from being built prices would not go up becouse builders would just build more homes. The cheap money produced a price bubble because it hit a wall of regulations which constrained supply. Without the regulations we would have seen housing supply bubble instead of a housing price bubble.

        You can actually see this in parts of the county. Some areas with tough regulations saw a price bubble but areas with little zoning regulations saw a supply bubble.

        Supply bubbles caused far less damage to the local housing markets then the price bubble. ie Texas did better then California.

  4. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they’ve added wheels to their homes, which reclassifies them as trailers ? and subjects them to regulation by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    You can’t fool *me*, Todd. That’s from The Onion.

  5. OT: Why would you shoot Reagan to impress 80s Jodie Foster when you could shoot Reagen to impress 80s Cybill shepherd?


    1. Why would you shoot Reagan to impress 80s Jodie Foster when you could shoot Reagen to impress 80s Cybill shepherd?

      Clarifying question: Is the assassin a lesbian or not?

    2. Why not Last Picture Show Cybill Shepherd?

      1. Cuz Hinckley shot Reagan in 81′

        1. Ah, yes good point

    3. 1980s Cybil Shepherd was being impressed by Bruce Willis

      You would have had to beat the shit out of Reagan with your bare hands while making snappy wisecracks for her to even notice

      1. I think Heroic Mulatto already covered how hard it would be for a man to impress Foster no matter what he did.

  6. That was beautiful.

  7. I call bullshit. No possible way the complete dribbling morons in D.C. could possibly be complete dribbling morons to this extent.

    I mean seriously, come on guys.

  8. Do Urban Planners have pictures of Mussolini and Hitler on their office walls, or do they keep them hidden in their desks?

  9. Well now that looks pretty cool. Wow.


  10. Hope springs eternal…

    “If California is to change course and again become a place of opportunity, the impetus is likely to come not from the perennially shrinking Republican Party but from working-class and middle-class Democrats.”


    1. Unless those working and middle class Democrats prove willing to defect to the Republicans, not much chance of them overcoming the interests of the gentry progressives.

  11. Man was I a fool to ever believe we lived in a free country. I mean, really, the size of individual rooms just MUST be regulated?

    Planners are scum.

    1. I wanted to put a small deck on the front of me house. I figure no problem, a few hundred in materials and a few days of work. Turns out I have to hire a draftsman to draw up plans for the deck, submit it along with a fee to get a permit to build on my own fuckin property. Now If I do things legit, Im looking at about a grand before materials, just to build a bulshit deck on property I already pay 1k a month in property taxes on.

    2. You are free to do as you’re told.

  12. The maddening part of the video is the urban planner lady laughing contemptuously about how awful Houston is. The film maker then makes the point that Houston has some of the most affordable housing in the USA.


    1. She even has an Urban planner hair cut.

      Why is there even an Urban Planner hair cut?!?!?

    2. God damn but do I hate “Urban Planners”. They are the worst kind of nannying, central planning, Top Men assholes in the design profession.

      Of course most Architects and Architectural students aren’t much better.

    3. The ridiculous part of it is that she can probably go through life with no one even challenging her bullshit.

  13. Seems like a very cool crib to me dude.


  14. You really expect Marion Barry to entertain his prostitute entourage in that tiny crack-house?

  15. It is a neat concept Jay undertook, but you have to follow the rules of the land. I built my own using this guide http://www.amazon.com/Small-Ho…..be+leonard it helped me established what I could and couldn’t do before spending alot of money then I created a design and budget. I highly suggest it.

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