Washington's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny Houses

Architectural minimalism runs afoul of outdated regulations in the nation's capital.


"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, which is part of a showcase community of minuscule homes located in an alley lot in Washington, D.C.

Despite its size, Austin's house—The Matchbox—is stylish, well built, and it includes all of life's necessities (and some of its luxuries): a bathroom, a shower, a modest kitchen, office space, and a bedroom loft. There is even a hot tub outside.

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

Ranging in price from $10,000 to $50,000, tiny homes like The Matchbox could help to ease the shortage of affordable housing in the capital city, where the median price per square foot has climbed to a staggering $450. 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 whom 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 violate several city regulations. Among the many requirements in the 34 chapters and 600 pages of code that govern D.C.'s land use are mandates defining minimum lot size, room sizes, alleyway widths, and "accessory dwelling units" that prevent tiny houses from popping up all over the nation's capital.

Austin and his tiny-house neighbors can't actually live in their own homes much of the time. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they've added wheels that allow the structures to be reclassified as trailers. This has a downside: As trailers, they fall under the purview of D.C.'s Department of Motor Vehicles, meaning that Austin and his neighbors are prohibited from using them as their primary residences.

The Zoning Ordinance of the District of Columbia isn't only complex—it's profoundly outdated. The code was approved in 1958, which is why it doesn't incorporate the last five decades of building innovations. The text is still filled with such outdated phrases as telegraph office and tenement house.

Exemptions and alterations to the code are possible—many are granted every year—but they don't come cheap. Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conference, a D.C.-based nonprofit, estimates that the cost of moving through the typical approval process can add as much as $50,000 to the price of a new single-family unit. That's why wealthy and politically connected developers generally are the only ones with the money and clout to build in Washington.

A comprehensive rewrite of the zoning code has been in the works for about a decade. The new regulations will accommodate some new styles of housing, but they're likely to favor the kinds of structures that tend to be put up by large developers. While there's still hope that the new code could eventually be altered to accommodate homes like Austin's Matchbox, tiny houses won't be legal in D.C. anytime soon.

For now, Jay Austin is allowed to build the home of his dreams—he just can't live there all the time. But the Matchbox is also a showpiece: This small community of tiny houses is periodically opened to the public. Hopefully, that will bring more public support for an exciting new approach to easing the city's shortage of affordable housing.