The People Want Tiny Houses. Zoning Boards, Not So Much.


Tiny houses are fast becoming a national craze as housing costs in cities continue to rise and young urbanites scramble for a place to live on the cheap.

Urban developer Eve Picker has cast her eye towards Pittsburgh as a home for the next, great tiny house villa, and so far, the zoning board has been less than welcoming. Via CBS Pittsburgh:

Picker would like to accommodate them by building a tiny house village of a dozen adjacent homes

in Garfield. So far, she's hit a roadblock of getting zoning approval and buying city-owned land.

The mayor says he means to pave the way by streamlining the approval process and establishing a land bank


"So that projects like small houses won't get the red tape of city government, but will get the red carpet

treatment of city government," Peduto said.

Reason TV's Todd Krainin covered the tiny house phenomenon in this video, which also explores what it's like to live in a city with no zoning laws at all:

Originally posted Aug. 7, 2014. Original write-up 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.

Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV's YouTube channel to receive notification when new material goes live.

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  1. You would hope that suffering the consequences of government bureaucracy and political elitism that perhaps some of these young urban progressives might question some of their preconceived notions about over regulation and the governments micro management of society. Unfortunately I believe they will, much like in the case of gay marriage, beg for official acceptance from the bureaucracy while trying to carve out special protections for themselves. It will never occur to them how ludicrous and insulting it is in a “free” society to have to ask permission to do such a thing.

    1. I’m familiar with suburban zoning that keeps small houses and apartments from being built…. usually because “small government conservatives” and suburban hipsters are equally devoted to keeping out the lower income people that such housing will attract.

      1. Touche. Forgive me for not mentioning the Country Club Republican side of the equation, zoning as a means to keep the “undesirables” from invading certain urban and suburban neighborhoods.

      2. The contradiction that is urban hispterdom is rampant. Move to less desirable neighborhoods because they’re “authentic” or “ethnic”, complain about the crime and form a private police force to protect their organic coffee shops, and then kvetch when “yuppies” invade who ruining the authentic and ethnic character…

      3. Sorry to have to contradict you, but the stupidparty crowd does not have a lock on minimum size zone. Progs are perfectly happy to require so many square feet for a bedroom, plus so much ventilation for the bathroom, plus etc. etc. which all winds up ruling out a 200 sqft house PDQ. Statists on the right or statists on the left, it’s all about the same to me.

  2. OT: Some mindless fun: Geddy Lee on latest That Metal Show.…

    Bonus: John Petrucci shreds it up. And actual FEMALE Rush fans! Ye, they’re not just stories you’ve heard.

    1. I have been to Rush concerts and have never seen a woman there.

      More black guys than women.

  3. I really don’t get the Tiny House craze. I don’t understand people that want less space. Yes, too much space can be a problem, but it would need to be way too much. People are usually in too small of a house, not too big of one.

    1. Tiny homes are great for singles.

      Back when I was single and had a roommate, 95% of my at home time was spent at my desk in my room that was perhaps 144sq ft.

      The other 650sq ft of kitchen and common living area in the apartment may as well have not existed as far as I was concerned.

      If I were still single, a tiny home would be right up my alley. Cheap to buy, heat, and maintain. And since you don’t have a lot of space, you won’t be spending a lot of money accumulating a bunch of crap you rarely if ever use.

    2. People are usually in too small of a house, not too big of one.

      Compare houses built in 1955 with those built in 2005.

      While people are slightly bigger, the families are generally smaller. And yet average housing size has gone thru the roof.

      The house I grew up in wasnt “too small”. But a family of four wouldnt consider it today. Okay, many would, but not at the same relative income level.

      Your statement is just plain wrong.

      The problem is people in their 20s thinking they should be living in the same size house as they grew up in, not realizing that their parents had to move up to that size house.

      Its another thing that the cheap money bubble has caused. If interest rates were just at a “normal” level like 8% or so, like when I bought my first home in 1998, people would buy much smaller houses.

      Heck, if people would stick to buying at about 2.5x their household income, houses would be much smaller.

      The median household makes about Pk. 2.5x is $125k. That should be the median house value.

      1. SLD: Buy what you want, of course.

      2. In the early 70s, median house size was about 1550sq ft. Today, its about 2500 sq ft. That is a huge jump.

        I’m looking to buy in a small town in Iowa soon. (Escaping Chicagloand, YAY)

        I was rather surprised to find out that even in a small little Iowa town, the 2,000 sq ft modern homes (by my definition built after 1980) were all at least 250k and often mid 300s.

        Fuck that. A bedroom with a private bath just isn’t worth that much to me.

  4. I’ve considered it as a remote “cabin in the woods” type of thing. But even there, various interest groups, nearby homeowners, governments, etc., want to dictate “minimum” square footage in an effort to keep out the riff raff.

  5. Clearly, you must have nothing to offer your fucking local collective of governing apparatchik if your home is tiny you insidious sniveling almost-homeless fucks.

    Bottom of the barrel humans and their goddamn mind-mending homes. Fuck them and praise the gods of government for clamping down on these spongesicles.

    Praise the lord Jesus and Mr. Marx for their coordinated effort to rid society of all the brazen thinkers.

    1. People are, by and large, servile fucks.

      It is odd how much “spontaneous creative types” hate spontaneity and creativity.

  6. Sometimes you jsut have to roll with it.

  7. John Kerry solicits Twitter for advice on fighting ISIS. No, Seriously.…..sts/?EL.fb

  8. These stories should cheer me up, but they just depress me. Because no matter how many degrees my liberal friends have; no matter how intelligent they are; no matter how much they yearn to help the those who don’t have the income they have; and no matter now much they want to help the environment, the dumb asses CANNOT even conceive of living without strict zoning laws. Drives me fucking crazy.

    You cannot get them to understand these things, even when it affects them personally.

    They will not change their views, even if means everyone they supposedly want to help ends up eating out of garbage cans.

    My conservative friends are unmovable only on the subject of religion. My liberal friends are unmovable on every other goddamn thing.

    Are medical licenses hindering poorer communities from getting affordable basic health services? Of course. A good friend of mine: “If doctors don’t have a license, what’s to stop them from taking out an extra organ or two just for the hell of it?”

    Just shoot me.

    1. You cannot get them to understand these things, even when it affects them personally.

      Couple years back a guy moved in down the street. He was really bummed that he had to come from up north down here to Texas. We don’t have state extra minimum wage, union shops, and all kinds of other necessary programs.

      So why did he move here? Because he could get a job.

      It took him two winters to figure out that no, we didn’t need a law mandating big windows on the south side of our houses to gather heat.

  9. Can I just say how much I fucking HATE zoning board assholes like the bitch in this video. A sick part of me would like to see the zoned, inspected, regulated roof of that building collapse on top of these smug assholes.

    I honestly believe if we ever have gulags in the USA these fuckers would line up to run them, confident that they are doing the right thing.

  10. There appears to be a great clash of Hipsters and establishmentarian progressivism.

    I’m popping the popcorn now.

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    Get Paid Up To $23.75 Per hour …..


  12. The People actually don’t want trailer parks. The People routinely deride those who live in them.

    Or did you not realize that a lot filled with small wheeled houses is a trailer park?

    Tiny houses are art projects. They are not a viable housing solution for the homeless, they are not what anyone wants.

    What people want is space. Building trends respond to consumer desire–that’s why we’re getting bigger houses. Not because of zoning boards.

    Progressives want the proles in tiny ratholes jammed into ‘walkable’ warrens that keep them away(because the public transport doesn’t stop in good neighborhoods) from the places they frequent.

  13. Tiny houses may be extremely cosy, I saw several of such and you do not have the feeling that you lack space there. Still our government will do its best to prevent such homes from being legal, that will threaten the whole housing and credit markets. Consumers can afford such houses without turning to the services like this and without being indebted to the state or another body at all. I am sure the authorities will only create new regulations for this kind of homes to make their owners purchase another property as well.

  14. Sustainable living is growing in popularity every day, with good reason. In simple terms, “sustainable living” refers to living a life where you take advantage of as few resources as possible and remain comfortable while doing so. This type of lifestyle benefits future generations tremendously. Why? These individuals will generally have to deal with a lesser amount of environmental damage, overall.

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