Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House


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. That’s over five decades of cultural change and building innovations, like tiny houses, that the code wasn’t designed to address.

    That which is not expressly allowed is forbidden.

  2. Zoning is an abomination and should itself be purged.

    1. That’s how Houston is.

      1. Anarchy! Somalia!

      2. Houston’s an abomination that should be purged?

        I’ll be here all week.

        1. “I’ll be here all week.”

          Be sure to tip your waitress… and leave her some money too….

  3. So, shotgun shack or trailer home?

    I have some ideas what might happen if the occupant decides to marry and breed.

  4. The DC building code is a very special kind of impossible to comply with. I wish him luck, but I don’t think he’s going to win.

    1. It appears he is routing around the damage by building the houses he wants, and then the occupants say they only live in them “temporarily”.

      1. “Until I die” is “temporary”.

  5. I like that one of the main objections to these types of housing is that vagrants might make use of them. And… not loiter on the streets, squat in vacant houses, shit in dumpsters, or bother people in the public parks. What’s the down side again? Oh right. The tiny houses might ruin the pristine beauty of the urban landscape. In ways that vagrants loitering on the streets, squatting in vacant houses, shitting in dumpsters, and bothering people in the public parks totally doesn’t.

  6. Now ther is a guy that knows what time it is. WOw.


  7. At the same time, government needs to step in and do something about the dearth of affordable housing. The solution to problems caused by government is always more government. Always.

    Fun fact #1: In some of the newer developments in DC, condos can sell for — not just be listed for, but actually sell for — over a grand per square foot.

    Fun fact #2: In DC and its suburbs, attitudes toward development and zoning are so steeped in white-hot emotionalism that it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion. Once, a study showed that caps on development density encouraged sprawl. To me, that was like a study showing that water is wet, but many people refused to believe it and insisted that the study was propaganda from developers.

    1. Are caps on density intended to encourage sprawl? Huh? Is that what they intended? No! You fucker! How dare you accuse policy makers of wanting sprawl! They hate sprawl just as much as the next person! And you accuse them of wanting it? What kind of an asshole are you?

    2. …but many people refused to believe it and insisted that the study was propaganda from developers.

      Wow. Just… wow.

    3. Developers have no interest in constructing suburban sprawl?

    4. What actually causes ‘sprawl’ is people’s natural inclination to not be stacked like cordwood.

  8. Two observations:

    1) It’s almost like all the money and power available in DC attracts people to money and power. Like a moth to a flame. How many of the people moving in to DC that are bitching about bureaucracy are contributing to or serving it?

    2) The real reason the zoning in DC is so tightly controlled is all housing must much up with the Masonic Founding Fathers architecture and masonic patterns/layouts.

    1. Well, they have to or Yog Sothoth might escape.

  9. This is a useful development. When the great Libertarian starship escapes Earth and leaves for Freehold, we are going to have very cramped living quarters for decades, so let’s get used to it.

  10. Does anybody else see this tiny house movement as a huge step back? In a free market economy the average person should be getting richer overtime through capital accumulation and increased productivity. So generally speaking homes should be getting bigger, not smaller. I realize there are other reasons someone might want a small house, but affordability seems to be the driving factor here.

    1. Depends on what the alternative is, I guess. It’s a step up from a shitty apartment, at least. And since most people borrow lots of money to buy a house, getting something less expensive that you can afford with less debt seems pretty rational.

      1. give the worst apartment a fresh coat of paint and some new flooring and it would feel like a palace next to these “cages” …

    2. It’s an assumption that a free market will provide greater wealth as people aren’t motivated to do nothing because they are subsidized or penalized. There’s really no control group to study for any opinion, with regard to the one “real world”. But what can be observed with collectivism is Force and persecuted minorities. And even if it could be shown that collectivism provides GREATER good, on net, it’s STILL not worth it if is gained by Force and having pogroms against the “unclean” (Benthamianism, even IF true, is still evil) . Of course, I think the assumption that collectivists make things worse is more likely than not, so we get the worst of all – Force, persecuted minorities, and shittier outcomes. But simpletons feel better about themselves, so it all works out in the end.

      As for the utility of these tiny houses, I got the impression they were for the beginners, not for those who have accumulated some wealth. When I first struck out on my own I had a two bedroom apartment, and overall had more space than I really needed, and I was subjected to the other mopes in the building. I’d have taken a single unit such as is described if it meant I didn’t have to hear the fat woman downstairs snoring through the night.

      1. As for the utility of these tiny houses, I got the impression they were for the beginners, not for those who have accumulated some wealth.

        Yes, & also what many of them ostensibly are: part-time 2nd dwellings.

    3. It would be a step back if a great proportion of the popul’n wanted them as their primary home, when they could previously afford more. But as a niche product, it’s no more a step back than subcompact cars, calorie-restricted meals, or miniature animal breeds.

    4. No. I see it as a preference. Regardless of income I would much rather have a smaller house that is easier to maintain, less costly to heat/cool and has less interior space to be cleaned… yet is comfortable to live in. I would much prefer to spend my time outside or traveling.

  11. I’ve bookmarked this video for the next time I have insomnia.

    1. Odd it’d have that effect on you. Most of these features I listen to audio-only, because they’re just talking heads, but I made sure to look at the video in this case because it’s strikingly visual?beautiful, in fact.

  12. I think if the main argument used against a place like Houston is it doesn’t really have the full “flower of urbanism,” (whatever the hell that means), then there’s not much to say about the issue at all.

    Does anybody else see this tiny house movement as a huge step back?

    I don’t see a free market anywhere. I see a heavily regulated market where one law creates ridiculous inflation in the cost of living. It is actually possible for people to be gaining in wealth, and the price of goods to rise faster when you have government artificially increasing the costs.

    And I think it’s naive to think that even if there was a free market, people would be constantly marching forward and gaining in wealth. I’m a libertarian because I think adults should be able to make their own choices and be responsible for those choices.

    1. More to the point, DC has a problem where people with a lot of money are drawn to it. They drive up home values in a number of ways. Not the least of which is that, despite being progressive good guys, they care very little for the practical effect their rules (which they institute for their own comfort) impact those who aren’t so well-off.

      It is, essentially, the same as it always was. The elites use things like zoning boards to keep their areas the way they want them, and the wrong sort of people out.

      There may be money to be made by developers in DC, but I’d imagine it’s such a pain in the ass to operate there that it takes far longer than necessary and creates enough headaches that it discourages participation. Which in turn fuels inflation.

    2. I think if the main argument used against a place like Houston is it doesn’t really have the full “flower of urbanism,” (whatever the hell that means)

      That means the lower-middle class can afford their own house without Janet Reno suing banks. In conjunction with the absence of a state income tax, clearly a land of barbarians.

    3. Well they are full of shit, Houston is a big city with big city stuff. That stuff may be more spread out but its there.

  13. So sick of people boasting about their ‘sustainability’, they’re the same people who think political distribution of economic resources is “sustainable”, whereas price mechanisms based on relative scarcity and demand are unsustainable.

  14. Was there some pan-libertarian memo on tiny houses that I missed? Tom Woods did a show on this yesterday, and now Reason gets in on the act.

    I visited a tiny house three or four years ago while considering buying one with the miss. The up-front cost is low, they’re easy/fun to tinker with, they allow you to get around zoning/rent-seeking housing laws in many locales, and the cost to heat/cool them is incredibly low to the point that you can easily live off grid if you rig your own solar panels.

    Came this close to buying the thing and sticking it in the middle of an avocado grove.

    1. then you figured out that 140 sq feet won’t cut it … especially for 2 people … humans have never willing lived in such small spaces … glad you didn’t drink the cool aide …

      1. It’s a place to sleep. You don’t stay inside it.

        1. It’s a hut.

          Where peasants belong.

  15. You can’t just have people living in any house they choose to and can afford! What do you think this is, Somalia? /sarc

    1. you can actually build a small home of 300 – 400 sq for the same price that one of these tiny homes goes for … and not be living in a cage … the size of these things is driven by the fact that they want to be considered a travel trailer and thus can’t be wider than around 8 feet and have wheels …

      yes the zoning laws should allow you to build any size home you want …

      but 140 sq. ft is not a home, its a cage …

  16. they didn’t just “add wheels” … they build them on a trailer frames specifically to get around zoning laws …

    the sad thing is nobody really studied the effects of living year round in such a small space …

    these lifestyle performance artists have build their own cages and insist they “love” their new prison cells …

    they claim to be individuals and yet they ALL live in 140 sq or less …

    they want to make a statement … I think they have … they look silly … and in a year when they move to something they can actually live in they’ll agree …

    1. these lifestyle performance artists have build their own cages and insist they “love” their new prison cells …

      I don’t disagree that it’s more than a little stupid. I myself would go crazy in something that small (“I need breathing room!”). But should these “performance artists” be free to live how they choose?

      Also, loosen up the idiotic zoning laws so that they don’t have to stick to something that can be built on a trailer frame, and I’m sure a lot of these people would be able to build something closer to the 300-400 square foot range. It would still be small enough for them to pat themselves on the back for their “sustainable” lifestyle and get their smug on while also still be affordable.

      Of course, I’m sure the DC zoning board will instead choose to close the zoning “loophole” that allows these trailer homes to exist. Because… something something “eyesore” mumble mumble “aesthetics” yada yada…

      1. But in my case at least, the going stir-crazy effect is because of a need for, as Carlin put it, “a place for your stuff”. To the extent you can dispense with or share stuff, you reduce space needs. You want variety, you get out, and the neighborhood is your home.

        The other major driver of space requirement is need for part-time space for company & recreation, but there are great efficiencies to be gained in sharing such space. Multi-unit dwellings often have rentable or shareable space downstairs for parties. You want to play baseball, you use the diamond in the park for the few hrs. a week you need it. Children’s play space? They’re better off sharing it with each other anyway, gives them playmates. If you deal with people you can trust, you’re better off sharing tools & workshop space too. Sharing (by price or other mechanisms) does involve sacrifice of some convenience in the form of immediate access, but think of all the things you can gain access to if you don’t have to buy them yourself.

        As we electronicize, we get rid of physical libraries & file cabinets.

  17. Damn you Texas, once again you sing that sweet, sweet siren song.

  18. In the far Chicago suburbs you can still find relatively small houses, but only if you’re willing to buy something built before they were regulated out of existence.
    The missus and I had our first child living in a 650 sq ft 1950s 2 bedroom (in the early 2000’s.) 3 people and no shortage of space. In my corner of the far northwest suburbs, smallish 60 year old vacation cottages are still used as homes.

    Just curious, is the same pattern of the only very small houses available being pretty old repeated in other large cities ?

    1. Here in the Bronx, we have some old private communities?Edgewater Park & Silver Beach in Throggs Neck, others in Riverdale, probably others I’m forgetting?that are considered upscale and in some cases consisted mostly of vacation bungalows. Enormous variety of houses in these old places, and maybe at one time these places were considered cheap & temporary, but now they’re very chic & often prettier than the surrounding areas. I’m sure there’s a lot of grandfathering involved.

  19. It’s certainly possible for me to live in a much smaller space than my relatively palatial digs — I’ve lived out of hotel rooms/suites for weeks at a time while doing contract work.

    But I have more “stuff” than will fit in a 140 sq. ft. home. I wonder if all these people have storage lockers somewhere that are about three times the size of their tiny homes where they keep their stuff. Wardrobes for the opposite season, sports equipment, hobby equipment, files and records, books, dvds, tools, auto maintenance materials (that gallon of anti-freeze, windshield washer fluid and spare quarts of oil most of us have sitting on a shelf in the garage).

    1. Exactly. If you’ve got the xport’n, why keep in a place up to dwelling code those things you don’t need within arm’s reach 24/7? EMS doesn’t need proper separ’ns to rescue your record collection from a heart attack, and your tools don’t need fresh air & light.

  20. How are these different than a camper trailer, other than outward appearance?

    1. Tiny houses differ from camper trailers in two important ways: They’re individually customized for the owner, and they’re made with much better materials.

      For example, Jay Austin designed his “Matchbox” house with large windows, a skylight, and high ceilings. And a high quality kitchen. These touches turn a cramped experience into something cozy. And you won’t find such comfort in a camper trailer or in a $3,000 shed from Home Depot.

  21. “These zoning laws seem–”

    “IT’S THE LAW!”

  22. This is a decent video, but that tiny house is also illegal in Houston. It violates the construction code: http://bit.ly/V1H99q

  23. Hey Jay!

    You may be smart, but you are ignorant!

    They’ve been making “Tiny Houses” for a long, long time.

    The first home I owned was an 8×48 foot trailer.

    If you’re living somewhere that zoning doesn’t allow trailers, and you can’t afford anything better than a trailer–why don’t you just move somewhere else?

    That’s the beauty of America–we have complete freedom to live where we like–within our means.

    People like you are the reason for Home Owners Associations. One ratty trailer parked in the backyard can ruin an entire neighborhood.

    But again the beauty of America is that you CAN live in trailer park, if you want to!

    Instead of trying to be artsy-cutesy urbany, why not just move to South Beloit, Illinois? You can get a 2 bed, 1 bath, 980 sq ft trailer for $1500–cash!


    1. The difference is that HOAs are voluntary (or are supposed to be).
      You know what you’re getting into when you buy. I’m not terribly fond of them,
      but that’s irrelevant. The beauty of a free society is that people are free to enter into such agreements, or not, as they see fit.

    2. His home isn’t ratty.

      And he moved to DC because it is the only place with employment, thanks to all the tax loot.

      Which is also why it is the place with rising rents and real estate prices.

    3. If he did that, he wouldn’t benefit from the externalities that come with a city that has rich people in it.

  24. It’s not surprising that DC zoning law has not changed in over 50 years. DC’s rent control laws are the last vestige of Nixon’s wage and price controls, that is their origin, when the city had no local government and was still managed completely by the federal government.?

  25. Jay did an amazing job. The designs and ideas he curated for the small houses are amazing. Dubai Desert Safari

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