Big fights de­vel­op­ing over tiny homes

The Mercury News - - News - By Scott McFetridge

DES MOINES, IOWA >> As he tows a 96-square-foot house around Des Moines, Joe Stevens is over­whelmed by the in­tense, some­times tear­ful sup­port he re­ceives from churches, schools and ser­vice groups for his plan to use the trendy lit­tle struc­tures to help home­less peo­ple.

But when Stevens ac­tu­ally tried to cre­ate a vil­lage of the homes in Iowa’s largest city, the re­sponse was far dif­fer­ent.

“We got shot down,” said Stevens, who leads a group that pro­posed erect­ing 50 tiny homes on a 5-acre in­dus­trial site north of down­town Des Moines. “It was a sense of fear, un­cer­tainty and doubt, a knee­jerk sit­u­a­tion.”

Tiny homes have been pro­moted as the so­lu­tion to all kinds of hous­ing needs — shel­ter for the home­less, an af­ford­able op­tion for ex­pen­sive big cities and sim­plic­ity for peo­ple who want to de­clut­ter their lives. But the same pop­u­lar­ity that in­spired at least six na­tional TV shows about the homes of­ten fails to trans­late into ac­cep­tance when de­vel­op­ers try to build them next door.

In at least a dozen cases across the na­tion, neigh­bors or­ga­nized to stop tiny house projects, in­clud­ing in Char­lotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Ten­nessee; San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia; Tulsa, Ok­la­homa; Tal­la­has­see, Florida; and Bend, Ore­gon. Some­times the ef­forts moved ahead de­spite ob­jec­tions, but in many cases, the com­mu­ni­ties were blocked.

The pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Tiny House As­so­ci­a­tion said op­po­si­tion arises even among peo­ple who feel an affin­ity for the homes.

“Peo­ple say, ‘Tiny home are great and cool, and you can put that vil­lage any­where but right across the street from my sub­di­vi­sion,’” said Chris Galusha, who is also a Fort Worth, Texas, area builder.

The cur­rent in­ter­est in small houses fol­lows a steady growth in the me­dian size of homes, from 1,200 square feet in the 1940s to about 1,860 square feet in this decade.

As home sizes spi­raled up, tiny house pi­o­neers in the 1990s be­gan pro­mot­ing the aus­ter­ity and fru­gal­ity of spa­ces smaller than most garages. The idea cap­ti­vated mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, even those who re­main in more spa­cious ac­com­mo­da­tions.

“It’s an as­pi­ra­tional life­style, and it’s fun to watch peo­ple try to do some­thing dif­fi­cult, which is to live con­trary to the gen­eral trend, which is more space,” said Ben Keys, a real es­tate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Whar­ton School.

The op­po­si­tion is of­ten fo­cused on de­vel­op­ments for home­less peo­ple, as in Des Moines. But in many cases, it also ex­tends to tiny home com­mu­ni­ties de­signed for the open mar­ket.

That’s what hap­pened in Char­lotte, North Carolina, where a de­vel­oper had hoped to build 56 tiny homes near a neigh­bor­hood filled with ranch houses and split-lev­els. Op­po­nents ar­gued that the tiny homes would clash with ex­ist­ing hous­ing, cause traf­fic prob­lems and fail fi­nan­cially due to the cost of the 500 square-foot homes, which would be priced at about $90,000.

“The tiny houses, we feel they’re a fad,” said Robert Wil­son, who helped lead the op­po­si­tion. “It’s a niche mar­ket, and we think it is not less ex­pen­sive.”

For his project to help the home­less, Stevens ar­ranged for high school and col­lege stu­dents to build the houses, with do­na­tions to cover costs. But af­ter be­ing thwarted in the search for a build­ing site, the Des Moines group he heads, called Joppa, turned to the nearby city of Van Meter about lo­cat­ing the vil­lage there.

The home­less pop­u­la­tion in San Jose is much larger — an es­ti­mated 4,000 peo­ple. That city would like to of­fer tiny houses as a so­lu­tion, but one mid­dle-class neigh­bor­hood has threat­ened to file a law­suit.

“Peo­ple are sym­pa­thetic to­ward the home­less, but to put this in an es­tab­lished neigh­bor­hood doesn’t make sense,” said Jon Kan­ter, a re­tiree who has lived in the neigh­bor­hood for nearly 40 years.

It’s a com­pa­ra­ble sit­u­a­tion in Nashville, where res­i­dents went to court to stop the zon­ing board from ap­prov­ing a church’s plans to build a vil­lage of 22 tiny homes for home­less peo­ple.

Some home­less ad­vo­cates also op­pose the move to of­fer tiny houses to home­less peo­ple, say­ing the money could be bet­ter spent sub­si­diz­ing their move into tra­di­tional apart­ments.

In Tal­la­has­see, Florida, a pri­vately funded de­vel­op­ment called The Dwellings will open this fall, with 11 of an even­tual 130 tiny houses in­tended for home­less peo­ple who have some re­sources. Res­i­dents will pay $550 to $850 a month for homes up to 410 square feet, a price that also in­cludes meals and a range of other ser­vices.

Be­fore the de­vel­op­ment could be­come a re­al­ity, back­ers had to give up on plans to lo­cate it within the city be­cause of zon­ing is­sues and then suc­cess­fully fight a law­suit filed by neigh­bors.


A row of tiny houses at a home­less en­camp­ment stand in view of a full-size home be­hind in Seat­tle. Tiny homes could be the so­lu­tion to all kinds of hous­ing needs. How­ever, that seem­ingly broad sup­port fails to trans­late into ac­cep­tance when tiny home...

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