Tiny houses face big hurdles in the Twin Cities

Photo via Pexel

Photo via Pexels

The tiny house trend is everywhere. Look on Instagram. Check out Pinterest. On HGTV alone, there’s “Tiny House, Big Living,” “Tiny House Builders,” “Tiny House Hunters,” and others. These glamorized, pint-sized homes have gained widespread appeal among those looking to live with less. Going mini is mainstream.

Or is it? Many prospective tiny housers face big hurdles and headaches with their small abodes.

Very loosely defined, tiny houses range from roughly 100 to 400 square feet. Living in these intentionally small spaces has come to signal environmental mindfulness, energy efficiency, and restrained consumerism. Tiny houses are also an affordable means of homeownership at a time when costs have skyrocketed—the median sale price of a new home in the U.S. in January 2018 was $323,000 according to census data.

Conversely, a tiny house from Jim Wilkins, owner of the Blaine-based company Tiny Green Cabins, typically costs around $67,000. His homesteads can be decked out with a lofted bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and front porch, all cozied into a space between 120 to 380 square feet. And there are more businesses out there constructing houses with minimalism in mind—Alchemy Architects located in St. Paul with their weeHouses, as well as ESCAPE Homes out in Rice Lake, Wisconsin.

A tiny home rendering // Photo courtesy Jim Wilkins, Tiny Green Cabins

Tiny House plans // Photo via Ana White

Tiny House plans // Photo via Ana White

If the initial savings are that big, and the maintenance costs are typically lower, and minimalist living is on the rise, then why aren’t we seeing more of these quaintly compact abodes in the Twin Cities? The biggest hurdle lies in zoning.

For zoning purposes, there are two common types of tinys: ADUs and RVs. The first, Accessory Dwelling Units, or ADUs, are also known as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law apartments.” They’re a small dwelling on a foundation—either attached or detached (yet on the same grounds) from a main, single-family house.

Since ADUs are on a foundation, they fall under the same Minnesota State Building Code as all housing. But each individual municipality has its own zoning ordinances to regulate land use, location, height, width, and more.

“Zoning laws hold the trump card, and some places are friendly toward tiny homes and others are not,” Wilkins says. In St. Paul, for example, only properties within a half-mile of University Avenue, between Emerald Street and Lexington Parkway, with a lot size of at least 5,000 square feet can qualify for an ADU. If the ADU is detached, its maximum height must be less than 25 feet or the height of the main home on the property—and that’s just one of the stipulations.

And if your tiny houses is on wheels, it’s usually considered a recreational vehicle or RV—and things don’t get any easier. Parking is the first big problem, since it’s technically illegal to live in an RV full-time outside of an official RV park. Because of this, people usually live under the radar, taking their chances by defying regulation and setting up camp in the backyards of friends or family members.

A tiny home built on a trailer, making it mobile // Photo courtesy Jim Wilkins, Tiny Green Cabins

A tiny home built on a trailer, making it mobile // Photo courtesy Jim Wilkins, Tiny Green Cabins

For Kelli Thaldorf and Dain Peer, who have just started looking into having their own tiny home, they’ve realized that this venture has is a bigger dilemma than they imagined. “The main roadblock at this point is finding land,” Thaldorf says. “Many lots state which type of building must be built on the land and have rules against free-standing buildings/RVs, so it’s not as simple as we thought it would be. We can’t just buy a piece of land and stick a tiny house on it.” Dain agrees, noting that there’s a lot of information out there about tiny houses, but it’s fairly scattered. “Zoning rules are specific to each area,” he says, “so you really need to dig in order to determine what’s going to be allowed.”

There’s some evidence that cities will adopt more flexible zoning as more residents express interest in building tiny houses. With recent years, municipalities nationwide have approved local ordinances to allow tiny houses, such as Spur, Texas; Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Fresno, California. And Minneapolis is becoming more open to ADUs, too. They were only allowed in a small portion of the Phillips neighborhood until June 2014, when Ward 10 Council Member Lisa Bender passed an ordinance to allow ADUs citywide. “Allowing accessory dwelling units in Minneapolis is an important way to provide more housing options in our neighborhoods,” said Bender in a report. “We have received so many supportive comments from people who want ADUs to be allowed for extended families, to help seniors stay in their homes, and to provide a way to add more housing units gradually in neighborhoods over time.”

Hannah Burchill, spokesperson for Planning and Economic Development with the City of Saint Paul, is optimistic that the tiny house trend will grow with time. Within the 2040 Housing Comprehensive Plan, Burchill indicated two policies that point to ADUs as a “means to achieve strong neighborhoods that support lifelong housing needs,” which included further expanding permitted land space for ADUs and considering amendments that would lead toward creating clusters of smaller home developments, such as pocket neighborhoods.

An architectural rendering of the proposed East Yard Tiny Home Village // Photo courtesy East Yard Tiny Home Village

An architectural rendering of the proposed East Yard Tiny Home Village // Photo courtesy East Yard Tiny Home Village

One such up-and-coming pocket neighborhood will be The East Yard Cooperative on St. Paul’s East Side, which intends to open in February 2020. The plan is for 69 permanent tiny houses, ranging from 280 to 530 square feet, to be built on a three-acre plot between Payne and Phalen. “I anticipate this will not be the last to come of these proposals,” Burchill says. “There seems to be a great interest amongst St. Paulites in new types of housing, and the City is being very responsive to this interest.”

While the current regulations in place make it very tricky to build a tiny house, especially in the city, these miniature-sized homes are slowly making their way to the mainstream—smaller steps toward a bigger future.