Tiny home dilemma

Is a HOUS (House of Unusual Size) a house?

Tiny home dilemma
A tiny house on wheels — Royalty-free stock image

There is growing interest in so-called tiny homes. They are a way for people to gain a foothold and build equity in today’s overheated real estate market. Owning a home, even a tiny one, is an entry into the community and brings a feeling that one belongs. Tiny homes contain all the essentials of a house in a smaller package that may be very small, 160 square ft for some designs. In addition to being affordable, these homes have advantages, such as using less land and fewer resources. People also cite a reduced environmental footprint and low running costs.

In other, generally more suburban parts of the country, they may be grouped together into “pocket neighborhoods” or “cottage courts” described as “a group of small (1 to 1.5-story*) detached structures arranged around a shared court visible from the street. The shared court is an important community-enhancing element ….”

Tiny homes and cottage courts are, in fact, not a new idea. They have existed in some form or another for over 100 years in response to the need for housing that was affordable for a single worker and did not use up a large area for parking. In Vermont many small buildings that started out as hunting camps have been converted to year-round residences. Today the need has broadened, and seniors are becoming interested in cottage courts as they downsize from large family-stye houses. A small home with a community-oriented living style is appealing to many who live alone.

While some, more urban, areas have adopted regulations to ease the construction of tiny homes and cottage courts, this concept is still relatively new in Vermont. And in rural areas without centralized sewer and water, establishing a grouping of such homes is more tricky. In some places, tiny homes occupy a legal gray area -- they may be built as workarounds to local codes and regulations and can be difficult to insure as such.

Many towns, counties, and states have zoning laws or building codes that require houses to have a minimum square footage. Tiny houses on wheels may get lumped together with RVs and declared unsuitable for year-round living.

RVs are built with the purpose of being moved - often. They are constructed of thin, lightweight materials like aluminum with fiberglass panels. As a result they are not terribly energy-efficient when it comes to heating. Tiny homes are built with standard house materials like wood framing and double-pane windows. They are weatherproofed and insulated and much heavier than RVs. As moving around is not the primary goal, they are not built to withstand a lot of moving, and once in place they are very seldom re-located.

Thetford resident Cynthia Shelton is living in a 160 square foot, pre-built tiny home on wheels. It is  interim housing while she single-handedly builds a somewhat larger house.  She found that for property tax purposes the tiny home is a house. But in other ways it is not considered to be a house. In fact, under current state law, it appears illegal to live in a tiny home year round if it is on wheels, just as one may not live in an RV year round. She found that insurance companies do not want to provide real estate insurance for such structures, though they will insure them as personal property.

There is a need for legislation that recognizes non-traditional housing types, including tiny houses, yurts etc. Such a bill, H374, was introduced in Vermont in 2021. Tiny house legislation was also considered by New Hampshire legislators in 2021. While the Vermont bill did not pass, legislators like Rep. Jim Masland and candidate Rebecca Holcombe are doing the rounds to gather ideas from constituents about better ways to approach non-conventional housing. As Jim says, “The legislature needs to help define and differentiate (where necessary) home, mobile home, home on wheels, etc. such that we’re not tripping over ourselves.” And instead of the tiny house moniker the legislators propose using the broader acronym HOUS, for “house of unusual size.”

Tiny houses alone cannot relieve Vermont’s housing shortage. But they can be part of a diverse portfolio of housing types that will help to accommodate people of different income levels and lifestyle choices.

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