Zoning & Building Codes

Restrictive Zoning: The Elephant in the Room

I was tempted to number this post because there will be many posts on Zoning. Zoning is the #1 reason why we don’t have low-cost housing. Those who are in control of city and county planning are dependent on property taxes to pay their salaries. Low-cost housing is perceived as producing less income for the maintenance of the larger community and uses more of its services. The fire and police departments, infrastructure, street cleaning, plowing, social services. McMansions are seen as supporting the city with their huge tax assessments and use fewer services. I question this. I think it may well be a question of misperception and biased accounting.

For now, we have a nice article that lays out the state of zoning for Tiny Houses as of 2016. “Tiny house zoning regulations: What you need to know, Find out which states are the most tiny house-friendly”

Why You Must Master Zoning Regulations

Sample Zoning Map

The specific focus of this article is restrictive zoning for Tiny Houses but the same is true for all low-cost housing. And for most multi-household buildings. Zoning laws and building codes require minimum square footage for new homes or for part of them. A bathroom must be this size and a kitchen that.

And zoning boards are hard to confront. The citizens who defend extravagant zoning are not well-behaved. They shout. Carry signs. And threaten violence. All the things they accuse people who want low-cost housing of doing. The same reasons they don’t want them in their neighborhoods—rowdy and lawless.

Some resistance to down-zoning neighborhoods is that minimum sizes, within reason, are seen as protecting housing owners and particularly renters. These are the people developers take advantage of by building substandard walls around substandard sized spaces. “That is a bathroom because I said so. It doesn’t have a door because there isn’t room to open one.”

City planners don’t want housing that is substandard in their town. They are educated to design superior towns. Low-cost housing doesn’t fit the picture of a wonderful town. Banks also want minimum sizes because they believe that only houses of a certain size have resale value.

What You Need to Know

There is a movement to change zoning laws. That is the first most encouraging fact. Tiny Houses and other prefab homes are being allowed as accessory dwelling units (ADU) in back yards. One example is a MedCottage, a 288 SF house that can be fitted with hospital equipment for medical care. It is designed for the elderly parent who needs to be both independent and closer to family caregivers. Some cities approve Tiny Houses as workshops or studios and ignoring them when they are used dwellings. So it is increasingly worth your time to push for zoning changes.

There are basically two types of Tiny Houses—on wheels or on foundations. Things on wheels are considered temporary. The problem is finding a place to park them. They are often classified as an RV and inspected by the motor vehicles department when obtaining a license plate. And they can park in RV parks.

A tiny house on a foundation and attached permanently to the ground has been illegal almost everywhere within city limits for decades. ADUs are defined in relation to a large house on the same lot so that is a stern requirement. First, you have to have a large zoning approved house to put your Tiny House behind.

One of the difficult things about understanding zoning is that it is so specific to each jurisdiction. There may be 23 different sections of a zoning document that have to be pieced together like one of those impossible 3-D puzzles of metal rods. There are also zoning overlays that govern certain sections of a town. Within AirDale Acres, 23 square miles, only this can happen. And understanding them in one state, will not help in another. So while there are some basic things that are common, the research has to be done locally. The good news is that the Tiny House Association is compiling information about specific towns and states.

Petition, Petition, Petition

Zoning Board Meeting

Zoning Board meetings can be very intimidating. That is you at the table facing the noble warrior and his disciples.

The way to change zoning laws is to petition the city—there will be rules on how to do this. Go with a specific proposal. Don’t expect any help writing a zoning change proposal unless you happen to be lucky and a professional in the planning office is interested in low-cost housing or Tiny Houses in particular. You will have to read the regulations, go to the planning office to ask questions, and find other people with legal minds to help you word your proposal professionally. It is doubtful that you will have the funds to hire a lawyer, and it would be a waste of money unless you can find one with a specialty in zoning laws.

So you petition repeatedly, addressing objections each time. Present examples from other jurisdictions. Be nice. Show concern for other points of view. But persist. If persisting is unlikely to work, use what you have learned to think of something else.

Another possibility is a zoning variance. A variance allows different standards in a specific location. To look for possible variances requires understanding the reasons behind the zoning or building codes requirements. They may not make sense in your specific situation and you may be able to convince the zoning board.

Zoning vs Building Codes

Cover of the 2018 Building Code

The most recent International Building Code (IBC) is 2018.

A complication on top of zoning is the building codes. Most places have adopted the International Residential Code (IRC). It establishes materials and size specifications. How large a fire exit has to be. The size of plumbing pipes. And strangely, rooms other than bathrooms and kitchens must be “at least 70 square feet” with a ceiling height of  7+ feet. That is a minimum size of 10 ten by x 7 feet. On top of this zoning laws may specify that a free-standing house on a lot must be a minimum of 1,000 SF. And have a minimum lot size of 1.5 acres. If a septic tank is required because you aren’t on the city sewer, the minimum lot size could be half an acre to accommodate the drainage field.

Some towns will add their own layer of exceptions to the building codes. Somehow you will need to put all of them together.

A key here is understanding why the specific measurements and sizes are required in the first place. Then you can address the problem, not the restriction. Zoning laws and building codes are often outdated and pointless but most are not. The building codes are normally related to safety. Zoning is used to control the appearance of a neighborhood so there is some uniformity of appearance. The assumption seems to be that people who want and can afford 3,000 SF houses will also have similar lifestyles. Harmony is the desire.

A National Tiny House Code

Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build

Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build

There is a movement to pass a Tiny House Code as part of the IRC. This could then be used as a model nationally for all Tiny Houses that are intended to be used as primary homes. This would simplify the millions of codes that could develop across the nation and provide a model for proposed changes and requests for variances.

Andrew Morrison, of Tiny House Build, “Arming the DIY Movement Since 2006” is leading the effort for a national Tiny House code. Tiny House Build has extensive resources for people who want to build their own Tiny Houses.

The article, “Tiny house zoning regulations: What you need to know, also gives a rundown on a few of the states that have allowed Tiny Houses, and in some instances then taken the privilege away. I will be writing more about this when I locate current sources.

1 reply »

  1. The politicians and career bureaucrats aren’t in charge, the voters
    are. But what voters want is for their house resale price to keep
    increasing or at least not go down. That won’t happen if they permit
    slightly-poorer people to build smaller, cheaper houses next door.

    > minimum sizes, within reason, are seen as protecting housing owners
    > and particularly renters

    Because landlords are medieval land-lords, and force renter-serfs to
    live in houses without bathroom doors at gunpoint? Or because without
    the force of government, none of the evil builders would supply
    bathroom doors, and no resident has the skill to install a door?

    > Banks also want minimum sizes because they believe that only houses
    > of a certain size have resale value.

    If small houses didn’t have value, then why did legislators waste so
    much time passing a bunch of laws to ban people from having this thing
    which they don’t want anyway?

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