Despite the best efforts of reality TV shows to make "going tiny" look easy, the challenge remains for living legally
A proposed rule by the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) on February 9, 2016, threatens "full-time RV'ers," and further stymies those seeking to build their tiny house as a street legal home.
Tiny houses on wheels (THOWs) are increasingly adopting the term Recreational Vehicle (RV) for house-like structures on trailers. Whether self-built, professionally constructed, or among many pre-manufactured models, tiny houses are too cute to ignore, and have become increasingly larger blips on legal radar screens.
Regardless of how hard their owners try to live "under the radar" in their little trailer-based homes, many tiny house homeowners face a new challenge.
"Solve your parking first!"
These are the words I use when opening the conversation about tiny house design. While this "eyes wide open" approach could crush tiny house dreams, it is an unfortunate reality. This altogether attractive form of alternative living may seem simple enough when watched on TV, but behind the scenes is becoming an increasingly complicated issue as tiny house homeowners seek places to live legally in their tiny house.
Unfortunately, whether built by homeowners in a do-it-yourself (DIY) capacity, or purchased as turnkey units, THOWs are largely illegal to occupy as domiciles or dwellings. Many tiny house enthusiasts cite interests in simplifying their lives, and aspire to use their tiny houses to become more self sufficient, mortgage free, and debt free.
Regardless of reasoning and motivation, those who want to build or live in a tiny house should understand and accept the challenges from the onset.
Tiny houses fall between the intersection of permitted dwellings on permanent foundations, industrialized buildings (IB) designated as manufactured housing (MH), and recreational vehicles (RV) which are built solely for the purpose of recreation with the benefit of temporary occupation.
Our unique little structures lack a definition that provides the legitimacy for legal use as a domicile.
As tiny houses are easily identified by their trailer-based foundations, building inspectors and zoning officials -- known as Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) -- are put in the position to enforce local laws, building codes, and zoning ordinances, most of which do not include any designation for a "tiny house" or "tiny home."
When it comes to flyovers, whistle blowers, or folks merely asking for permission after the fact, it is all to common for tiny homeowners to be greeted by building inspectors who have them legally removed from their "illegal structures" or are asked to simply move on down the road.
To paraphrase a popular closing time comment: "We don't care where you go.... you can't stay here."
When it comes to seeking an exclusion for occupation of an illegal building, many suggest their tiny house is an RV. Okay... that's fine... you can "store" your RV on most private properties, but you can't "live" in a recreational vehicle in many jurisdictions as it's akin to illegal camping.
Further, due to insurance requirements, many campgrounds and RV parks only allow for certified RVs meeting NFPA 1192 for travel trailers less than 8.5' wide, or ANSI 119.5 for units over 8.5' in width (and less than 400 square feet). Similarly, tiny houses are sent packing at mobile home parks where zoning regulations may prohibit living in recreational vehicles on their premises.
Sadly, while many DIY tiny home builders have eschewed the adoption of certified safety standards like NFPA 1192 and ANSI 119.5, many large scale professional tiny house companies have adopted these standards. To date, the coveted seals have become a defining characteristic of quality and safety for the production of certified recreational vehicles. Additionally, a few tiny house friendly municipalities have adopted the ANSI 119.5 as their building code for accessory dwelling units (ADU) and secondary dwellings.
And, hot off the presses, companies involved in RV manufacturer certification, like Pacific West and Associates (PWA), have developed self-certification programs designed to provide individual units -- not just the manufacturer -- with a code-based methodology for planning, inspection, and approval throughout the tiny house construction process. Through photos and text-based records, documented details are reviewed, returned with changes, and -- ideally -- eventually approved.
The primary goal in any building effort should be the construction of a safe structure that doesn't pose a hazard to its occupants or neighbors, whether physical (building code) or fiscal (property values). For tiny house builders, this ideal is embodied by the issuance of a certification seal that is affixed to the trailer-based structure one might call a "tiny house."
The newly proposed rule, as defined on FederalRegister.org, that endangers the use of RV standards for building tiny houses is based on a recommendation adopted by the Manufactured Housing Consensus Committee (MHCC) which would define a recreational vehicle as:
One built on a vehicular structure, not certified as a manufactured home, designed only for recreational use and not as a primary residence or for permanent occupancy, and built and certified in accordance with either the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1192-15 or American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A119.5-09 consensus standards for recreational vehicles.
HUD is now adopting the MHCC's recommendation, but modifying it to require certification with the updated ANSI standard, A119.5-15, and by including a requirement that units claiming the ANSI A119.5-15 exemption prominently display a notice stating that the unit is designed only for recreational use, and not as a primary residence or permanent dwelling.
Now, it seems, this little seal of approval is no longer the safeguard we hoped it would become. Commiserating complaints and claims of conspiracy aside, the proposed rule is a punch-in-the-gut from big business to the bootstrapping tiny house industry. "Can't we all get along?"
The prospective government ruling about tiny houses is a huge game changer, and comes a time when there were glimmers of hope for US-based tiny house builders and home owners.
It was, however, only a matter of time until the government's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) stepped into the game and squashed our tiny house hopes of using the RV designated ANSI code as the prescriptive standard for building tiny houses. By it's very definition:
ANSI 119.5 is the Recreational Park Trailer Standard used by manufactures of park model recreational vehicles (PMRVs), and they are strictly for recreational use, never to be used as a domicile.
Despite their pledge to continue seeking approval by HUD to allow for park model trailers (PMRV) to be used as domiciles when absorbing the now defunct Recreational Park Trailer Industry Association (RPTIA), the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) must protect the interests of its constituency in the manufacture and sale of vehicles used for recreational purposes.
Regardless of a perception of difference in quality, the prices of RVs would skyrocket overnight if RV manufacturers had to seek government approval for vehicles that might be used as domiciles. Further, few tiny house builders could afford to face the rigors of becoming authorized facilities for manufactured homes.
These positions are all understandable, but there must be room somewhere in the seemingly anachronistic crypt of codes for this new fangled form of small structure.
Regardless of the newly imposed challenges, two things stand in our way, and are the keys to legally living in tiny houses in the future:
Legitimization - A definition of a Tiny House should define how tiny houses differ from existing classifications of recreational vehicles, manufactured housing, and homes on permanent foundations. Along with the differentiators are the similarities they share in the need for clearly defined best practices and building standards that put safety first in the construction of a Tiny House. Due to existing interests that will be staunchly protected by professional associations of existing industries, tiny house guides may need to be a hybrid of building codes. We hope to see the simplicity of the ANSI 119.5 leveraged, along with best practices for domiciles as defined in the much more voluminous International Residential Code. Done right, all parties of interest -- recreational vehicle, manufactured housing, and home builders -- could adopt the use of these standards for construction, thereby opening up a new markets and meeting the demand of tiny house enthusiasts.
Legalization - Acceptance of the newly defined Tiny House as a legal form of dwelling, which could then be sought for use on private property, tiny house communities, pocket neighborhoods, and myriad forms of hosing developments. Thanks to the "on wheels" nature of tiny houses, a variance to existing zoning ordinances could be applied for as a conditional use permit, along with a period through which municipalities could use specific requests as test cases for long term tiny house habitation.
In the end, these goals -- legitimization of the building type, and legalization for use as domiciles in specific areas -- poses a positive change for all involved. We are feeling the growing pains of building a new industry, and will either fail and all into the annals of history as an interesting architectural trend, or rise to the challenge of defending our right to live simply in a small structure.
Here's hoping many of you are up to facing the challenge.