ST. PAUL — The predicted tiny house boom in Minnesota has been just that — tiny.
“To date, no one (in Minnesota) has responded to the tiny house market in any sort of viable, reasonable or comprehensive way,” said Jay Nord, general contractor at Singular Inc., and an affordable housing advocate.
Despite the need for affordable housing in the Twin Cities, the desire to keep downsized baby boomers close in the metro, and the millennial spurn of excess, the tiny house industry has stalled here, and no one is quite sure why.
“It’s not taking off, for whatever reason,” said Travis Bistodeau, deputy director of the Department of Safety and Inspections in St. Paul.
There are a few theories — zoning issues, building code hurdles, concerns about depreciation, and possibly the promise of upscaled downsizing not living up to hyped expectations — but no tiny hook to hang a plausible reason on.
What's in a name?
Part of the problem stems from its dubious description.
What is a tiny house? Is it an RV, a mobile home, an outbuilding like a garage, or a standalone structure?
Should it be allowed in neighborhoods where RVs are banned? Should it have to follow the same building codes as a house? Should a person have to buy or lease the land the home sits on? If not, is it considered squatting? Does it need its own zone, like a trailer park?
The answers can vary depending on the community.
Municipalities whose residents loathe the sight of RVs parked on neighborhood streets or driveways have laws limiting or prohibiting them. Most cities have areas specifically zoned for mobile home parks. A standalone structure must meet multiple requirements to be considered safe for a permanent dwelling.
“Building under 400 square feet is extremely difficult in many areas, mostly due to minimum width requirements,” said Austin Watanabe, a designer for tiny house company Alchemy Architects in St. Paul. “These were put in largely to discourage trailer parks from cities and neighborhoods.”
Bill Campbell tried to escape those issues by leaving the city. He and his wife Brenda took their dream for a tiny house sanctuary to a wooded 80-acre plot in Ogilvie, about 75 miles north of the Twin Cities, but have struggled in generating interest.
In 2016, Bill mused about tiny house ennui on the website’s second-to-last blog entry titled “What keeps people from taking the leap into a tiny house?”
“The biggest question we get is ‘Where can I live in it?’ ” he wrote. “Zoning concerns are a huge problem, and it’s hard to pull the trigger on building a tiny house if you don’t know where you can live in it.”
‘NIMBY’ plays a role
When an activist group tried in 2014 to build a tiny house community to shelter the homeless in Madison, Wis., the neighbors said no way. They envisioned a rundown, crime-infested trailer park that would shrink their property values to tiny house proportions.
Their concerns were noted and overturned. The community commenced building and, although there’s room for more, only five houses have remained occupied over the past five years.
The experience has been mostly positive for the neighborhood, helped in part by the spotlight of scrutiny shined on the community. City planners from across the U.S. have visited the project to see if it would work in their hometowns.
Bistodeau was one of those, checking it out for St. Paul. He described it as an urban campground where the houses share a parcel of land and have a central building for other shared services, such as running water.
He thought it odd that there have been no other takers for the vacant spots and noted that the homes seemed to depreciate much faster than a traditional house.
“They had weathered considerably,” he said.
He said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter had asked officials to look into it as an option for St. Paul’s homeless and that it’s still being studied.
A tale of two tiny houses
Loren Schirber saw the tiny house as an answer to St. Paul’s affordable housing problem.
He planned to build a community of them in the Railroad Island neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side but said zoning issues, compounded with pollution problems, have forced him to look elsewhere.
“Ultimately, the active rail line and pollution at the site make it too risky to continue with development planning at this site,” he wrote in an update on the East Yard Cooperative website last year.
He said he hopes to split the property into four lots and create an industrial park instead.
“It’s been a bit of a running process,” Schirber said of the tiny house community dream. “We are still working on it.”
In the suburb of Farmington, retiring superintendent Jay Haugen had to fight with the city of Farmington to be allowed to park his 313-square-foot tiny house on a friend’s property. His is on wheels, which allowed him to take it on the road this spring on a speaking circuit after being named 2019 Minnesota Superintendent of the Year.
Haugen was eventually granted permission but had to meet special qualifications and install a gravel pad in order to legally park his house in the city.
He said others he’s known have left the state with their tiny houses, finding Minnesota’s regulations unwelcoming.
“Everything’s there, we need to have cities step up,” Haugen said. “Rulemakers are removing opportunities for people to support themselves without public assistance.”
Expectation vs. reality
The allure of abandoning the burden of stuff and living simply is still very much alive.
A 2018 survey done by the National Association of Home Builders said more than half of Americans would consider living in a home that’s less than 600 square feet. Among millennials, the interest increases to 63%.
The burst housing bubble in 2006 made many folks seriously consider downsizing.
“The foreclosure crisis really changed people’s perspective on what the American dream is,” Nord said. “It made the millennial generation very wary of being overly mortgaged.”
The 2014 HGTV show “Tiny House Hunters” showed people that living simply is not the same thing as being poor. A tiny house could be glamorous and good for the environment.
But numerous blogs and articles illustrate that some customers have been disappointed with their tiny house experiences, finding them more expensive than imagined, more difficult to find a location to place them, and living with less isn’t as fun as they thought it would be.
But that doesn’t mean the tiny house dream is dead.
Bistodeau said St. Paul continues to get applications for attached dwelling units, the umbrella under which fixed tiny home structures would fall.
Schirber said he still gets four to five emails a week asking to be part of his tiny neighborhood. He has a list of 500 potential customers.
“There’s demand out there,” Schirber said. “I’m hoping we figure out a way to do it.”
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