Tiny houses—homes sometimes as small as 150 square feet, popularized on reality shows such as Tiny House Nation—have had a longstanding challenge. You might be able to buy or build one for relatively little money, but because they’re typically constructed on a trailer with wheels, the zoning codes in most cities make them illegal. Tiny-house forums online are filled with people asking how they can find a place to park their new homes. But a growing number of cities are beginning to change local regulations to allow the houses, and that could make a meaningful difference for affordable housing.
San Jose, California, with a population of more than a million people, is one of the latest cities to legalize movable tiny homes. A new ordinance took effect in May. “We see it really as a way to help address the housing crisis that we have here in the city,” says Rosalynn Hughey, director of San Jose’s planning department. “We know that we have to use all of the tools in our toolbox in terms of building affordable units, and this particular housing type can be done really cost-effectively and can be done really quickly.”
The city, like the rest of California, already allowed accessory dwelling units or ADUs, small backyard cottages that are built on foundations, which the state has pushed as a solution for the housing shortage. But tiny houses on wheels (sometimes called THOWs, in a field that loves acronyms) are even less expensive to build, in part because they’re sometimes built in factories with economies of scale, says Dan Fitzpatrick, director of government relations for the Tiny Home Industry Association, who has been working with several cities, including San Jose, to help put new ordinances in place. “You’re not going out and hiring an architect to do plans and submit it to the city, and you’re not paying the city a lot of fees to review those plans,” he says. “You’re not going out and hiring a general contractor to put all of the project together from A to Z.” Even in cases where ADUs are also built in modular factories, tiny homes are usually far less expensive. In a backyard, they sit on simple pads instead of a foundation. And there’s less red tape involved; they come certified from the factory instead of requiring more inspections.