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‘Tiny house’ movement grows through the cracks in city rules

Charlotte resident Marie Boucher is currently building a tiny house with her husband. Boucher hopes that the city will change its current zoning laws to accommodate tiny houses.
Charlotte resident Marie Boucher is currently building a tiny house with her husband. Boucher hopes that the city will change its current zoning laws to accommodate tiny houses. ddeaton@charlotteobserver.com

Marie and Alan Boucher have two houses. One fits into their suburban Charlotte neighborhood. The other could nearly fit into that house’s sun room.

At 130 square feet, their house is not much bigger than a couple of parking spaces. Duck inside the 6-by-2-foot doorway on a 97-degree day, and you’ll find that a single window air conditioner keeps it quite cool. Climb up a painter’s ladder, and you’ll see a cramped loft bedroom with a roof so low that Marie and Alan can only sit up one at a time, in the middle of the bed, while they listen to the rain hit the tin roof just inches above.

The South Charlotte couple aren’t solitary eccentrics. They’re part of a growing “tiny house” movement taking root across the U.S. that has inspired websites, blogs and multiple reality shows. And here, as elsewhere, the movement is outpacing public policy, growing through the cracks of zoning codes.

Before the Bouchers started building their house, they knocked on neighbors’ doors toting “The Small House Book,” by Jay Shafer and a 22-ounce bottle of craft beer.

The book was a way to explain to neighbors the rationale behind building the diminutive dwelling in their side yard. They’re seeking a sustainable, debt-free lifestyle, with less space and less stuff.

Alan Boucher is 34 and wants to be financially independent by age 40. The nearly built tiny house in his side yard would help him do that. Trailer and all, it’ll cost about $27,000 once finished.

Marie, a park ranger before she started doing contract work for Bank of America, is drawn by the possibility of a scaled-down footprint in a city that knows a thing or two about sprawl. She imagines one day using an incinerating toilet and using plants to filter shower and sink water along a pipe that would reach out from below.

Hooking up that pipe to city utilities could be a problem. In fact, the whole house could be. That’s why they brought the beer.

Clouded by uncertainty

The beer was to dissuade any neighbors who might be tempted to call city inspectors. The Bouchers operate under the assumption that one phone call from an irritated neighbor could be their undoing.

The main issue: The house is on wheels. That means it doesn’t neatly fit into Charlotte’s zoning categories.

“I don’t know how we would treat them,” said city Zoning Administrator Shad Spencer about tiny houses. “At this time, we don’t know how they are classified. If they are classified as a mobile home, they would need to be in one of the mobile home zoning districts. If they are classified as an RV, they would not be allowed as a dwelling unit on a parcel.”

So far, three years after the Charlotte couple started work, they’ve heard no complaints. The Bouchers aren’t yet living in their house full time because it isn’t finished, so they’re probably safe from zoning officials, but the regulatory uncertainty looms over their future plans.

“If we like it, we can find some place to put it and sell this house, be debt-free … assuming we legally can,” Alan Boucher said.

It’s a problem advocates see nationwide, and the reason for the founding of the American Tiny House Association, co-founder Elaine Walker said.

Walker said tiny houses on trailers, like that of the Bouchers, are illegal in about “99 percent” of municipalities nationwide. She’d like to see cities be more receptive to people living full time in RV parks, but said it’s probably a little way off.

There’s no effort afoot in Charlotte just yet, but Spencer said the subject could come up during a previously planned rewrite of the city’s zoning ordinance. “The tiny house industry could file for a text amendment to the zoning ordinance,” Spencer said. “I doubt the city would initiate a text amendment at this time. This topic is one that could be addressed during the ordinance rewrite.”

Betting big on tiny houses

Regulators may not have caught up with tiny houses, but businesspeople have caught on.

Off Interstate 26 in Flat Rock sits the Village of Wildflowers. It’s not a garden, but a cluster of 20 tiny houses, each about 400 square feet, composing a miniature neighborhood carved out of the mountainside about 100 miles west of Charlotte. Internet searches show it’s one of about four in the state.

One house, the color of an orange-cream pie, has a Disney Princesses table and chairs on the front porch. The two noisiest tenants, a boxer mix and a Chihuahua, bark from the window. It’s also home to Bryant Rionda, his wife and young daughter. It’s 11 steps from front door to bedroom, but five months after the move from Charlotte, Rionda and his family feel liberated.

“There’s a type of freedom that comes with downsizing, because when you live in a big home and have all these things, you have it in the back of your mind always,” Rionda said.

Rionda works at the Village too, and it’s his job to sell people on the freedom he experienced himself. That’s what W.W. Gilman brought him there to do.

Gilman bought the village when it was just an RV park three years ago with an eye on the future. The goal is to grow the village to 180 tiny homes, and he thinks he has two generations to market to: millennials and downsizing baby boomers – two generations interested in living with just what they need.

Permanent residents occupy three of the 20 houses. Two others are models, and other owners rent out the rest. Some tenants are seasonal residents, and others just come on vacation, spotting the houses on home-sharing sites such as Airbnb.

Baby boomers are retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, and “they’re sick of paying for a lot of space they don’t need,” Gilman said. They also like to travel, and that’s the key to his whole operation. When residents travel, they can rent out their homes. “That’s what changed the whole equation, because everyone wants to use Airbnb,” he said.

Gilman said he sees the movement gaining more traction every day, with prospective tenants and buyers coming in to talk about downsizing.

On a recent afternoon, Gary and Elizabeth Buchanan discussed buying two tiny homes and putting them next to each other. They think it’s a cheaper alternative than their 2,100-square-foot Hendersonville house. “When you’re our age, two stories is just too much,” Gary Buchanan said.

Some opt for foundations

Besides putting it on an RV lot, there’s another way to make a tiny home legal – put it on a foundation. Then it works, as long as it meets other building codes and zoning laws. “We’re seeing a lot more acceptance of homes on foundations,” said Walker.

Various North Carolina nonprofits are looking to the diminutive dwellings on foundations as a means of stretching their budgets to help more people. You can find one such project in the old Carver historic district in Kannapolis, nestled among small millworker houses that have been there for decades. That’s where Habitat for Humanity of Cabarrus County was building its first tiny house, at 486 square feet. They built it for just more than half of what they would spend on a full-sized house.

The permanence of a foundation isn’t for everybody. Rionda said people prefer the homes on trailers because they want to be able to move around.

That’s what drove the Bouchers to build their south Charlotte tiny house on wheels. It gives them options. They can park it on a piece of land and stay there. Or they can park it in a “transitional neighborhood” in Charlotte and live in it while they fix up a dilapidated house.

Mounted on its trailer, their house is 13 feet and 1 inch off the ground. That’s small enough to be towed by just about any truck, free to go anywhere. The Bouchers dream of hauling it down the highway to their next home site, without any worry – except maybe a low bridge.

Hardiman: 704-358-5928

What is a tiny house?

By a widely accepted industry definition, a tiny house is 500 square feet or less. That’s about the size of two parking spaces. Usually they’re one room, with a sliding-door bathroom in a corner, and perhaps a loft bedroom. Very often they’re on wheels, but some are on foundations. Some houses are a bit bigger – say 800 square feet – and those are technically called “small houses.”

Tiny house resources

Where can I buy one?

For a list, go to tinyhousecommunity.com/builders.htm.

Where can I park it?

Go to tinyhousecommunity.com/places.htm

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