City of Fresno Legalizes Tiny Homes, and Steven M. Johnson Is on It

Our favorite cartoonist solves a major problem with tiny houses.

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©. Steven M. Johnson

The mayor of the city of Fresno, California claims that the city "is full of surprises." Here's the latest one: They have legalized tiny houses and backyard cottages. Quoted in KQED:

“This is an important step forward for the tiny house movement because it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions nationwide,” says Amy Turnbull, one of the directors of the American Tiny House Association. “This ordinance sends a clear message: we need to adapt our codes to accommodate new housing models and we need to do it quickly and decisively.”

It is actually a really interesting zoning bylaw; it sets maximum and minimum sizes, does not demand extra parking, bans variances and even deals with the look of the house:

If visible from a public street or park, the architectural design, roofing material, exterior materials and colors, roof pitch and style, type of windows, and trim details of the Second Dwelling Unit, Backyard Cottage, or Accessory Living Quarters shall be substantially the same as and visually compatible with the primary dwelling.

A few years ago I was asked to consult to a provincial agency on how to make tiny houses legal in back yards and pointed out some of the problems: plumbing (legally all dwelling units need a flush toilet, sink and shower) Fire protection (all dwelling units have to be within the length of a hose to the fire hydrants); basically every agency through up every barrier they could to even considering the idea. Steven Johnson's cartoon demonstrates an original way to deal with this problem: put 'em in the front yard where there is all kinds of wasted space, the sewers are right underneath and the fire department won't have any problem at all.

But Fresno gets it right, being much more flexible:

Definition of Tiny House added to City of Fresno Development Code

Tiny House. A structure intended for separate, independent living quarters for one household that meets these six conditions:

  • Is licensed and registered with the California Department of Motor Vehicles and meets ANSI 119.2 or 119.5 requirements; (note: requirements for being a legal RV or park trailer)
  • Is towable by a bumper hitch, frame-towing hitch, or fifth-wheel connection. Cannot (and is designed not to) move under its own power. When sited on a parcel per requirements of this Code, the wheels and undercarriage shall be skirted;
  • Is no larger than allowed by California State Law for movement on public highways;
  • Has at least 100 square feet of first floor interior living space;
  • Is a detached self-contained unit which includes basic functional areas that support normal daily routines such as cooking, sleeping, and toiletry; and
  • Is designed and built to look like a conventional building structure.

The ANSI requirements are going to cause trouble as it will eliminate many of the self-builds and probably some of the smaller builders. As the American Tiny House Association notes, a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is not a Recreational vehicle (RV), which is regulated by ANSI 119.2:

A THOW is not an RV because an RV is a recreational vehicle intended for non-permanent living. In addition, the Department of Motor Vehicles in many states only recognizes RVs that were built by members of the RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Association). A THOW is built as a residence and may be owner-built by a non-professional, non-member of the RVIA.

We will have to wait and see how that shakes out. But other than that issue, this is a great step forward for making tiny houses a viable urban and suburban solution to the cost and availability of housing.