Does HUD Want to Make Tiny Houses Illegal? They Already Pretty Much Are.

©. Lowphoto/Shutterstock

There's panic among some in the tiny house community about a rule change proposed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). It 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." The panic ensues from the wording that would appear to prevent anyone from living full time in any home on a chassis that is not legally certified as what used to be called a mobile home but is now called a manufactured home. But it has ever been thus.

Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build and Andrew Heben of Tent City Urbanism both do excellent analyses of the issue, explaining why this change really is not a problem for the tiny house community. (Snopes does a pretty good job too)

However Heben hits on the bigger problem that everyone in the Tiny House world has been dealing with since it started, which is nobody really knows what they are.


© Dave LeBlanc/ Lloyd Alter's MiniHome

The reason Jay Shafer put his tiny house on wheels and Andy Thomson designed my MiniHome at 8'-6" wide was specifically so they could be classified as Recreational Vehicles (RVs). That's because it was really hard to design a building that small to meet the building code requirements for room sizes, stair design and plumbing, and RVs are not regulated by the building code.

Also, almost every municipality had requirements in zoning bylaws that set minimum floor area requirements, set to ensure that property values and tax bases were not compromised by tiny neighbors. It was thought that being and RV and not a house would beat that problem. Alas, it did not.

Tiny houses were designed under the RV rules to get around the building codes, but zoning bylaws often ban people living in RVs, and even the RV rules never allowed permanent occupancy, even though many people did. Even when you put them in RV parks, about the only place where you can legally live in them, the leases often ban permanent occupancy. Many of them won't even allow tiny houses, because most are not certified by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).

This is why I am now a writer, and not a MiniHome entrepreneur; everyone who came and fell in love with the MiniHome quickly found that they had nowhere to put it.

But let's be real about this; 8'-6" is a lousy narrow dimension. That's why mobile homes grew to ten and then twelve feet; they were not really mobile and neither are tiny homes meant to be. Living on top of a chassis is not optimal; you need jacks on the corners which need leveling and adjusting, and it can turn into Dorothy's house in a storm. The 13'-6" height limit is lousy if you want to build decent sleeping lofts.

Fundamentally, it was all a kludge, a crappy workaround, calling them RVs to beat the code and keeping them on wheels so they could be parked until you got nailed by the zoning inspector. Recreational vehicles are, after all, recreational vehicles. They are not houses.

Houses are built to building codes, and ever since Hammurabi wrote the first one four thousand years ago, these have existed primarily for one purpose: to protect the health and safety of the occupants. But as both Andrews note, building a tiny house that meets code is not impossible if you put it on a foundation, which is what they do with mobile homes- drop it on a slab or stick it on helical piles.

fighting trailers

Wheel Estate/via

Houses also don't have the stigma that trailers still have. Really, people have been fighting over houses on wheels since 1939. As Andrew Morrison says, "It is not in our best interest to refer to our homes as “tiny house RVs” because that implies temporary housing, not a permanent residence. Rather, we should proudly call ourselves “tiny houses” and work within an existing residential code (i.e. the IRC) to gain code approvals and legal, PERMANENT residential status."

There will be compromises. It might mean losing the lofts and increasing the insulation levels (although given how small the units are, they should not have to meet the same standard. That's why I have always said building codes should be absolute, not relative.)

There will be taxes. That's one of the reasons for exclusionary zoning, minimum floor area requirements and other rules designed to keep out the riffraff. But there is no reason zoning bylaws couldn't permit tiny house villages or even multiple families on single lots paying multiple property taxes.

Really, it's time to change the rules, stop the workarounds, and start calling tiny houses houses.