How small is too small for a new house? Debating minimum sizes (along with race and class)

There are plenty of people who would like to see Americans live in smaller homes but some communities have minimum square footage requirements for new homes, leading to this question: how small is too small for a new house?

Chris Jaussi, owner of Zip Kit Homes in Mount Pleasant, manufactures homes as small as 400 square feet and would like to sell the micro dwellings in the county. But dwellings that small are prohibited by a 1980s ordinance that mandates the minimum size [800 square feet] of a residence…

He believes the current ordinance is “discriminatory” against lower-income people who can’t afford a conventional “stick-built home” in the county…

County officials said the existing policy was adopted to limit mobile and double-wide manufactured homes to specified zoned areas and keep them from springing up randomly in the county…

“I have a lot of sympathy for those who can’t afford their own homes — the poor of Sanpete County. But I don’t want to make housing so cheap we import the poor from other cities,” said Stewart [vice chair of the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission], according to the newspaper. “We get someone who can’t afford to build a bigger home, so they buy this one and fill up the rest of the [5-acre county lot] with junk cars …we don’t want people to come to Sanpete County for that reason.”

This is fascinating for a couple of reasons:

1. Many residents may not think about minimum or maximum home sizes – can’t you build what you want on your own property? However, zoning laws are often quite clear about this.

2. I don’t think minimum home sizes are that unusual. It sounds like this was enacted in this particular county to limit manufactured homes but I also have read about a similar battle in Naperville. Levitt and Sons, the same builders who built the famous Levittowns in the Northeast, proposed building smaller homes of about 1,000 square feet in the early 1980s. However, residents of nearby newer subdivisions complained that the much lower prices of these “downsized” homes would reduce their own property values. Naperville thought about enacting a minimum size ordinance but decided not to after finding that similar regulations in other Chicago suburbs had been struck down in court.

3. Let’s be honest here: this is all about property values and of course, property values also coincide with issues of race and class. More expensive homes, which on average are more likely to attract middle- to upper-class residents who are more likely to be white, are seen by many communities as a boon while smaller homes which attract the lower classes and minorities are seen as less worthwhile. Look at the associations cited here in this story: allowing smaller homes will automatically attract lower-income residents who will live in mobile homes and/or keep junked cars in their yards. The suburbs have a long history of formal and informal ways of restricting access to the poor and a minimum house size or lot size (usually associated with exclusionary zoning) can accomplish this. I do wonder though if these smaller homes will necessarily attract low-income residents – if these smaller homes are about being green (and perhaps also about quality rather than quantity), might they also be marketed to more educated, higher-class residents?

0 thoughts on “How small is too small for a new house? Debating minimum sizes (along with race and class)

  1. Not meaning to discriminate ;-), but doesn’t it take a certain capacity of progressive intelligence to even give a hoot about green issues? About issues beyond size and ego; awareness beyond self? About – – imagine this – – intentional sacrifice?

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