Three major challenges facing tiny homes and their owners

Given that tiny houses have not exactly taken off, here are three possible reasons why:

The concept is appealing, but in truth, people have found it challenging to locate places where they can permanently park their home on wheels. It has become an issue in many communities, as homeowners worry that the character of the mobile homes will diminish their property value. Locating the perfect site can be easier in rural areas.

Another dose of reality has come in the form of human behavior. It turns out that for some of the people appearing on the various HGTV programs devoted to tiny-house living, the strain of living in such tiny quarters has surfaced. As we see with follow-ups, some couples cannot manage to live in 300 square feet together, and one moves out.

Additionally, when compared with the lifestyle of an urban micro-unit, rural or suburban settings are more restrictive. In the city, for example, people can get to a pub, cafe or coffee house in minutes simply by walking out the building’s front entrance and down the block.

These are three important challenges. The first and third discussed above seem related to me: it may take a significant amount of time before communities develop zoning and planning that allows for tiny houses. Current residents might view them as threats not only because are they mobile but also because the homes are also significantly cheaper than many other kinds of housing units. In the best case for tiny homes, communities would allow them to fill in spaces between existing buildings and units. This would increase density and possibly provide more tax revenue. In the worst case, tiny houses will be excluded from many desirable locations, contributing to the third issue above where the advantages of a tiny home and budget may be combined with needing to drive everywhere.

As for the second issue above, Americans like their (1) personal space and (2) space for lots of stuff. Tiny houses do not have much square footage for either. In a perfect world, the tiny house might be located in a vibrant urban or suburban area where the owner(s) could spend a lot of time outside the unit (taking advantage of third and public spaces like coffee shops, parks, and libraries). Without those nearby amenities, a tiny house might simply not offer enough separation from others. Additionally, a tiny house likely requires an owner to do without many things. This could be overcome through a variety of methods – living near family and friends with whom one could share, storage units, or a barter or sharing economy – but this requires more work and resources.

All of these problems might be solved eventually but it will take time.

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Ongoing zoning controversies with mosques in New Jersey

Two recent zoning cases involving proposed mosques in New Jersey have garnered attention. A quick overview of each.

First, a newly filed federal lawsuit in Bayonne, New Jersey:

The mosque is proposed for an old warehouse at the end of a dead-end street on the city’s east side. The structure, built as a factory, previously housed a chapter of the Hired Guns Motorcycle Club, “made up of sworn law enforcement officers,” according to its website

To build the mosque into the existing space, Bayonne Muslims — the nonprofit organization that owns the space — went to the city in August 2015 to request zoning exemptions. It asked for requirements that a buffer between the existing building and adjacent properties be waived, and that it be able to provide less parking than required.
Ultimately, after three tumultuous public hearings, the proposal failed to gain approval at a March 6 meeting. The vote was 4-3 in favor of the project, but a supermajority — greater than the four votes in favor — was required under state law…
During the public hearings, some opponents expressed concern over the traffic and noise a mosque might bring to their dead-end street. Others cited verses from the Koran they asserted supported violence against non-Muslims.

A New Jersey town will pay an Islamic group $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit over its denial of a permit to build a mosque, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday…

The Islamic Society of Basking Ridge sued Bernards Township, an upscale town in central New Jersey, last year, claiming it changed its zoning ordinances in order to deny the group’s plans. The Justice Department also sued the town last year, alleging it treated the group differently than other religious groups…

Central among those was parking: Township planners had concluded that because Friday afternoon was considered peak worship time, congregants would most likely be arriving straight from work and would each need a parking space.

But a federal judge disagreed, and wrote in a ruling Dec. 31 that the town hadn’t conducted similar assessments of worship habits when churches or synagogues had made applications.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleged the town changed its zoning laws to require houses of worship in residential districts to be at least 6 acres — larger than the lot the Islamic Society had purchased in 2011.

There are multiple issues at play in these cases:
1. Do municipalities apply the same standards to all religious groups? If not, why do particular groups receive more attention? (The two cases above involve Muslim groups. Do orthodox Jewish groups also receive a lot of attention?)
2. Is it legitimate to deny religious land uses for issues like traffic and parking (common complaints in suburban settings regarding many proposed land use changes)? In other words, are these typical NIMBY complaints or is there something unique about religious buildings?
3. Why are a number of these cases popping up in New Jersey? The state has a long history with exclusionary zoning issues – see the Mt. Laurel doctrine which developed out of a lawsuit. Additionally, it is home to a number of white suburbanites living in suburbs that they would like to preserve or protect.
4. Is the only path to resolution a federal lawsuit? Once such cases reach the level of a federal lawsuit, I would argue the communities have already lost. This is not just because RLUIPA cases tend to be settled in favor of the religious groups. I also imagine such lawsuits can bring negative attention to a community; do they really want to be known as the suburb that refused a certain group to worship there?
(These are not issues isolated to New Jersey. Perhaps there are similar conditions in the Chicago area suburbs. See earlier posts about mosque controversies in the Chicago region including here, here, and here.)

The difficulty of building suburban housing for the homeless

A groundbreaking for a new facility providing housing for the homeless recently took place in LaGrange but it wasn’t an easy path:

The three-story brick building will house 20 individuals in single apartments on the second and third floors and have administrative offices and the day program that will provide counseling, job training and referrals for services on the first floor…

In 2015, La Grange residents sought to block the sale of property, then owned by Private Bank in Chicago, to BEDS Plus. The suit contended that a corporation, McGee Family Holdings, with a La Grange resident listed as manager, owned portions of the parcel on which the facility will be built…

At the same time as the lawsuit was being handled, Patrick Johnson, an assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, conducted an investigation into whether the efforts to block the project were a violation of the Fair Housing Act that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities….

La Grange Village President Tom Livingston said he believes the facility is a great thing for the community. At the same time, he said the village will keep an eye out to be sure it doesn’t present any of the problems, such as safety concerns, that opponents had voiced.

Even when plans are presented by local community groups – such as religious congregations or non-profit organizations – suburban residents are often wary of group homes or facilities near residences. But, of course, if such facilities can’t be built near any residence, where in suburban communities can they be located? Industrial parks?

I hope few suburbanites would say that they don’t care at all about what happens to homeless people but it is another thing altogether to ask people to live near homeless people. This reminds me of the Bogardus social distance scale; it is one thing to express concern or interest about a group of people in the abstract or at a great distance but something very difficult if they live nearby. Take race relations in the United States as an example. Attitude questions on the General Social Survey since the 1970s suggest white Americans are more positive regarding African Americans. Yet, these improved attitudes don’t necessarily translate into less residential segregation.

Zoning trade-off: privacy vs. adverse effects

The conclusion of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA sums up the advantages and disadvantages of a zoning system that privileges the single-family home:

Arguably, zoning – the kind of zoning that makes explicitly private space the formative compositional element of America’s settlements – does deliver the gift of privacy to American families. But put all the other arguments mentioned in the previous paragraphs together, and one begins to wonder whether the original promises of zoning were either highly suspect from the beginning or have since been turned on their heads. Paradoxically (from the viewpoint of zoning’s founders), we may not have more pollution and worse public health with our current zoning that we would have if we had modified our land-use laws more substantially over the last hundred years.

As Hirt discusses, residents can have their own private homes – the largest new single-family homes in the world – but that comes at a cost of traffic and commuting, worse pollution and using more land, and worse health as well as some unrealized dreams of zoning including reduced crime. Some would argue that the privacy is overrated as well: compared to many other countries, Americans have given up on public life.

While it is easier to imagine mixed uses in dense urban neighborhoods – imagine Jane Jacobs’ vision of a bustling mixed use New York neighborhood – it is harder to imagine mixed use or zoning throughout the vast expanses of American suburbs. Even New Urbanists have tended to design neighborhoods or shopping centers dropped into suburban settings rather than the whole fabric of suburban communities. From the beginning of American suburbs, there was the idea that the urban dweller was escaping to a cottage in nature. The home out there offered refuge from people, dirt, and bustle. Today, this legacy lives on when suburban residents oppose certain land uses near their homes for fear of a lower quality of life and subsequently reduced property values.

Ultimately, would the American suburbs even exist without the fundamental desire for privacy?

A zoning paradox: sacred residential spaces are dependent on their market values

The last page of Sonia Hirt’s book Zoned in the USA lays out a key paradox in the American zoning system:

Isn’t it ironic that American residential space is so sacredly residential (so protected from intrusion through land-use law, that is) only because it is so commercial (because it is an object of trade rather than an object of our sentiments)?

Perhaps this another piece of evidence that single-family homes are one of the biggest objects of American consumption as well as key pieces in the American economic system.

Small house movement spreads in ADUs

One way to encourage smaller homes and affordable housing is to allow Accessory Dwelling Units:

The cottage, which won a top design award last year from the American Institute of Architects, is technically called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or A.D.U. Portland has been ahead of the curve in allowing these smaller housing units, which are illegal in many cities and towns under current zoning rules…

In 2010, during the economic slump, when many building plans were being shelved, Portland presciently began to allow homeowners the right to develop accessory dwelling units on standard 5,000-square-foot residential lots for the first time. The city also eliminated development charges of up to $15,000 for new accessory dwelling units to spur homeowners to build.

More incentives followed: Homeowners could build and even rent out a unit that did not have off-street parking; any design not visible from the street could be built without input from neighbors; and new height limits — raised to 20 feet from 18 feet — encouraged two-story units, like Ms. Wilson’s…

Not surprisingly, the concentration of accessory dwelling units has been in central, higher-income areas close to amenities like transit and shops. “Part of this could be due to the fact that people with large amounts of equity can more easily secure financing,” Mr. Wood said. “The City of Portland and Portland State University will be working on a project to encourage and facilitate A.D.U. development in more diverse neighborhoods.”

It may be helpful to compare the ADUs to other alternatives for affordable, small housing.

  1. Would residents and communities prefer tiny houses on their own lots or in communities of tiny houses? The first could be expensive due to the cost of land, defeating the purpose of the smaller housing which is supposed to be cheaper. The second could be too much of a change for some places. ADUs make use of existing lots and aren’t necessarily grouped together.
  2. Would residents and communities prefer larger apartment buildings? On the plus side, you can build more units up and everyone knows that this is an apartment structure (with its higher densities and other unique features). On the negative side, apartment buildings can alter the character of a neighborhood, may require parking, and people often have stereotypes about who lives in apartments. The ADUs hide the higher densities better than apartments – back behind the main housing unit – but don’t provide as many units.

Given the resistance of many municipalities to denser housing, I imagine ADUs could be attractive as they don’t require the density or size of some alternatives. Additionally they can use existing land and generate income for local residents. Even given all that, I think it would take a lot for many cities to adopt this. There is a large need for affordable housing throughout the United States and many communities don’t seem to be moved to do anything; I’m not sure ADUs are attractive enough to tilt the scales.