Perhaps the biggest barrier to smaller living is the misconception that tiny houses are illegal. They’re not. Here’s why.

But first, a disclaimer on what I am and what I am not. I am an individual who lives (yes, full-time), in a tiny house in the District of Columbia. I am someone who has spent more time than I’d ever hoped trudging through DC zoning and planning and coding regulations. I am someone employed by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development who spends a lot of hours each day talking to—and learning from—housing lawyers and the very people who set federal housing policy. I have a penchant for taking risks, an insatiable urge to disrupt stale systems, and a graduate degree in government and public policy.

Here’s what I am not. I am not a lawyer, urban planner, or zoning expert. I am not someone who knows all that much about these regulations outside of DC (though I’ve picked up a little). I am not someone who can speak to tiny houses affixed to foundations, and I am not someone to be trusted exclusively and unquestioningly before you spend tens of thousands of dollars building or buying a small house and dropping it onto a piece of land. That’s important.

But I am somebody who has spoken to thousands of people about living in tiny houses, and hundreds of people earnestly looking to take that leap, and too often I see someone who reconsiders their dream at the mention of legal grey area. Too often I see journalists cover the movement or Boneyard Studios or my little house and mistakenly mention that it’s “illegal” for someone to live in a small house. In my less informed days, I’m sure I’ve perpetuated this myth myself. But it’s not, and it’s a mistruth that’s damaging to what we strive for. It’s a myth that needs to be corrected. So let’s correct it.

[ 1 ] WHAT WHEELS DO

The “tiny houses are illegal” story always starts the same way, and the first part is totally true. The District of Columbia and most other American (and international) cities follow international residential building and plumbing codes, designed in theory to make homes “safe.” They definitely do—mandated maximum spans for rafters, minimum widths for studs, and other key standards to keep homes from caving in—but often the codes overreach, focusing more on comfort than caution. For instance, a code-compliant sink must be plumbed to receive both cold and hot water, even though hot water is an electricity-intensive convenience that (unless it’s at a skin-scalding 140 degrees) can’t actually kill germs. Rooms have a required number of “convenience outlets,” designed to keep residents from overloading power strips (though a surge protector or working circuit breaker would do just fine), without much consideration of those who just don’t have that many things to plug in.

Off-grid systems are unacceptable according to plumbing code: a house must be hooked up to city water, even if rain catchment is sufficient, and a house must have a toilet capable of flushing waste into the Potomac River, even if the owner has found a way to safely manage waste onsite. In some sustainability-minded foundation-built houses, I’ve seen bathrooms with two toilets: a plumbed one to meet code, and a composting one to actually use. Tiny houses don’t have this luxury of space. There’s more: minimum bedroom ceiling heights (incompatible with tiny house lofts), a minimum square footage for the bedroom and kitchen and living room. Small spaces inherently can’t meet code, and because code is enforceable by the city, a foundation-built house can be condemned and bulldozed (and its owner fined and imprisoned) for repeatedly failing to meet the law of the land, or perhaps the law of the landed.

And so, we put them on wheels. And just like that, international and national and local building and plumbing codes don’t apply. The house becomes a vehicle, and though the houses are largely built to code (and often, because these houses will travel on highways at sixty miles per hour, are built above code), some of the insurmountable elements are rejected.

JAY_2343

The utility trailer the Matchbox was built on.

[ 2 ] WHAT WHEELS DO NOT DO

And here’s where the story gets a little muddled. Tiny house on wheels are considered travel trailers, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV has no idea what to do with these, but agrees it’s probably a good idea to get them tagged and registered (in DC they would also have to be taken to the DMV for inspection every other year, but by using power-of-attorney allowances, a utility trailer anywhere in the country can be registered in Maine and exempted from inspection). And once that’s taken care of, the tiny house is completely, 100%, absolutely legal. In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, the owner of a house-looking thing on a utility trailer is entitled to the same parking rights as any other non-house-looking thing on a utility trailer or vehicle. They can be parked on private property (with permission to park there, obviously) and parked on the street (as long as they’re attached to a lead vehicle and meet local parking rules) and driven on the road (as long as they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″ and no longer than about 40′ and driven by someone with a commercial driver’s license if the trailer has more than a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating).

But, at the end of the day, a vehicle is not a house. Unless the tiny house is RVIA-certified or large enough to meet manufactured housing code, it’s more or less considered a car. Cars are not entitled to some things: namely a certificate of occupancy and the ability to declare a car as a primary residence. A tiny house parked on private land can have an address—indeed, our old Boneyard Studios lot was granted one—but the address is actually for the land itself, not the house. The house is not a house and the home is not a home, and you can’t put the address on your license, and your house isn’t eligible for all the great tax breaks and legal recognition the rest of the landed gentry enjoys. And this, finally, is where the myth of “illegal” tiny houses comes from. It’s not that you can’t live there, even full-time; you just can’t legally declare that your “full-time” “primary” “residence.”

And in that sense, living in a tiny house is a little like living with a same-sex partner in the era between the repeal of anti-sodomy laws (at least among the more civilized states that have repealed them) and the recognition of same-sex marriage as a legal bond subject to the same legal benefits (things like health insurance and the right to sit by the bedside of a dying spouse) as everyone else. Think 2006. No one is legally preventing you from living where you want to live (though nasty comments, gross misunderstanding, and bureaucrats not comprehending their own laws might persist), but no one is giving you the benefits your living situation really deserves, either. Your negative rights are protected, but your positive rights haven’t (yet) been granted.

JAY_3603

Lee’s Pera House, toured by the Deputy Mayor in 2014.

[ 3 ] IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WON’T COME

So, what do cities have to say? Not much. Tiny houses have sprouted up across the United States, and as long as they’re on wheels there haven’t really been run-ins with city officials. I know of a case or two where an individual has been asked to move their house because it “doesn’t comply” with city laws, but the owners of those homes didn’t seem to push the issue; likely, the city was exercising authority it didn’t really have.

There’s an important distinction to make between cities that criminalize homelessness and those that don’t. A city that criminalizes homelessness is one that can legally fine an individual for loitering or sleeping in public—when a person has no place to go, they’re essentially being prosecuted for existing at all. In some municipalities, sleeping in a vehicle on a public street is illegal, but on private property, it’s just camping.

Here in the District, we’ve had an interesting relationship with city officials. They’ve been overwhelmingly awesome: the Deputy Mayor and her staff came for a tour of Boneyard Studios to explore tiny houses as a potential solution to chronic homelessness, and our friends in the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing & Community Development have offered us advice, support, and even land for a new community (the last of which we didn’t accept for other reasons). Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs has occasionally overstepped its authority, imposing conditions on our old lot that weren’t supported by law. And the Zoning Commission, charged with coordinating a fair and transparent rewrite of DC’s archaic zoning, managed to slip in an unsolicited provision banning “camping” in tiny-house-like structures in alleyways. The good news is that the ban is vague and both practically and (I’m told) legally unenforceable, and at the moment neither of the Boneyard Studios houses are in alleyways. I’m also not camping in my house; I’m living there full-time. Just not Full-Time.

If you build it, they won’t come. I’ve been in the Matchbox for three years, and I’ve never received so much as a warning letter. No fiscally-responsible city is going to send an officer to stake out your tiny house and record your comings and goings for fourteen days, or 185 days, or whatever threshold your municipality sets for “camping” or “primary residence.” No marshal is going to knock on your door and tell you to leave your tiny house on wheels any more than one would knock on your car window and tell you to leave the car you’ve parked in your driveway. Assuming you’re not doing anything else wrong, like improperly disposing of waste or otherwise endangering those around you, you’re safe.

Cities and towns typically aren’t to blame: journalists are. Take a recent piece about tiny houses in DC:

There’s nothing in the city’s current zoning regulations related to “tiny houses,” Edward Giefer, spokesman for the D.C. Office of Planning, wrote in an email. But structures that would qualify as “accessory dwelling units” — like living in a house-on-wheels behind a friend’s rowhouse — are not permitted in the city.

— Whitney Pipkin, Elevation DC

Accessory dwelling units—which I haven’t gotten into because this is already wordy and complex enough—are usually about four hundred square feet, built on a foundation, and accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Tiny houses on wheels are not accessory dwelling units, because tiny houses on wheels are not (usually) four hundred square feet, are not built on foundations, and (sometimes) don’t accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Our friend Ed tells Whitney that the city doesn’t have a stance on tiny houses, but notes that structures that would qualify as accessory dwelling units are not permitted, and Whitney just squishes the two together. This happens a lot—it’s not just Whitney—and it’s an honest but damaging mistake.

[ 4 ] TL;DR

And that’s all there is to it. With a few caveats, tiny houses on wheels are perfectly legal. They’re built on wheels to escape unnecessary code requirements, and thereby escape even the peskiest zoning official. By existing in the vehicle realm, though, they forfeit some of the great advantages of being a homeowner: tax benefits, homeowner’s insurance, full recognition by the city. They may not call you a Homeowner, but hey, you are a “homeowner.”

The city won’t give you a problem, and if it does, just remind its enforcers that if they don’t consider your house a home, that means you’re probably considered homeless and should probably go cash in on some of the pricey homelessness subsidies you haven’t been using. Or question their legal grounds, seek some pro bono help, and fight for your rights. But more than likely, you’ll never need to. Because tiny houses are legal.

So cities, thanks for your continued support.
Members of the media, please fact-check.
And people, let’s get building.

Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Like everything at Boneyard Studios, this information is made freely available under a Creative Commons license. Feel free to share, remix, and repost as you’d like (that’s what it’s here for!).

Category:
General, Utilities/City Code

Join the conversation! 36 Comments

  1. Great perspective, and timely. I am going through some of those issues, in trying to build to code as a home for electrical, structure, etc. The city has not told me I can’t do anything, their’s is more of a don’t ask. But they also haven’t told me I can do anything either. The RV certification standards are what I am trying to meet or exceed (actually, exceeding is easy). I am going off grid with it, (it has the capabilities), and have all the connections already in place where it will sit for my garage, so tying in is easy.

    Liked by 2 people

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    • Friend, I would like to encourage you and all others to register your “wheels” as a Utility Trailer, NOT an RV. You are building your artwork/personal property on that Utility Trailer. A glitch that many experience is being told that they can not Camp on private property, theirs or anyone else’s. Building and registering your creation as an RV, at least in most areas, qualifies them to try to endorse this restriction. NOT LAW, but restriction. All must look into their areas definitions, then be prepared to speak as an informed entity on your own behalf. All the best to us all, as these challenges in our evolution find solution.

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      • Saraah, what you say is true for the construction of the structure, you can choose to be your own jurisdictional authority over your artwork and personal property. And it is true that building authorities who try to claim jurisdiction do not have authority or jurisdiction over personal property. The utility trailer is considered personal property and the structure is considered the cargo or load on the trailer. However, your personal property can become a “fixture” on “real property” and that is where “they” have jurisdiction AGAIN. And they can try to control you by using the International Property Maintenance Codes. Followed by threats…

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  2. I thought many cities and townships don’t allow people to park RV and campers on residential properties and live in them. Is that a myth?

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    • Again, “live” is a very subjective thing. It might mean that they can’t be declared full-time residence, but you can “camp” in them.

      But even so, tiny houses aren’t RVs, and thus might evade some of the regulations strictly targeting RVs.

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    • This is true – a lot of jurisdictions (cities, towns, or Property Owners’ Associations) do NOT allow RV’s or campers to be parked on residential (or commercial) property. so if they can’t even SIT there, they definitely can’t be lived in.
      But… like Jay says below, a tiny house is NOT an RV… so, another grey area.
      Or find a neighborhood where it is legal to park an RV.

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    • Heather, it is not a myth, it is very much a fact that many cities and townships and counties do not allow people to live in RV and campers on residential properties. However, a Tiny House on Wheels is not necessarily an RV. My Tiny House is a structure on a “utility trailer”, which is considered personal property and not an RV because I am not a manufacturer. And unless you attach the structure to the ground it is still personal property and not under the jurisdiction of the local authorities who may try to claim jurisdiction. However once you attach it to the land it becomes a fixture and under the “Fixture Law” the personal property changes identity to “real property”. Then the local jurisdictions claiming authority again can try to control you.

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  3. Love this! Thank you for writing it. I just went through the process of obtaining a special building permit to build a tiny house as a public art project on the front lawn of an art center. The building inspector was nervous, but by the time I got in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals they agreed that I didn’t really need a permit but they would grant it to me anyway.

    Here’s the info for the project, if you’re interested: http://mirandashearth.com/projects/big-art-tiny-house/

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  4. Some Bureaucrats seem to believe that complexity and mystery assure job security. Hmmmm…. Kind of like Doctors? I am building our tiny house disguised as a 1962 Airstream Tradewind, that I bought for $600. Which it is actually, on the outside. The challenge now is to get everything to fit in a 7 1/2 by 20 foot space. Which is why I follow the tiny house blogs more than the Airstream blogs. I want a home not a camper so tiny houses are great inspiration. Keep up the good work.

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  5. I’m pretty sure my hometown of Santa Cruz won’t allow people to live in a small house on wheels on private property. I know they won’t allow RV living, even on private property.

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  6. Great information, thanks!

    I’m curious though, why the 40′ maximum length?

    We want to convert a 53′ Semi trailer into a tiny house (we have 3 kids), but i keep hearing people say you can’t do it, even though no one can show me any laws restricting it.

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  7. Oh, whoops, I meant 45′, not 53′.

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  8. This is an awesome article! Thanks so much for taking the time to explain our (seemingly) complicated Tiny House landscape in specific and empowering terms.

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. To me it seems as if the regulation that prohibits living in a Tiny House is the following:

    121.1. No person or persons shall set up, maintain, or establish any camp or any temporary place of abode in any tent, wagon, van, automobile, truck, or house trailer, of any description, or in any combination, on public or private property, without the consent of the Mayor of the District of Columbia.

    http://regulations.dev.dcdecoded.org/24/24-1/24-121/

    Though perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard… you just need permission from the mayor.

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  10. I lived in a small travel trailer in a city with a guy I met travelling.It was in a backyard and we only paid$150 total for rent.I was fine just like camping.

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  11. Thanks for the great article! I’ve been doing a lot of research and reading on living in a tiny house parked curbside in NYC. Everything i read on it, seems to point to the conclusion that it falls under parking laws in NYC, not housing committee laws. That being said, there is a no more than 72 hours parking in the same spot law in NYC. But like you mentioned in the article, a fiscally responsible city would not want to track down and cite every vehicle that is parked for longer than 72 hours, unless it’s causing other problems than taking up a spot. Either way if anyone has done more research on this, or can point out other legal-related problems to this approach, it would be of great help to me, as i am thinking of actually doing this by next year.

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    • I believe that NYC would indeed track it all down, somehow. Plus, there’s just not the physical space for these to start springing up in much of the city.

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  12. […] is re-post of a great article written by Jay Austin over at Boneyard Studios.  [I added the […]

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  13. Great article–thanks!–that stimulates a much-needed discussion. Here in Loudoun County, we registered our 24′ equipment trailer and got a permanent license. As long as we continue to pay personal property taxes on it, the trailer is legal. It helps that we have a “permanent address,” the address of the landowner to whom we pay rent. But I would really like to see building codes reformed with sustainability in mind. As many of us are already demonstrating, houses don’t have to be big to be safe and comfortable.

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    • Jody, just curious why you feel that building codes need to apply? If there are no codes that SPECIFICALLY prohibit living in a structure that is considered a cargo load on a utility/equipment trailer, then there are no barriers. As the article discusses, there are no specific codes that made it illegal to build a tiny house on wheels yourself. The problem is with the codes that do specifically apply that are causing the barriers.

      I think the best way to understand the issue is to compare an existing home built to building codes of 20 years ago or even more than three years ago. Local building codes must be met at the time a home is built. However, three years later that home is already out of compliance with today’s new building codes. The vast majority of homes, including nearly every stately old home in close-in neighborhoods, would not meet today’s building codes.  
      Yet they are legally habitable because they comply with the property maintenance code.  The standards organizations came up with a standard that could apply to all existing dwellings. Called the “International Property Maintenance Code”.

      Personally I rather relish the freedom and liberty to be my own jurisdictional authority. Although I must admit that I do have some concerns about my neighbors not following the same standards that I have set for myself. But who am I to judge my neighbor? It seems the problems and issues at Boneyard Studios are because people have a hard time not judging their neighbors.

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  14. In most states, and you’ll have to check it out with your local city, if you pour a driveway and or a footing (doesn’t have to be a long footing) it’s enough to get an address if your living on land that you own that has no building or utilities from the city.

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  15. I am in Chesterfield County, VA – deterred from building on wheels by the planning dept, and leaning toward foundation building now. BUT this article makes me once again have 2nd thoughts. Any idea the best way to realllllly find out if a THOW would be allowed in my county? I have a friend with land, hoping I can land there, and a larger spot to build it. I just don’t want to do it all for naught. Help?

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    • Simple. Ask the planning department precisely why tiny houses on wheels aren’t legal. They can’t just say “no, that won’t work”—they have to provide a real, cited regulation demonstrating that non-RV utility trailers are illegal on private property, and it must say explicitly state that. If they can’t produce such a law, then they’re just bluffing. What has their rationale been so far?

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    • Sabrina Skute, I would say that first you need to determine what is the definition of “RV”. Some builders of tiny houses on wheels have chosen to join the RVIA so that it is easier to obtain financing so they can make it easier for their customers to pay for the products they build. The problem in Chesterfield County, VA and a lot of other counties across the nation is that there are “specific rules” against living in an RV unless it is parked in a designated RV park. RV’s are for camping in campgrounds or designated RV parks.

      I haven’t read the regulations all over the nation yet, but in the State of Washington “utility trailers” are considered “personal property” and not “Real Property.” The structure riding on the “utility trailer” is a cargo load and is still considered “personal property” unless you want to call it something else (or allow a government agency to call it something else).

      Your local “building authority” agency does not have jurisdiction over “Personal Property”. UNTIL you start living in your “personal property”.

      The “government” agencies (BTY – we get the word “government” from two words: “govern” which means “control” and “mente” which means “mind”). So the “mind control” agencies will try to trick you into thinking that they have authority over your “personal property” as well as your “real estate property”. As Jay Austin says, they (the mind controllers) are “bound” by regulations, In other words their services are limited, restricted to what their “employee manuals” (state and local regulations) define.

      The agencies claiming “jurisdiction” over your “personal property” must have your “consent” to “govern” or “control” you. When you make an application to the agency then you are entering a contract with them and giving them “consent” to “control” you. However, in my case, when my local government agencies tried to claim jurisdiction I took a stance and said in writing, “No thank-you, I will not be needing your services”. I told the agencies that the rules they were quoting did not apply by their own definitions. I did not buy my “utility trailer” from a “RV manufacturer” and I provided a copy of my trailer registration with the state department of transportation showing who the jurisdictional authority is for the trailer. And since the trailer is registered and licensed with the state division of motor vehicle licensing it is considered “personal property” and therefore does not fall under the authorities for building department governmental agencies.

      If you want to enter into a contract with the State Agency who administrates the Codes that apply for Tiny house on wheels, then make sure you get into the right contract.  (Filling out an agency form and paying a license or registration fee is entering a contract). Memorize this term, “Home-built Utility Trailer”, say it to yourself. Because if you are reading any other portion of the state codes, you might be confused or worst the State Agency might be confused and they will label your trailer a “travel trailer” or a “Recreational trailer” or maybe even as a “Park trailer”.  You don’t want these labels if you plan on living permanently in your tiny house on your trailer. 

      The Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin (MCO) is the document that allows you to register and/or title a new trailer. This is your trailer’s “birth certificate,” showing its unique identification information. A trailer manufacturer is required to provide a MCO to dealers or purchasers for every vehicle it manufactures.
      • Some of the benefits of contracting with the State agency and being classed as an “RV” type is the advantages of financing and/or insurance.
      • But when entering this contract you give up rights of freedom to live in this dwelling other than state agency approved parking places (RV parks and Campgrounds – which are considered temporary residences).

      Keeping the type class as a “utility trailer” with a cargo load mounted on the trailer, keeps you in contract with the state agency as a “utility trailer”. The advantages is there are no specific or express regulations regulating what you do with a “utility trailer”, unless maybe a homeowners association or more local specific restrictions, which may be the case for some communities, but not the case for most others outside that specific area.

      HOWEVER, there are regulations that allow “personal property” to change its identity to “real property”. For example when you purchase the lumber for building your tiny house, the lumber is considered personal property. But once you attach the personal property to the land, then it becomes a fixture, a part of the real property. The same for the beautiful light fixtures you purchase, the light fixtures are personal property until you attach the fixture to the house, then it becomes part of the “real property”. So based on these “fixture” regulations your tiny house on wheels may lose it’s identity as “personal property” if you do something that attaches to the “real estate”.

      This is where some local jurisdictions vary in adopting specific regulations. I happen to know that Chesterfield County, VA has decided to enforce the International Property Maintenance Code as the reason to initiate eviction proceedings. The property maintenance code focuses on performance measures (ie. ability to heat them, ingress/egress, access to hot and cold water…) that can be evaluated without opening up and inspecting hidden parts of the building’s structure and envelop.

      The vast majority of homes, including nearly every stately old home in close-in neighborhoods, would not meet today’s building codes.  
      Yet they are legally habitable because they comply with the property maintenance code.  In my case, it surprised me when the County told me that they didn’t care if I had 28 tents on my property, just as long as they were at least 8 feet from the property line. Apparently you can live in a tent temporarily for up to two years without needing a permit.

      In summary, it seems complicated, but it really is simple if you stand up for rather than stand under (understand) your rights. And don’t use the services of pirates.

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  16. […] houses, and habitable basements. What will it do for even tinier houses? Little, if anything. Tiny houses aren’t illegal in the District of Columbia, and though those choosing to reside in them aren’t given the […]

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  17. […] on a foundation and connect to utilities. This is so we can claim this as our primary residence. This article explains the legality of tiny houses in DC and why it couldn’t be our primary residence if […]

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  18. […] on a foundation and connect to utilities. This is so I can claim this as my primary residence. This article explains the legality of tiny houses in DC and why it couldn’t be a primary residence if it […]

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