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.
[ 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.
[ 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.