Is Utah ready for tiny homes?

The following op-ed, written by our policy director Michael Melendez, was published last week in the Deseret News.

The American dream of homeownership has had a rough time over the past 10 years — a housing bubble, economic recession, changing preferences among millennials and now a housing shortage here in Utah.

The number of people who opt to rent rather than buy a home is now at an all-time high, and prices are skyrocketing. Affordable housing has become so scarce that many around the country are looking at a new option: so-called “tiny homes.”

What up until the last few years seemed like a temporary fad has become an ever-growing phenomenon around the country, expanding far beyond the handful of TV shows that have highlighted tiny homes. Young couples just starting out and empty-nesters who are tired of all the upkeep of a large home increasingly see them as a cost-effective alternative.

Tiny homes tend to be smaller than 500 square feet and can be built on the ground or on wheels. They often consist of a loft bedroom, small bathroom, small kitchen and a common area. They can be customized, moved, and used for a variety of circumstances, including being powered using only solar power.

There is just one minor problem: most local governments do not allow them.

Tiny homes offer yet another example of how Utahns don’t truly own their property, but instead can only do what the government gives them permission for. Zoning, city ordinances, building permits and other restrictive regulations provide cities with plenty of tools to block this innovative and affordable housing alternative — and you can be sure that most city officials will be slow to update their local laws and processes to match new trends.

Minimum dwelling size requirements are the primary hurdle that prospective tiny home owners must first overcome. Then comes the question of where to put it. Often, tiny homes are constructed to operate in a similar manner to a mobile home — but due to zoning laws, mobile home and RV parks are generally not allowed to accept tiny homes.

Most city ordinances also prohibit building one in your backyard — for example, if you wanted to set one up as a mother-in-law apartment of sorts. This would be an appealing opportunity for many families looking to take care of their elderly parents, but unfortunately most cities don’t respect property rights enough to allow it.

Some city bureaucrats say that tiny homes don’t fit within current zoning requirements, but in the long term this doesn’t qualify as a valid excuse. Instead cities need to re-evaluate existing zoning and ordinances to provide a path for residents to build and live in tiny homes where desired. Examples of forward-thinking public policy on this issue can be found in cities like Eagle Mountain, Logan and Pleasant Grove, but these efforts often don’t go far enough and need to be replicated in other cities in a timely manner so as not to violate property rights.

Utah is home to several innovative startups that build tiny homes, but very few of the homes they build end up staying in the state. Instead, they are shipped to customers in other states where local ordinances are more accommodating.

Tiny home communities are popping up throughout the country, and larger cities have started to turn to this smaller format home as a possible alternative to address homelessness. Seniors are able to maintain their independence without the struggle of maintaining a large home and yard, while young couples are able to obtain their own home without a large mortgage they can’t afford.

In a variety of different states we can find numerous examples of free- and reduced-cost tiny home communities that are not only providing a place for the homeless to live, but also drastically reducing the burden on taxpayers. Tiny homes are cheaper to build than low-income apartment complexes and would provide excellent accommodations for the portion of homeless Utahns who desire a simplified lifestyle.

Until recently, tiny homes were considered a fringe movement by those pursuing a minimalist lifestyle. But with recent housing shortages, skyrocketing home prices and changing tastes for seniors and young people, the interest in tiny homes has become more widespread. Local governments need to catch up.

Cities and communities in other states are taking the necessary steps to allow residents to make innovative housing decisions. It’s time for Utah to do the same and legalize tiny homes.