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Sustainable Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh, PA

Well Planned for “Tiny Homes” Can Provide Huge Benefits

Tiny homes can be a useful asset when working to create a more sustainable community.  They use less energy, less space and are often more affordable than their more conventional counterparts.  When tiny homes are incorporated into a larger municipal land use plan they can help bridge the housing gap for those seeking their first home, retiring to their last, or provide options for our most vulnerable populations.

The need for affordable housing, combined with a concern for the environment and a newfound desire for minimalist living, is driving the demand for smaller housing units.  The smallest, aptly nicknamed “tiny homes”, is a housing style now so popular it is being referred to as a movement.  These dainty dwellings, typically between 150 and 500 square feet, can be split into two broad categories: those built on a movable wheeled chassis, much like a mobile home or towable RV, and those built on fixed foundations like a typical single-family home.  Both types of tiny homes bring significant environmental and social equity benefits, but they also present unique challenges for communities looking to encourage them.

The challenges to permitting tiny homes include dealing with building code minimums if it is a fixed foundation and zoning codes for both the fixed and mobile tiny homes.  An updated zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan that effectively regulates and incentivizes tiny homes can help smooth the process.  It can also assist in putting challenging vacant lots back into productive use and provide needed affordable housing for vulnerable residents.  It is not ideal to encourage tiny homes as principal uses on large and medium sized lots that would serve to decrease neighborhood housing density and affordability.  Using zoning ordinances to accommodate a full range of housing opportunities, including different sizes, densities, prices, and tenures throughout the community can serve to attract residents.  Establishing zoning guidelines such as district with smaller lot sizes and square footage minimums for tiny homes with permanent foundations can incentivize building in older established neighborhoods or more densely in newer communities.

Utilizing innovative financing and land use tools in combination with tiny homes can create opportunities.  For example, a land trust model may allow a tiny home development permanently affordable.  The land trust could preserve open space for recreation and community engagement, and provide low income residents with a sense of ownership.  Streamlining the permitting process for appropriately sized lots can offer economical tiny house options for prospective home owners.

Environmentally, a tiny home has a much smaller and more ecologically friendly carbon footprint.  According to Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 17.5 percent of the solid waste in the Commonwealth’s municipal waste stream is construction related.  Building a tiny home takes less than half of a single logging truck to build, while a typical single family residential house requires as many as seven logging trucks to construct.  A tiny home also needs less fuel to transport material to the site.  Once the tiny home is built, it generates as little as 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, compared to the average single-family home, which produces 28,000 pounds annually!

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, in 1960 the median size of a new house was 1,289 square feet.  By 2015 the median house was more than double that size with the average being 2,687 square feet.  During this same period, the average household size went from 3.33 members to less than 2.5 members.  Less people are now occupying over twice the space of previous generations.  For families or individuals with more disposable income, a compelling message is that owners can invest in quality and design and downsize or fit into the “right size” based on their needs.  This also means the owners would have more income to spend in the community’s local economy.

The moveable versions of tiny homes, often more affordable, can be easily located near temporary or remote jobs sites, recreational facilities (such as RV or mobile home parks), or be used as temporary accessory-use homes, such as a mother-in-law cottage.  Allowing their temporary use on vacant lots in transitional neighborhoods could be a solution for abandoned properties that are seriously tax delinquent.  Updated zoning ordinances and comprehensive plans with innovative incentives can help foster a more affordable and environmentally sound future by using smaller adequately sized housing units.