When we rounded up Shareable’s Top 10 Stories of All Time, tiny houses were a runaway favorite. Among the top tiny house stories were several pieces on tiny house villages — an exciting branch of the tiny house movement that combines tiny living with a focus on community.
To find out more about tiny house villages and get some insights into creating one, we connected with several people who are active in the movement. They shared with us some of the benefits of tiny house villages, advice for overcoming regulatory hurdles, and their best tips to create a tiny house village of your own.
Respondents are Timothy Ransom, president of Panza, the nonprofit behind Quixote Village, a self-governing tiny house village of formerly homeless people in Olympia, Washington; Chelsea Rustrum, a sharing economy author, consultant, and tiny house community builder; and Claude Trepanier, COO at Habitat Multi Generations, a social enterprise that builds sustainable development tiny house projects in Québec.
Cat Johnson: Why are tiny house villages a good idea?
Timothy Ransom: Our tiny house village provides its residents with their own dry, warm and secure places that are also part of a larger, self-supporting community. A multi-purpose common building is crucial for fostering community.
Chelsea Rustrum: Tiny house villages create community, which is something that we all need, regardless of location. With tiny houses, in particular, people are the focus, so having space to live outside and with others becomes paramount. They also provide shared spaces. We plan to have an outdoor kitchen, firepits, a stage, working areas, an indoor community center, a black bottom hot tub, a shared garden, etc.
Tiny house villages promote shared activities, such as cooking and meals, and entertainment. When you only have to cook once or twice a month and can come home to a home cooked meal every weekday, I’d say that’s a win! They also reduce living costs. As costs would be shared amongst the community members, you can do more with less.
Claude Trepanier: Tiny house villages optimize the use of scarce land, make housing affordable, and bring a sense of community.
What’s the first step to get a tiny house village project started?
Ransom: For Quixote Village it was building a constituency, through engaging volunteers, that would support fundraising efforts and the political work that would engage governmental agencies as partners.
Trepanier: Identify a suitable land area with a zoning suitable for small house construction. Define clearly the requirements appropriate for a successful tiny house community (affordable land space, road, drinkable water supply, wastewater disposal, common infrastructures to decrease costs). Meet the city officials involved in urban planning and secure them with a professional presentation taking into consideration every concern.
What are the biggest challenges in creating a tiny house village, and what are the best ways to overcome them?
Ransom: Money, money and money. NIMBY-ism when siting facilities for poor and homeless neighbors. Burnout of volunteers.
Rustrum: Every parcel of land is governed by city, county, and state agencies, with laws that limit the potential of a tiny house village. The planning department cares about the use and density of the land, public works is concerned about access, traffic, and environmental impact, environmental health wants to makes sure that there is adequate water and sewer requirements that are met, and the building department is concerned with structural safety, which is where the wheels/no wheels on the tiny home creates a gray area between being considered a mobile home, RV, and a typical residence.
For many, the idea of a tiny house village sounds too much like a trailer park, which is something many don’t want to stand behind. That’s why having a strong vision and communication of what the village looks like, who will inhabit, etc. is so important.
Trepanier: Finding suitable land and laying out a comprehensive landscape plan taking into consideration every concern (bylaws, infrastructures, resident’s community needs.) To have tiny houses accepted in a municipality, they have to change their bylaws significantly, not only the dwelling’s footprint — the allowed building materials and infrastructures — but also the zone usages, what one can or cannot do in their house and on their land.
Tiny houses are very different from existing large footprint houses. Municipalities have the responsibility to lay out coherent and good looking dwellings and living spaces which will yield a sustainable market value, so they can continue collect taxes based on dwellings market value. That is why it is very difficult for municipalities to change their bylaws for a small number of residents with specific needs or requirements.
What if every resident in the municipality asks to have a tiny house on wheels in their backyard?
What will be the reaction of a large footprint house owner to have a tiny house next door? The most elegant solution, which looks realistic in order to preserve harmony across different zones in a municipality, is to set-up a zone laid out specifically to tiny house characteristics as well as to suit tiny house owners preferred lifestyles.
What kind of regulatory concerns are there? Any advice for working with local officials and regulators?
Ransom: Many local building codes no longer allow for Single Room Occupancy types of development, and often, tiny houses cannot meet the codes created for apartment buildings or shared houses. Get local officials (electeds and staff) to buy in on the goals of the project before issues of zoning etc. come up.
Rustrum: The basics are this: zoning prevents tiny houses from being considered livable based on square footage and a number of other factors, including density limitations. Each parcel of land is different in that way, and finding specific land that fits within the legal strata of density and price is difficult on its own. The zoning codes can also specify a minimum square footage requirement for a livable unit, which most tiny houses less than 200 square feet do not meet.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUS) on an existing piece of property are more likely to be legal, but are not necessarily legal depending on the location. This is the law that just passed in Fresno, allowing people to have an ADU that’s a tiny house. However, most of the time, ADUs are required to be on a foundation, which tiny houses, by design, typically are not. Regardless of ADU regulations, having a property with 10-20 houses, would not fit under this regulation.
Mobile home and RV parks are really the only legal places to park tiny houses, but even then the houses must be approved by RVIA or MHBA standards, which most tiny houses are currently not built for. Interesting to note: Tumbleweed is now building certified RVs because as a recreational vehicle, you can more easily get loans, insurance, etc. and there’s a set of standards by which these are built, which meets those requirements in order to be legal. However, there are also many laws on how long and where you can park a lived-in RV, so that doesn’t solve the problem for long-term residence.
The bottom line is that any changes to zoning must go through an approval and request process, which requires the notification of the neighbors, who can prevent changes from going through due to their interest in property values, noise, etc.
To get a tiny house village off the ground would require a deep relationship with the given city or county bureaucracies in question, a parcel to build a model off of, and an approval process that we’re told could take 1.5-2 years.
Trepanier: Regulatory concerns are density, private land and dwelling value which will yield tax revenue per square foot, wastewater disposal. Advice for working with local officials and regulators: show success stories in similar municipalities.
What type of land do you advise people to build their tiny house village on? Who owns it? What type of amenities or facilities are needed?
Ransom: For Quixote Village, the land is public, leased to Panza, a nonprofit, for 40 years at $1 a year. For the folks we are serving (the chronically homeless, with physical and mental health and substance abuse issues), the housing needs to be permanent and, by funders’ requirements, must have toilets and sinks, heat, etc.
Rustrum: Water for sure (good enough water pressure for the number of residents or public water), sewer or septic plan, flat land without marshes, away from other residential properties so there isn’t concern of noise or loss of property value, and, personally, I like land that has a grove-like appeal where the community is surrounded by light and a meadow in the center and trees around the edges. Also, zoning, zoning, zoning! It’s a big deal. Get on the ground and talk to regulatory individuals in the planning and building departments about what you plan to do and the best way to get it done.
Trepanier: For the type of land, anywhere municipalities accept. Who owns it? For-profit real-estate promoter, not-for-profit real estate promoter, cooperative, or a community land trust. What type of amenities or facilities? Collective garden, greenhouse, community center, food cellar, etc.
How did you raise the initial funds to create your village? How do you recommend others approach fundraising?
Ransom: Thanks in large part to our constituency, we were beneficiaries of a quite significant grant from the state Housing Trust Fund for Quixote Village as a model project. We were able to leverage these funds to tap into federal dollars for housing the homeless, as well as donations from tribes, foundations, the faith community and private donors. A fundraising approach depends on targeted users (homeless, millennials, the elderly).
Rustrum: Have a clear financial model that’s sustainable over time and raise funds by talking to people who are interested. There is so much excitement in tiny houses and village-like communities at the moment that funding will not be difficult if you are a reasonably well-connected person and have a solid business and operational plan.
Another way to do it is to crowdfund, but that would come with its own set of challenges. The best recommendation I can make is to find as few funders as needed that are in alignment with the village, but do not intend to live there. Other villages in-process are looking to operate on more of an ownership model, where each person owns their own plot of land, but I see this is as troublesome if you only have 10-25 people in a community — each person counts. And the legal ramifications of ownership are much different than membership. I want the community to thrive and I think part of that is giving people the option to easily leave if it’s not a fit or no longer works for the community at large.
Trepanier: We pre-sold land lots and sold community bonds of the not-for-profit organization. Our recommendations for fund raising: pre-sales, community bonds, crowdfunding.
What type of tiny houses do you recommend? On wheels? Permanent? Where did your houses come from?
Ransom: For long term support of the homeless, permanent structures are required to secure public funding. Our houses were designed by a local architect with input from the residents of Camp Quixote and were constructed onsite by our contractor.
Rustrum: Each person will be responsible for their own house, which will be on wheels.
Trepanier: We do not see the cost-benefit value to owning a tiny house on wheels if you plan to move often since it costs so much in gas. If you plan to move often, do so in mild climates. We recommend permanent tiny houses. If well insulated, they can be just laid out on a concrete slab, and put on a flatbed truck for transport.
We purchased tiny house plans and we modified them. We then rented a house building shop, hired carpenters, and instructed them to build our houses.
What tools, including apps, legal forms, and processes, are essential for people starting a tiny house village?
Ransom: People starting a village will have to deal with the whole world of site acquisition, including land use and permitting requirements of the local jurisdiction; the world of financing, which might include relationships with funders, including governments, bankers, loans etc.; and finally the world of relationship to the residents of the village — financial and lease agreements, management plans, rules and regulations for behavior and interaction and, if necessary, hiring and management of staff.
Rustrum: Here’s a good wrap up of all of these issues: Government’s HUD Rule Prohibits Use of a Tiny House as Your Primary Residence. I’m not sure about apps and tools. I think it’s still a pretty new space.
Trepanier: You need a lot plan: how the land lots will be laid out on the land, as well as the road, alleys, water wells, septic tank, electric power lines, parking spaces; rules for the residents: how they will be governed, what materials are accepted, how common infrastructures are managed, how decisions are made amongst residents on which topics, who will take care of the road, etc. Request to the municipality to approve the lot plan and make modifications to any municipal bylaws, then go to tender to hire a contractor to build the infrastructures.
Are there successful tiny house villages have you looked to as models? Which ones and why do they appeal to you?
Ransom: The villages in Portland (Dignity), Madison (OM Village) and Eugene (SquareOne) are the ones we paid a lot of attention to when it came to developing/building and operating Quixote Village. They have been testing different ways of going about providing support to the homeless and much can be learned from them.
Rustrum: Lemon Cove looks like it’s working, although, I haven’t been to it. The closest thing I’ve seen is something Tony Hsieh of Zappos and the Downtown Project built in Las Vegas. I believe it’s called Airstream Park(there are Airstreams as well as tiny houses). Although its more urban than I envision our village being, the outdoor spaces and entertainment areas are the closest thing I’ve seen as a model.
Trepanier: The [planned] Tiny House Village in San Francisco, California is close to what we are designing. We plan 4,000 sq.ft. lots, large enough to benefit from intimacy and to grow food, either in vegetable garden or in greenhouses.
Can you offer any tips for group decision making regarding the tiny house village, both before and after it’s built?
Ransom: At Quixote Village, the organizational tradition and practice of self-determination by a council of all residents and an elected executive team, that was begun in Camp Quixote, continues. The council meets weekly — attendance is mandatory — and the executive team meets weekly with Quixote Village staff.
Now that Panza is the legal landlord of the Village, we (through the staff) are responsible for decisions regarding the admissions process, with advice from the current residents; otherwise the Resident Council (RC) makes decisions regarding the life of the community — chore rotations, planning meals and events. The existence of the RC is critical to maintaining a culture of community at the Village.
Rustrum: Vision is important. Sometimes groups get together to try to do consensus for vision of a community. I find that just takes a lot longer than someone coming up with a strong plan, idea, and articulated vision that matches or matches closely enough to what other people see themselves, but don’t have the language to communicate.
From there, our group has gone on several land scouting adventures, talked to the city of Santa Rosa, and learned about the zoning hurdles in many places north of San Francisco. At this point, we’ve formed a small working group to get to the next step, which is the village having a clear cut plan for legally building the vision. Once that’s complete, financing through investments will start. I have some ideas about that, and frankly, I think the community should be backed by people interested in the village, but not by the residents themselves.
Once the vision is agreed upon by the working group, and the general community and zoning and financing are figured out, the community itself will have a membership model whereby each resident has a vote and say in who lives in the community as well as what’s done with the space, shared meals, gardening, etc. Much of that foundation will be initially laid, but if it doesn’t work for some reason, the people who live there will be empowered to change it.
The organizational structure will likely be some form of a non-profit and the membership dues will be used to pay a community manager as well as for general upkeep and short-term guest management (We’ll have a few houses to rent for short-term visitors to come check out and learn about tiny house living and our community.). The membership will cover community upkeep, use of tiny house plot of land, utilities, and parking. And there will be checks and balances with the membership costs as to alleviate longer term residents from being priced out of their own community.
Trepanier: A.) Learn as much as you can, set-up a multidisciplinary team of experts in zoning and municipal bylaws, civil engineer, architect, biologist, real estate lawyer and land surveyor. B.) Plan the governance model as light as possible to prevent costs and delays, but as strong as possible to foster conlict prevention and a feeling of belonging to a community.”
How do you determine how the community will manage future costs such as maintenance, upkeep on houses, and shared spaces?
Ransom: Panza has a $230,000 annual budget for operating and maintaining the Village that is funded by federal and state grants, HUD Section 8 rental assistance, and donations.
Rustrum: Good question. This is why the village needs to charge a membership: to cover ongoing costs such as maintenance, community building, governance, etc.
Trepanier: Assess needs, prioritize them, ask for commitment to a budget.
What advice would you give to those who want to create a tiny house village?
Ransom: Take the time to build a constituency based on shared values and mission, and make sure that decision-makers and those with resources are included. It takes a village to build a Village.
Rustrum: First and foremost, have a strong vision of what you’re actually trying to create. Second and importantly, get on the ground. Look at land, talk to city planners, building planners, environmental health people. Find a champion in your community or surrounding area that wants to spearhead making the legal aspects of making a village possible.
Understand what your model is for the sustainability of the village. In other words, have a financial model in addition to a vision, which will end up looking a lot like a business plan in the end. Once you have an idea of the parcels of land that are the closest financial and zoning fit for your village, do some visual modeling on the village, which you can use as designs to articulate what you intend to build.
In tandem to all of this, build a community of interested parties around you and find people who can and want to help. I think if you’re building a community, you’re doing it for the love of it, so I try to see it as an experiment to make life better for more people, but treating it like a business with a sustainable financial plan is what will ultimately get the village off the ground.
On the community building side, I created a website, a meetup group, a Google group for document sharing, and a Facebook group for social and article sharing. Another tool I found useful in the beginning of rallying interest was Neighborland, which helps you get other people in your city on board with ideas that could improve the area.
Trepanier: Visit one first. Four out of five ecovillages fail due to inexperience, long delays, and lack of money. Do not overestimate the capacity of people who do not know a thing about tiny houses and community living, to succeed easily in a short period of time.