Editorial: Big questions surrounding tiny houses

  • The tiny house made for Matt Bonner (right) and his family. Courtesy of A&E and Matt Bonner

Friday, May 18, 2018

It may be the right idea at the wrong time, or the wrong place. It may just be a fad. But the tiny home park a developer wants to create in Warner is a recognition of economic realities. It may be the first New Hampshire community to deal with the “tiny house” phenomenon, but every city and town should consider whether their traditional housing laws and policies need revising.

Concord, like pretty much every city in America, wants to keep or attract young people, but statewide the apartment vacancy rate is 1.7 percent. It was lower than that in Concord and near zero in some parts of southern New Hampshire. That makes for high rents that discourage or even drive off people just getting their start in life. It means employers have to pay more, and it makes hiring tough.

Single-home prices, up more than 15 percent over the last two years, are climbing far faster than salaries. The median price of a home for sale in Concord, according to the real estate website Zillow, is $244,900. Tiny homes (by definition those under 400 square feet, not counting lofts, according to the International Residential Code) typically cost $35,000 to $65,000, though custom-designed luxury models go for much more. They are typically built with traditional construction materials and look not like travel trailers but miniature houses.

Concord native Matt Bonner, a now-retired NBA player, had a tiny home built to house his family of four while on the road. Other tiny homes are used as fixed residences. Buyers are willing to sacrifice roominess for low-cost living, energy efficiency and mortgage-free home ownership.

Young people, many of them burdened by college debt, have given up on the American dream of owning a traditional home. They, and downsizing baby boomers, are driving the tiny home trend, which has been fueled by several popular TV shows. Last year, a Henniker company, Tiny Living Spaces, sprang up to meet the demand.

Some see tiny homes as the future of affordable housing, but there’s a catch. Zoning laws and building codes make it difficult to impossible to find a spot to park a tiny home. A handful of communities have changed laws to accommodate them and a few tiny home “villages” have been created. To attract the millennials every city wants, Concord should consider becoming one of them. How is another, very complicated matter.

If a tiny home on wheels is moved from place to place, like a camper, it is not taxed as property but it can’t be used as a residence, even when parked in a back yard. If the tiny home is placed on a permanent foundation it must meet the same building code requirements as a traditional home, something they usually can’t do. If the tiny home is towed to a mobile home park, it must meet federal Housing and Urban Development requirements for manufactured housing. Again, something not easily done.

Tiny homes are too small to be considered an accessory dwelling unit under state law and land costs make siting them in city centers uneconomical. But if the answer is yes, Concord wants to participate in the tiny home experiment, where should they go? We don’t have the answer, but it’s something planners and city councilors should be thinking about.