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Tiny house living is quiet and cozy, but legally difficult in New Hampshire

  • Tenants have been renting casitas, or tiny houses, at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Dec. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Quinn Kelley sits in the loft of his tiny house at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough on Dec. 15. ABBE HAMILTON / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Tenants have been renting casitas, or tiny houses, at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Dec. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Tenants have been renting casitas, or tiny houses, at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Dec. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Tenants have been renting casitas, or tiny houses, at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Dec. 15, 2020. Staff photo by Abbe Hamilton

  • Tenants have been renting casitas, or tiny houses, at the Walden Eco Village in Peterborough. Abbe Hamilton photos / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/29/2020 6:11:30 PM

Although there are ways for the seven cabins at the Walden Eco Village to get into compliance, former casita (or tiny house) resident Quinn Kelley acknowledged there was very little hope that he’d be able to return to his 140-square-foot rental. The nine similar rentals on site were not permitted, and don’t meet several criteria of the town’s building code for residences, including the 400-square-foot minimum for studio or one-bedroom residences. Casita renters paid about $445 a month to rent small rooms with propane heat and electricity, and used a communal building on site for kitchen, bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities. Officials disconnected the propane and electricity to all casitas last Wednesday after witnessing several safety hazards.

Nevertheless, it was a top priority for many former Eco Village tenants to share the numerous benefits of the lifestyle enjoyed by the rotating cast of casita tenants, and to make the case for a future pathway to a legal tiny house village following their eviction from the Garland Way site in Peterborough last week.

“That really did work for people,” longtime Eco Village resident Amy Wilson said of the casita rentals, and that renters stayed for anywhere from a month to three years in the tiny dwellings.

Sarah Trento, 28, had been living in Hancock earlier this year and was surprised and excited to find an opportunity to live in a tiny dwelling just one town over, since they’re typically depicted on trailers or in other parts of the country on “Tiny House Nation,” a reality show that features homes with a footprint under 500 square feet. “I was looking forward to refine what I want out of life,” she said, and moved into a casita in September. Trento said she “chose tiny” for an opportunity to live more sustainably, although she also appreciated  the interaction with other casita residents, and the  encouragement toward material minimalism. The small footprint is a huge draw for some people, she said: “When you have less things to manage, you have more time to manage your thoughts,” she said.

“Seeing how few possessions you can get away with is a wonderful spiritual practice,” casita tenant Peter Chernyak said. “It reminds me a lot of monks’ meditation huts.”

One of the best parts of living in one of the Walden Eco Village casitas was interacting with the other casita residents, tenants said. “The community is made up of such lovely and colorful people,” Chernyak said. If anyone was feeling low, it was easy to just go to the kitchen and hang out with whoever came in, Kelley, 23, said. The casitas drew people who valued community and friendship, and were interested in and appreciated one another’s live stories, he said.

“It’s a close-knit neighborhood,” Trento said, more in line with what it means to be a neighbor than a typical cul-de-sac experience, where people living next to one another might not even have one another’s phone numbers. There were no required meetings, nor any common religious or spiritual ties that might come to mind if a person was tempted to think of the arrangement as a commune. “I feel safe here. I know everyone,” she said, “It breaks my heart that I won’t see them at the fire” in the central common, or play music with them again, she said. “It’s just a sense of community that I think we lack in this time.”

The village’s sense of community was a huge source of support for tenants who arrived alone, sometimes going through hard times, Wilson said, and that she also saw the shared resources aspect of the Eco Village as essential to the perpetuation of residents’ close ties. “If you have everything you need in your house, you have no reason to go out,” she said.

What’s it like?

“People close to me were skeptical that it’d get old,” Kelley said. “What happens in the middle of the night in February when you have to go to the bathroom?” he recalled they’d ask. “It’s 50 yards away, I have the right shoes,” he said, to walk through the snowy paths to get to the bathroom, or kitchen, or shower. “To me, it’s such a tiny, tiny tradeoff,” he said, in exchange for living in a beautiful setting in a great community.

Trento likened the experience to living in a college dorm. “In most of our eyes, it’s a lot like that, except fresh air instead of a hallway,” she said, adding that, unlike a college, the shared living spaces never felt crowded. “You bump into a couple people, or sometimes no one,” she said.

Sharing the community kitchen and bathroom was a lot like growing up with siblings, Kelley said, except “a little better, because people are old enough and considerate enough.” All the shelves in the big refrigerator were marked for corresponding casitas, which have names like Kelley’s “Red Rooster,” or “Mini Mocha,” or “Blueberry.” Each casita had a designated storage cabinet, and the freezer was shared, he said. During the pandemic, residents wore masks in shared facilities and nobody tested positive for COVID-19, he said.

Downsizing to fit all his belongings in his single-room casita was a “minor adjustment,” Kelley said, likening it to living in a bob house on an ice fishing trip. His casita had books stacked in the exposed rafters, windows, a propane heater, and a raised bed Kelley built so his dog, Banjo, could sleep on the floor below. Mostly, people live alone in casitas, he said, although it was common for visitors or significant others to stay over. The room was warm and pest-free, he said, and his only complaint was that the WiFi was spotty enough that he had to work at his desk, rather than bringing the laptop up to his bed. “I’m so happy here, and it’s hardly an opportunity cost,” he said.

What’s preventing a tiny house village from being legally built?

In Peterborough, rental dwelling units need to have a kitchen, bathroom, heat, and a sleeping area, all with building and fire code-compliant elements, Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said. Residences in town must also be at least 600 square feet, or 400 square feet for studio and single bedroom dwellings.

There are additionally state standards for rental housing under RSA 48-A, MacStay said. The law prevents landlords from renting out dwellings with problems such as pest infestations, defective plumbing, inadequate water, or unsafe heating facilities, some of which factored into the town’s decision to evict Eco Village residents.

However, what’s stopping code-compliant tiny houses from being rented out? Although MacStay said she believed state standards dictate that the casitas “can never be occupied as residential rental units in the State of New Hampshire,” New Hampshire Legal Aid staff attorney Jeff Goodrich and New Hampshire Municipal Association government affairs counsel Cordell Johnston said there wasn’t anything apparent in state law that would prohibit a code-compliant tiny house from being rented as a “detached bedroom” if the rental also granted the tenant access to a shared kitchen/bathroom/shower in a building on the same property, a couple hundred feet away. According to Johnston, the decision to allow such an arrangement appears to rest with a municipality, and a rejected proposal could be appealed and decided by a judge in state court.

State Fire Marshal Paul Parisi said that the pandemic has delayed the adoption of building and fire code language updates, including the 2018 International Building Code, which specifically addresses tiny houses. Currently, a local building official would be the decision maker in such a proposal, he said.

Peterborough Code Enforcement Officer Tim Herlihy did not return multiple requests for comment.

In practice, though, tiny houses are extreme rarities in New Hampshire. Henniker-based Tiny Living Spaces, a bespoke tiny home building company, was interviewed by the Concord Monitor in 2019 but had dissolved since, in part because it was so hard to find a place in New Hampshire that would allow them, according to a former co-owner. Recently, a woman in Hampton Falls wanted to build a legally compliant tiny house, “but there was no law to comply to,” Rockingham District State Representative Jim Maggiore said, and her application was denied, simply because there was no template. Maggiore was a member of the state-appointed Committee to Study Tiny Houses, which released a report with recommendations for legislating the structures in 2019.

By way of a solution, Maggiore and other legislators are reintroducing Senate Bill 482 this year after it died amidst the pandemic after its original introduction. The bill would identify tiny houses, defined as “a residential dwelling that is 400 square feet or less in floor area, excluding lofts,” as a permissible structure in residentially zoned areas. As written, the bill would allow tiny houses on foundations as well as tiny houses on wheels, and it includes a mandate like the one governing workforce housing, which compels communities to provide “reasonable and realistic opportunities” for their development, Maggiore said, although he said he respects compromise to its fullest extent and personally would prefer that the decision to allow tiny houses be left to local municipalities. The bill would distinguish tiny houses from mobile homes and RV’s, which are regulated by standards incompatible with the concept of tiny homes, he said. The bill as written would require each tiny house to have its own water and septic supply, but the DES is willing to discuss composting toilets in the future, he said. There are still some bugs to work out, he said, such as how to prevent someone from driving away with their house when taxes come due, and certifying that the structure is still safe after transport, according to the committee’s report, but overall, Maggiore believes the remaining challenges are “not insurmountable,” and the bill’s passage is an important step towards improving affordable housing options in the state.

“I think there is a way to do this that would give back to the town, reduce our footprint,” Trento said, and that even if the Eco Village wasn’t the best model, it was a step towards a good example of tiny house living. “And it was inspiring. I was inspired,” she said.

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