Bill to allow ‘tiny homes’ in N.H. raises hopes among fans

  • The tiny house made for Matt Bonner (right) and his family is shown. A bill that would require communities to allow portable tiny homes in residentially zoned areas was tabled by state lawmakers this week due to environmental concerns. Courtesy of A&E and Matt Bonner

  • Megan Zopf stands in the tiny house she plans to live in once it’s finished. The house sits on a trailer at her rental property in Chichester. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 3/8/2019 6:14:49 PM

As the debate about tiny homes makes its way through the state Legislature the discussion often hinges on items like square footage and septic hookups, but there’s another factor that one fan says is important to keep in mind: School loans.

“A friend of mine was going to graduate school and it was expensive to live here. He built a tiny house,” said Ray Conner, who owns All Elements Healing in Concord. “He built it for way less than his college loans – and that’s huge when you have a big debt-to-income ratio.”

Conner said the friend lived in the home on her property for more than a year with no problems, before moving on.

“I don’t think this is something that should be kiboshed because it’s unusual, or out of fear that people will pull in trailers,” she said. “I think it’s a viable alternative for young people.”

The argument of tiny homes as a lure for young adults is often used by fans, including those trying to get a law passed that would require communities to allow this type of housing in New Hampshire.

“The whole reason why I’m doing what I’m doing is to keep millennials in our state, filling our jobs,” said developer Joseph Mendola, who has been thwarted in efforts to create tiny home developments in towns including Warner. “If we give them a house that’s under $100,000, we will succeed in keeping them here.”

Mendola, vice president of NAI Norwood Group in Bedford, is the driving force behind a bill (House Bill 312) that would require communities to allow portable tiny homes in any residentially zoned area. If the bill ever becomes law, Mendola said, it would apparently be unique: “We’d be the first state in the entire country that will allow tiny homes on wheels as a permitted use.”

The bill was tabled this week after some concerns were raised, including Department of Environmental Services fears of pollution related to disposal of waste from such homes. The bill will be the subject of a study committee and could come up again next year.

The mere fact that the bill existed drew attention, said state Rep. Dave Testerman, R-Franklin, who sponsored the bill at the request of Mendola.

“I knew what they (tiny homes) were, the idea made sense, but I didn’t know much more than that,” Testerman said. “I was amazed at how many people sent me emails and said, I’ve been looking for this to be done all along. ... There’s obviously a desire out there.”

Very few in New Hampshire

“Tiny home” is a loose term for standalone houses of about 400 square feet or less – smaller than some studio apartments – which are built on foundations or, more often, on trailers that can be hauled by large vehicles. They make use of various modern design tweaks, such as loft beds with room to stand beneath them, that can create a viable living space.

Conner said the appeal for young adults isn’t just lower cost but flexibility, since they can be moved.

“If you don’t know where you’re going to land, if you’re chasing jobs, it gives you a home,” she said.

Mendola agreed, saying the model of renting land and moving a house onto it makes more sense in the modern economy with fewer opportunities for decades-long employment.

“They do not want to own real estate, they want to own the tiny home. When you change jobs 10 to 15 times over a career, renting pad sites makes sense,” he said.

Tiny homes are trendy in parts of the country but they barely exist in New Hampshire, largely because they are not recognized by local zoning and planning regulations or by the state’s decade-old residential building codes.

“We’ve had many people who really want to buy them but couldn’t find a place they were allowed,” said Anne Mellin, co-owner of Tiny Living Spaces, a developer in Henniker. The company has sold two of them, but they’ve been taken out of state. “Unless you own property that you already have a house on, and put the tiny home in as a second dwelling, you can’t do it.”

Mendola ran into this uncertainty last year when the Warner Zoning Board of Adjustment denied his request to bring a 13-unit tiny home park to Schoodac Road. He argued that they were covered by the town’s “manufactured housing” zoning but should be allowed to be placed closer together due partly to their size.

“It was asking too much too soon in an area that was very ambiguous,” is how zoning board Vice Chairman Howard Kirchner put it to the Monitor after the vote to reject Mendola’s request for a variance.

The Warner experience wasn’t unique: “I went from planning board to planning board, getting my head handed to me,” Mendola said.

Mendola’s bill would require communities to include tiny homes “in all zoning districts that permit single family dwellings” and gave them the option of allowing them in other districts.

Not manufactured housing

Tiny homes are similar in many ways to manufactured housing, sometimes pejoratively referred to as trailers, as in “trailer parks.” But there are differences.

Mendola said that state law overseeing manufactured houses was built around long-existing Housing and Urban Development federal standards, some of which precludes modern tiny home design.

“HUD says you can build a home on a 40-by-8-foot permanent chassis – 320 square feet, which is fine – but with seven-foot clearance throughout,” he said. That height requirement rules out lofts, a space-expanding component of most tiny homes.

Another obstacle is that New Hampshire has adopted international residential building codes dating back to 2009. Among other things, those codes preclude having a ladder going up to the loft, Mendola said – installing stairs would take up far too much space for a tiny home.

The international codes are updated ever three years, and the 2018 update “for the first time recognized tiny homes as a legitimate use, with a whole series of internal construction standards,” Mendola said. But the most recent update isn’t relevant to New Hampshire; legislation to update state regulations to the 2015 international standard is facing pushback.

Finally, there’s the matter of branding. Tiny homes are often seen as being of better quality and more suited to modern lifestyles than traditional manufactured housing, partly due to outdated stereotypes.

“People bring up the mobile home parks that were put into effect before zoning came in, the late ’60s,” said Mendola. “It’s all different now.”

Need for housing

The push for tiny homes is getting some lift from the state’s housing crunch, which has raised prices for rents and home purchases, making it that much harder for young adults to live here.

That crunch is a big reason that the legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu in 2017 made it harder for towns to keep out Accessory Dwelling Units, the formal name for what are often called in-law apartments.

“We don’t have enough housing to support job growth, and it’s a particular burden for young households who have found tiny homes and apartments to be an alternative,” said Russ Thibeault, an economic researcher who will be speaking at a NH Housing Finance Authority conference later this month that is titled “How Can We Get More Homes Built?”

Thibeault said he wasn’t familiar with the specifics of the current bill but supported the idea.

“In general, I believe that enabling New Hampshire communities to provide a diversity of housing types is a desirable goal. Let the market decide just how desirable something like tiny homes really is. If we have regulatory limitations that preclude the tiny homes, we’ll never know how desirable they are,” he said.

As for Conner, she’s hopeful for the future.

“I would support a solid study committee to come up with really great conclusions for this … making sure that people don’t take advantage of this to create problems,” she said. “I think it’s needed for the future, to keep people in town.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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