Tiny Homes for the Homeless?

There has been a bit of buzz of late about micro-housing, or tiny homes, popping up in the cities across the United States.  Basically, micro-housing is a dwelling space less than 300 square feet, often incorporating design elements that increase energy efficiency and maximize usable space.    In cities with a high cost of living, such as New York, San Francisco and Boston, micro-housing is a hot trend designed to provide affordable rental housing within the urban core to young single professionals.  But micro-homes are also built to address the problem of homelessness.  Having read with interest several articles about tiny home villages within urban settings that are built and managed as a way to alleviate homelessness – here, here, here, and here –  the idea is intriguing and creative. 

One of the challenges to reducing homelessness is lack of affordable housing.  According to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, for every 100 households of very low income renters in the United States, there are only 30 affordable apartments available.    And studies have shown that providing housing to the homeless saves tax payer dollars.

As reported in this news article, “government officials and city planners are beginning to see the tiny-house village as one viable solution for addressing homelessness.”   The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development encourages communities to look at tiny home villages as a potential solution for housing the chronically homeless.  The idea has taken hold in cities such as Austin, Texas; Newfield, New York; Olympia, Washington; Huntsville, Alabama; and Madison, Wisconsin.  The private sector has caught on, such as Techdwell, who constructs prefabricated tiny homes as “the perfect housing solution for people in transition and hardship.”  Examples of tiny home villages for the homeless include Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon; Opportunity Village in Eugene Oregon; and Community First Village in Austin Texas.

From a legal standpoint, building and zoning regulations pose challenges to the construction of tiny home villages.  South Carolina currently requires residential construction to comply, at a minimum, with the 2012 International Residential Code for One and Two Family Dwellings (“IRC”).  Under section 304, “every dwelling unit shall have at least one habitable room that shall have not less than 120 square feet of gross floor area” and “habitable rooms shall not be less than 7 feet in any horizontal dimension.”  Local governments may impose greater floor space requirements.   The 2015 IRC has lowered the gross floor area from 120 square feet to 70 square feet, and South Carolina has expressed an intent to adopt the 2015 IRC.

The more difficult obstacle may be local zoning ordinances that require a certain distance between residences.  Variances may be the only way to lawfully permit tiny home villages in South Carolina.  A good land use lawyer can help analyze local zoning ordinances and navigate a tiny home village through any available means of obtaining a zoning permit.


Photo credit:  Photograph by Leah Nash for BuzzFeed