Learning about Tiny House 1 on Radio Adelaide

Had the pleasure of talking to Sue Reece on Radio Adelaide about the tiny house.

The project has had a bunch of media interest, but there normally isn’t as much opportunity to share anything interesting.

Some words here on my favourite part of the house, where the project came from, and what on earth a tiny house is anyway. Have fun!

Big Ideas about Tiny Houses

‘Co-housing’ – sharing facilities, sharing lives

You have probably heard of co-housing. You might have heard of Durrett and the multi-house co-housing community. I love this sort of development, and in particular the critical role of the community of residents designing the build themselves to meet their needs, and maintaining governance of the community.

But I am coming to appreciate that if this is what the ‘co-housing’ term is going to mean then we are missing out on much much more, and much of what matters.

Not because there is anything wrong with this sort of community, except for the obvious fact that it isn’t for everyone – it is a very niche solution.

I am always meeting people who are searching for ways to live differently. As often as not, these people want to live ‘with others’. I really want to live ‘in community’, whatever that means. Other people want to ‘share’.

The variety of ways that we could potentially live differently is astounding – sharing facilities, sharing company, sharing lives. The mainstream system doesn’t deliver. The Durrett model and eco-villages work for some, but for only very few. There are many many other ways we could live ‘together’.

So I appreciate a new champion who is promoting a deathly simple definition of ‘co-housing’, which I think is both radical, and inclusive of a much bigger trend:
Co-housing accommodates two or more people living independently in a single house, or in a group of houses, specifically designed to share certain facilities and interests.

This is the definition at the heart of the South Australian Co-Housing Association. Fuzzy Trojan is launching the Association at the start of next month. I look forward to seeing who comes along. There is a lot of promise here.

INVITATION

LAUNCH OF THE “SOUTH AUSTRALIAN CO-HOUSING ASSOCIATION”

BY HON ZOE BETTISON
Minister for Communities & Social Inclusion,
Social Housing, Status of Women, Multicultural Affairs,
Ageing, Youth, Volunteers.

DATE: THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 1 ST

TIME: 10.00am

PLACE: 7 ALBION STREET WINDSOR GARDENS

The South Australian Co-housing Association launch will be held at a newly constructed co-housing project.

You are cordially invited to attend and to bring others who may be interested.

Please RSVP by August 25 th to sacohousingassociation at gmail.com stating numbers attending

Further information from Fuzzy Trojan 041 990 1133

Lessons in planning approved tiny housing

It’s possible to get a ‘tiny house’ planning approved in SA, as long as you don’t call it a house. But it might still remain a fringe option.

We are seeking approval for our tiny as ‘dependent accommodation’ in the Norwood Payneham & St Peters’ (NPSP) council area, i.e. as a granny flat that is attached to a main dwelling.

There are a few of other options that could be whole articles of their own… the tiny house village might be possible, but sure as hell won’t be easy, especially not near the city. A tiny house on its own block is possible too, but probably isn’t viable in urban areas either. So I think the tiny house ‘granny flat’ holds most hope for bringing tiny houses in from the fringe.

Note that for the time being I am only talking about planning approval (zoning and the like), not building code compliance (structure, fire, how it all goes together).  The building code shouldn’t stop us, but it’s far too massive a beast to comment yet.

We also haven’t asked after the status of tiny houses on wheels, since ours won’t have any; though I can confirm there is no distinct treatment for manufactured / transportable housing in the SA planning system.

We still have a few hoops of uncertainty to jump through, but it looks like our project should go ahead smoothly (touch wood).

In a sense that’s a great sign for others who want to legally live in a tiny house. Especially given we aren’t trying to work out how to dodge around the system (like most tiny houses do), but instead we are working out how to get our future home approved as legitimately as possible.

But hold your applause… the progress so far is not without qualifications.

Fortunate Circumstance
We have a lot of good quality help, from planners, builders, architects and council staff – the sorts of help most people can’t depend on (not without thick wallets). Council’s planning staff have been fabulous, helping to clarify how the approvals process works, and what the critical factors are for us to address (and the remaining uncertainties). It would be very easy for staff to have sniffed a grey area and to have decided they were going to find every way they could say no, instead of how we could work out a solution that was going to work.

We’re also lucky that NPSP has fairly amenable planning regulations around dependent accommodation. My reading of the situation is that people around here just aren’t building granny flats – especially not to rent out.  Most (wealthy) land owners are building massive studios or sheds out the back (or just rebuilding their whole home to suit); the sorts of backyard building that neighbours never complain about… so Council’s never had much call to police them.

These advantage aren’t entirely unique, but they’re not exactly reassuring for other builders out there… if you luck out with your local planners, no matter how much you try to work constructively, it’s quite possible you’ll remain totally stuffed.  That’s the catch with grey areas in the rules!

There are also a few things to share back about the planning system that can be applied across the state, and give a sense of the viability of tiny houses going mainstream.

The Outbuilding Option
The first is that anywhere in SA, it is possible to build a 40 square metre ‘outbuilding’ without even seeking council approval. (Dev’t Regs Part 1, 5AA and Sched 1A, 3(1))  The main catches with this for tiny houses are that these don’t apply to buildings where human activity is their primary purpose, and even if you want to be shifty regards purpose, there are height limits that may not work (3m external wall height). Sheds, carports and storage areas are fine. A ‘tiny house’ which you live in is not.  A studio might fit (a place you hang out but where you don’t permanently sleep)?  But that could be pushing it.

(I have also heard about a 15 square metre rule, which may apply to studios or dependent accomodation, but I couldn’t find it in the regs.  ? Someone please enlighten me if you know more.)

So the ‘outbuilding’ route might work for some, but it’s still pretty fringe.

The Uncertain Dangers of Dependency
Secondly, getting somewhere you’re going to live approved as ‘dependent accommodation’, like we are, is always going to be a tenuous grey area. It may matter less what is in a council’s development plan than it does how assessors (or the courts) interpret the undefined concept of ‘dependent’.

I was initially very optimistic, based on readings of a number of council’s Development Plans (where all the local zoning and planning rules are kept), that it would be easy to get a granny-flat-tiny approved in quite a number of councils… and just as reassuringly, that it’s pretty easy to review a development plan to find the rules and work out which ones.

That got a bit more complicated when I started calling up council planning officers asking about tiny affordable housing options (mistake #1 – don’t call it a house!), who promptly told me that it’s not possible to rent out a granny flat – or some other seemingly arbitrary condition for ‘dependency’ which wasn’t referenced in their development plan.

It wasn’t until sitting down with Matt from NPSP that I appreciated why. Recent cases have established that definitions in councils’ development plans don’t actually carry that much weight. Rulings always favour what is in state regulations… or sometimes even a common dictionary definition!

So when a council’s development plan says dependent accommodation is detached accommodation which is “connected to the services of the primary dwelling”, you can probably just treat this as an advisory comment. Don’t think you can connect up to the sewer and electricity and think you’re sweet.

Whether fortunately or not, there isn’t an alternative definition of ‘dependent’ to refer to in the state regulations. What there is is a definition of “dwelling”: ‘ a building or part of a building used as a self-contained residence’ (Dev’t Regs 2008 Sched 1)

For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter much whether you fit council rules for ‘dependent accommodation’; if you are viewed as being ‘self contained’ then kiss your dependent accommodation / granny flat status goodbye.

Seeking approval for a dwelling is a whole different kettle of fish to building a granny flat. In the zone we are building in it would be prohibitively difficult, and in other areas you might be forced to subdivide the property… and either way, you trip the need to meet all of the planning requirements for an independent dwelling (and likely building code implications as well), with bigger setbacks, driveways, private open space, storage, laundry… you name it. I guess you could do it, but you don’t want to – you won’t be building tiny affordable housing any more, you’re subdividing and redeveloping. You could maybe do it on a cheap rural block of land, but I couldn’t see anyone doing it as an inner-suburban backyard option.

Everything hinges on the fuzzy interpretation of whether your proposal is ‘dependent’ or ‘self-contained’.

We have a constructive relationship with council, and some project specific things going our way (e.g. a prior relationship with the other tenants with whom we will be effectively sharehousing in an external bedroom; it looks like a dependent relationship). We’re optimistic of a positive assessment.

So as long as we get through the next few hurdles, I guess we’ll show that development approval is possible.

But does it really establish what we want?

We want to establish a precedent for a viable, repeatable (tiny & environmentally responsible) affordable housing option. I don’t think we’re there.

We are actually a unique and possibly unreplicable story, which is a ‘tiny house’ in form; while we try not to mention ‘house’ to any of the wrong people for fear it will push us further into the grey zone.

If anything, I’d say we’ve learned that state planning regulations define and deal with ‘dwellings’ in a way that will force tiny houses to remain a fringe option, whether we’re successful or not. Our positive progress comes with more than a tinge of sadness too.

Durning’s ‘Unlocking Home’

North American Alan Durning launches a scathing and insightful attack on our planning system and its impact on housing affordability.

He starts by lamenting NIMBY attitudes to highrise housing in his local neighbourhood.  He’s given up on the significant expansion of highrise development in the near term.

He offers instead some planning changes that can, with substantially less political capital, achieve greater density, and greater availability of affordable housing, without ‘upzoning’.  Essentially by removing unnecessary regulation which only exists to protect the interests of the privileged.

It’s hard to work out how realistic he thinks these changes are… which he paints as relatively easy, but which clearly are entrenched — if not as clear as opposition to highrises, then at least twice as subtle.

I can’t do better than to quote a few paragraphs from his introduction:

“Each of these strategies has the potential to win political acceptance soon in cities far and wide. Each costs cities basically nothing to implement. Each requires no public spending, just that the city clerk use the delete key on various lines of municipal code. Each would step up residential concentration
organically, without big changes in architectural character.  …

Above all else, each of these strategies could unlock homes for people who need them. They could generate thousands and thousands of units of inexpensive housing dispersed across entire metropolitan areas—in the form of new and converted boardinghouses, empty bedrooms rented out for the first time,
and basement apartments and newfangled garden huts tucked among the detached houses that make up the overwhelming majority of Northwest residences. In fact, these strategies might generate far more units of inexpensive housing than public subsidies currently supply…”

“At root, the problem is the too-powerful classist impulse for better-off people to exclude renters, people of pinched means, recent immigrants, students, and others who cannot afford to buy single-family homes. This impulse manifests itself in complicated and even subconscious ways. Sometimes it is even expressed
as a form of concern for vulnerable people. This theme will recur throughout the book. For now, an analogy will suffice.

Poor and working-class people tend to wear inexpensive shoes. They buy their kicks at places like Payless or Goodwill, not Nordstrom. Payless and Goodwill shoes are known for their low prices, not their sturdiness or fashion. Still, they do their job. To improve footwear among those without funds, banning
the sale of inexpensive pairs would do no good. Sending shoe inspectors to Payless to confiscate “substandard” clogs and Oxfords would eliminate them from stores, it’s true. But it would do nothing to make good shoes affordable to people who do not have much money. Sure, some low-income people would buy nicer shoes, by spending extra on shoes and less on other things. Others would buy cheap shoes
on the black market. Still others wouldn’t buy footwear at all: they would go shoeless.

This scenario is essentially what housing policy does in North America.”

“If everyone knew that a major purpose of city land-use laws—also called zoning—was to choke off the bottom end of the private housing market so that middle- and upper-class people would not have to live near renters, recent immigrants, and other working-class citizens, we might do better. We might rise up
and throw off these unjust rules. But, unfortunately, almost no one understands how land-use laws work. …

The immodest goal of this book is to lift the fog off the legal doors to common-sense, green housing solutions. Enabling reformers to find these doors is the first step toward unlocking them.”

Yes he is writing about ‘Cascadia’, the pacific north-west of the US and Canada… but I don’t think there is much difference to our situation here in Australia, terminology aside.

Hard hitting, well informed, clearly argued and concise, Durning’s book is well worth a review.

You can find it as a free pdf in various places online, as well as much of the material as blog posts on Durning’s own website (Sightline Institute, Sightline.org – e.g. this article on Vancouver’s supposed successful legalization of ADUs / secondary dwellings).

It’s worth the $3 for the ebook though.