Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tiny Homes and Zoning

A few months ago I wrote a post about tiny homes and micro-units being considered by the City of Austin for addition to building codes. I’m still on the fence about whether or not allowing micro-units will help build more affordable or family inclusive neighborhoods, but a recent short documentary on Reason TV added a new dimension to my thinking about the tiny home movement.


I was drawn into watching the video through links on YouTube on other tiny home projects. The short titled Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House, was more of a political statement about zoning regulation than the exploration of the benefits of tiny homes but there are a couple of interesting questions that came out of my viewing.
As a person trained in urban planning the idea that zoning is necessary has been drilled into my head. I’ve argued for zoning, design standards and neighborhood plans on many occasions. However, the film makes an interesting case for the ability of the market place and individual agreements to guide smart development without needing a formal zoning protocol that can limit creativity.
This argument rang true to me, especially given my recent reading on alternative community development actions. I’ve been studying and working on a new post about what some call guerilla community design, and I think that the tiny home movement falls under this category in a very direct and interesting way. In many ways I feel that overly burdensome development code should be simplified to free up individual creativity.
That’s not to say that I’m going to give up on zoning altogether. While the makers of the film over at Reason TV made several good points I also believe they overlooked many of the downsides of the planning and building regulation system, particularly in their model example Houston, Texas
Shifting fortunes across Houston   Houston Chronicle.pngSpecifically, when a system is guided only by covenants and deed restrictions there is a risk that those with more power can have more influence than those that have less power. While Houston may be one of the most inexpensive cities in the U.S. to build new homes, there is plenty of evidence that income segregation is also very high on the list of problems for Houston.
Additionally, in my work I’ve seen lots of examples where working class housing is place next to industrial setting, or vice-versa. Houston is also near a coastal area with plenty of land at or below the flood plain. More often than not the areas with the highest risk to flooding are developed for lower income neighborhoods.
So, is zoing good or bad? Does regulation protect our communities and neighbors from being sold homes in high-risk areas, or does it limit creative thinking and problem solving? I certainly don’t know the answers to these or many other questions about zoning, tiny homes and alternative community development. I hope to spend some more time over the next few months reading and writing about them all, in an effort to understand more.
Best aye,
Dave

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