Washington

Steilacoom family’s tiny housing choice raises big question about size

Peter and Shannon Johnson and their toddler Hart live in a tiny house of their own construction, August 11.
Peter and Shannon Johnson and their toddler Hart live in a tiny house of their own construction, August 11. phaley@thenewstribune.com

When it came time for Peter Johnson to pop the question, his wife knew saying “yes” meant more than “for better or for worse.”

“If I’m saying ‘yes’ to you, I’m saying ‘yes’ to living tiny,” said Shannon Johnson about her decision.

After two and-a-half years of marriage, Shannon Johnson now knows exactly what “living tiny” means: 200 square feet.

A living room, kitchen and bathroom that doubles as the laundry room comprises a majority of that space. A small staircase built into the wall leads to a 50-square foot loft with a queen-size bed.

The Johnsons share the space with 14-month-old son Hart.

The home is adjacent to a 1,160-square foot house the Johnsons own on a dead-end street in Steilacoom. Peter Johnson’s sister lives in the house; they share garage space and utilities.

For 17 months the couple has called the tiny house on wheels home. But they’re not sure how much longer they have in the periwinkle dwelling with white trim.

Steilacoom Town Administrator Paul Loveless sent the couple a letter in late July saying the house did not comply with town building codes.

“I understand the minimalist movement, I understand the other things,” Loveless said. “But to me, and for the town’s official position, it’s a violation of the town's code and I'm responsible for enforcing the code.”

TINY HOME, BIG PROBLEM

The Johnson’s situation raises the question: Is it legal to live in a tiny home in Pierce County?

The answer is less clear and influenced by multiple factors, including how local governments interpret buildings codes and whether a home has wheels.

The “tiny house movement” — the description given for the social movement that advocates a minimalist lifestyle often in a home no more than 500 square feet — has yet to hit Pierce County on a large scale.

South Sound building officials have had little experience with tiny homes to date, but expect to encounter more in the future as housing costs rise and homeowners seek more affordable housing options.

“This is a sustainable movement and it addresses our affordable housing issue as well,” said James Weaver, with the Washington chapter of the Tiny House Association of America.

Weaver is the development director for the city of Bainbridge Island, but spoke in his capacity with the tiny house association.

Building officials struggle with tiny houses, Weaver said, because building regulations “truly haven’t caught up with the tiny home movement yet.”

The association is working to change that by seeing uniform tiny house building codes passed at the state level, but until that happens “each jurisdiction has to adopt their own regulations,” Weaver said.

Presently the International Building Code governs development statewide. The code does not identify tiny homes, but sets minimum living space requirements.

“We figure that by the time you look at the International Building Code your minimum size is 300 square feet,” said Shirley Schultz, city of Tacoma principal planner.

While there is no standard “tiny house” footprint, many are smaller than 300-square feet. That means they’re illegal under current building standards.

The closest thing resembling a tiny house in the building standards is an accessory dwelling unit, or mother-in-law apartment.

I’d like to see some kind of regulations to give some guidance on (tiny homes), but at the present time we don’t have anything.

Rick Hopkins, Pierce County Building Official

Depending on individual codes, these separate living spaces can come with restrictions, including who is allowed to live in them as well as minimum and maximum square footage.

Some tiny home dwellers build a foundation, while others use a trailer with wheels similar to a recreational vehicle. The Johnson’s built their home on a trailer and drove it to Steilcoom, but haven’t moved it since.

There is nothing in the building code to address small homes on wheels so building officials view them as recreational vehicles. To be legal they must be certified by the state Department of Labor and Industry and state Department of Transportation.

“I think the state is willing to review and certify tiny homes, but it’s very difficult and I think it would be costly to be done on an individual basis,” said Steve Butler, planning and policy manager at the Municipal Research and Services Center.

Peter Johnson counters his family’s home is nothing like an RV and shouldn’t be regulated like one.

“It’s obvious to anybody this isn’t an RV,” he said.

After a statewide review of building regulations, Butler found building codes are the “primary deterrent to tiny homes being used as a permanent dwelling unit.”

Having to go through a complicated and expensive permit process can be a challenge for do-it-yourself enthusiasts like the Johnsons who designed and built their tiny home, he said.

In unincorporated Pierce County people can’t live in an RV, or tiny home on wheels, in a residential zone for longer than six months, according to county building official Rick Hopkins.

Cities like Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup and University Place also regulate RV residency. University Place is the most restrictive, limiting a stay to 14 days with a permit.

If a tiny home is built on a foundation the county regulates it like a house and the standard building code applies, Hopkins said.

“I’d like to see some kind of regulations to give some guidance on (tiny homes), but at the present time we don’t have anything,” he said.

ALLOWING TINY HOMES

Steilacoom could tackle tiny house regulations as soon as next year.

After hearing from the Johnsons at a recent public meeting, the town’s planning commission decided more conversation around tiny homes was needed. The issue was added to the commission’s 2017 work plan and if the Town Council approves it the commission will study the issue.

In the meantime town officials have to enforce the current code, which identifies the Johnson’s house as an RV.

“The town does not allow living in an RV,” Loveless said.

And if they removed the wheels?

“If you take the wheels off then you’re considered a structure and the structure has to follow the International Building Code,” Loveless said.

Regulating the home as an accessory dwelling unit still doesn’t meet the code’s minimum 320-square-foot size requirement, he said.

Also complicating matters is the home’s utility hookup.

The Johnsons use electricity and water from the main house. They pump sewage from a holding tank into the home’s sewer connection, similar to how an RV would be emptied at a pump station.

It’s going to be a hard adjustment when we’re not in the same room anymore.

Shannon Johnson, Steilacoom tiny house resident

“They aren’t set up as dumping station. It’s just not allowed in the code,” Loveless said. “It’s not a mobile home park where you can have the dump stations.”

The couple cherishes the 17 months they’ve had in their tiny home, including the 14 months since Hart was born. Living in the house has allowed them to save money, affording Shannon Johnson the opportunity to stay home for the first year of Hart’s life.

“Originally for Peter it was the fascination with the challenge,” Shannon Johnson, 31, said of their “tiny house” lifestyle.

Referring to himself as a “claustrophile”, Peter Johnson, 30, said he always dreamed of close quarters. As a child he envisioned a room only large enough to hold his bed, he said.

Living the tiny house lifestyle started as Peter Johnson’s obsession, but it strengthened the couple’s relationship, he said.

“We actually think it’s made our relationship better,” he said. “We have to talk about things more than we would if we had more space.”

If the town makes the couple move from their home the Johnsons say they’ll move back into the larger home on the property. They never planned to live in the tiny house forever, but said their recent experience has made them become more outspoken about the benefits of tiny house living.

“It’s going to be a hard adjustment when we’re not in the same room anymore,” Shannon Johnson said.

Peter Johnson looked at his squirming toddler as he considered the prospects of being forced out of their home.

“I would love to live here long enough for him to remember it,” he said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

To read about the Johnson’s tiny house lifestyle, including videos of how they manage life with a toddler in a tiny house, check out the couple’s blog at http://www.tinylike.us/.

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