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Hive Mind: Are Tiny Houses A Feasible Option To Increase Affordable Housing?


Last month, KUER asked what questions our audience has about affordable housing in Utah. In the Hive Mind, listeners ask questions about different topics and KUER reporters try to answer them. This week: Can tiny homes ease the affordable housing crisis?

Minimalist singles, new families and downsized empty nesters are getting on board with the tiny American dream. They’re usually 250-500 square feet and have all the basic amenities of a traditional single-family home. 

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But you can’t just park it in the backyard. In Salt Lake City, a tiny home with wheels is considered an RV, and it’s illegal to park an RV just anywhere. Councilman Derrek Kitchen is pro tiny house.

“What we need to do as a city is figure out a way that we can accommodate innovative ideas,” Kitchen says. “While also staying true to some of our values around well-built, well-constructed, safety and security concerns around homes.”

Detroit, Michigan spent $1.5 million on 25 rent-to-own tiny homes for low-income residents. But that city also has a glut of vacant lots, cheap land prices, and few zoning regulations. Kitchen says the council’s not likely to pass blanket zoning changes.

“We want to look at each neighborhood for the unique qualities and characteristics that it has,” Kitchen says. “What might work in Glendale might not be appropriate in Rose Park or Central City.”

Without wheels, some tiny homes are considered accessory dwelling units. But ADU permits are limited. The city is already working to expand that option.  

Salt Lake Valley Habitat for Humanity is keeping an eye on tiny houses as well. But right now they are more focused on projects like “Field of Dreams”, a new super-efficient, affordable housing community in Kearns.

Credit Whittney Evans/KUER
In Kearns, Utah, low-income housing builders Habitat for Humanity are building whole neighborhoods of energy efficient homes to help ease the affordable housing crisis.

Habitat got housing requests last year from some of the largest families they have ever seen. So while tiny houses are an option for well, tiny families, there is still a great need for Utah’s notoriously large ones.  

“If the tiny home movement, if we can figure out how to do it, then it changes the dynamic of families that we can help,” says Brandan Critchley, Habitat’s For Humanity’s construction manager.

Tiny-home owners are having better luck in rural Utah and smaller communities. Pleasant Grove and Lehi are now open to building tiny homes on private property.

So tiny homes are here, and slowly, but surely, local governments are making room.  

For part two of this months’ Hive Mind project, next Monday we’ll answer the question: How much affordable housing is acceptable, and who decides this?

Whittney Evans grew up southern Ohio and has worked in public radio since 2005. She has a communications degree from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, where she learned the ropes of reporting, producing and hosting. Whittney moved to Utah in 2009 where she became a reporter, producer and morning host at KCPW. Her reporting ranges from the hyper-local issues affecting Salt Lake City residents, to state-wide issues of national interest. Outside of work, she enjoys playing the guitar and getting to know the breathtaking landscape of the Mountain West.
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