Kalamazoo’s First Tiny House May Change Housing Laws

Sep 16, 2016

Habitat for Humanity volunteers finished pouring the foundation at the site of Ben Brown's tiny house. Behind it is Brown's garden shed, not that much smaller than the house itself.
Credit Rebecca Thiele/WMUK

The City of Kalamazoo is considering changing its housing laws to accommodate tiny houses. These homes are often less than 400 square feet and use things like built-in tables to maximize space. Recent reality TV shows and documentaries have made living small seem chic. Some say tiny houses could be a more affordable option for people living on a small income. 

Ben Brown is excited as he shows me around his future home in Kalamazoo’s Eastside neighborhood. He says it fits well within his budget.

“I know I can not only pay it off, I can have savings - and it doesn’t have to look like a shack. It can actually be palatial, a castle, a palace,” he says.

Once it’s built, the house will be less than 270 square feet. Search for studio apartments in Kalamazoo and it’d be hard to find anything less than 300 feet.

Monica Priest is the development director at the Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity, which is helping Brown build the home. Priest says they’re hoping that this house will be the first of many tiny houses that they build in Kalamazoo. She says it could be a good option for people who are low-income or even homeless. It’s also new - a luxury very few disadvantaged people get in Kalamazoo.

“A lot of our homes were built in the 1950s. So we’re dealing with a lot of structural kind of settling issues, we’re dealing with lead paint abatement," says Priest.

"We’re dealing with porches falling off the front of people’s houses. So a lot of the housing stock in Kalamazoo they’re able to afford, they’re not able to maintain and keep up.”

Depending on the size and features of the house, Habitat says tiny homes can cost as little as $4,000. Though Forbes Magazine says the average price for a pre-made, mid-range tiny house is between $20,000 to $40,000 thousand dollars. Still, Priest says that’s much cheaper than the average home.

David Artley helped start the Local Housing Assistance Fund - a tax helps homeless families with children in Kalamazoo County. Artley says tiny homes are a good idea, but they won’t work for everyone.

“Where it’s at least one, maybe two adults and maybe one child - I think that’s a really good option. And the good news is they could potentially become the owner of the house and that would build their ‘family wealth,’” he says.

Strictly speaking Ben Brown’s house is the first legal tiny home in the city. Tiny houses have caused controversy around the country because they don’t always comply with local housing and zoning laws. Brown says tiny homeowners often build in the country or other tucked-away locales to avoid legal issues.

City Planner Rebekah Kik says, as far as she knows, there are no illegal tiny houses in Kalamazoo. There aren’t as many restrictions on tiny homes in Kalamazoo as you might think.

Kik says you can build a house as small as 120 square feet in the city. As long as it isn’t on wheels, you can put it pretty much anywhere in the city. That is, providing you have a big yard.

“We do have minimum lot size requirements through our zoning and I believe it starts at 5,000 square feet. So that’s a pretty big lot size to find to put a tiny houses on,” says Kik.

Land can be expensive. So that isn’t ideal for someone trying to save money on a home. Kik says there also aren’t a lot of open 5,000 square foot lots in the city. The other problem - “accessory dwelling units” aren’t allowed.

“And that’s fancy speak for putting a tiny house in your backyard and maybe even having it for your mother-in-law, or one of your grandparents, or even your college student, or having it available for rental.So that’s another page we’d really like to open up," says Kik.

Kik says the city is trying to organize some kind of community forum to gauge public opinion on tiny houses.

Whether tiny houses are just a trend or here to stay is up for debate. But it’s clear that not everyone can stand living in one. There are many stories of people who have abandoned their tiny homes. They may have decided to have kids or moved to a place where tiny houses aren’t allowed. For some, a tiny house was simply too small. Ben Brown says he can handle it: 

“The last 30 years I’ve basically lived in the space of a tiny house except it’s never been owned by me. And so like when you’re renting a space that is 200, 300 square foot and that is your space but it’s owned by someone else - it’s kind of like a drain. And so I’ve already done it so it’s not going to be a big shock.”

Habitat for Humanity hopes to finish the tiny house by the end of the year.