One small step for tiny houses could soften Puget Sound affordability crunch

Housing unaffordability continues to spread like a cancer beyond King County borders. News that the Tacoma area was recently named the hottest U.S. housing market by Redfin real estate may seem like the sign of a boomtown, but it also underscores what we already knew: A growing number of low-to-mid income people are being priced out of the 253 area code.

There is no magic wand to bring these forces under control, though state legislators spent considerable time this year looking for solutions.

One action they took that holds good promise: reversing years of small mindedness by easing restrictions on tiny houses.

Under Senate Bill 5383, Washington cities and counties now have more flexibility to authorize tiny house developments. Local governments are prohibited from adopting ordinances that would ban tiny houses from being used as primary residences in a manufactured/ mobile home community. And landlord-tenant law protections apply to residents of tiny house projects.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, cruised through the Legislature with bipartisan support, passing the House unanimously and garnering just one no vote in the Senate. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed it in early May.

Even so, it’s best to view the new law as an incremental step rather than a sweeping change. Another Zeiger bill, which would have allowed tiny houses as accessory dwelling units on private lots, died without a floor vote in the House or Senate.

Validating tiny houses as a legitimate option for permanent residence requires a shift in mindset. One person testifying at a public hearing in February noted the irony that 4,000-square-foot “McMansions” have historically been permitted much more easily in Washington than houses one-tenth the size.

“We should extend the same courtesy to people who choose to live modestly, inexpensively and to make efficient use of land and resources,” said Ethan Goodman, executive director of Tech for Housing, a grassroots advocacy group. “There’s no reason not to recognize that housing option.”

When it comes to trends in American real estate, tiny houses often get a bad rap. A misperception prevails that they’re glorified backyard sheds or playhouses, not built to last. People have a myopic view of tiny-house developments as social-service projects at best, unregulated hotbeds of seedy behavior at worst.

They’re often associated with homeless communities such as Quixote Village in Olympia, a cluster of 144-square-foot, single-room cottages serving chronically homeless adults who pledge to live drug- and alcohol-free. These homes are more sustainable than tent encampments and certainly offer residents more dignity.

But cynics twist that successful humanitarian model into something sinister. When the Pierce County Council approved funding for an experimental tiny home development last fall, Councilwoman Pam Roach voted no out of misguided concern it would attract “drug abusers, sex offenders and felons.”

What’s missed in all the stereotypes and rhetoric is that tiny homes have potential to be so much more, if given half a chance through sensible land-use regulation.

Income property. Entrepreneurship opportunity. An entry point for millennials into the homeownership club. A place for empty nesters to downsize gracefully into their retirement years.

Most of all, tiny homes are a viable form of affordable housing, which is growing more and more difficult to find. Tacoma’s median home price in mid-May was $370,000, vaulting 6 percent from a year ago, and the Redfin report noted an extremely tight inventory of houses for sale here.

Ryan Babbitt, a general contractor focused on the Tacoma area, told a Senate committee that he can put up a solidly built tiny home for $25,000 or less.

In 10 or 20 years, Babbitt said, he foresees tiny houses as an entrenched part of the real-estate landscape, financed by banks, creating equity for owners and having generational impact on families for whom the American dream would otherwise be unattainable.

It’s a nice vision, though one that will remain elusive as long as tiny houses remain stuck in a regulatory gray area — not quite a manufactured home, a mobile home or a trailer — under the state Growth Management Act and a myriad local zoning codes.

For now, the law approved by the 2019 Legislature is one small step for tiny house developers. But in time, it could represent one giant leap for housing affordability.