Nearly a year after Cannon Beach agreed to experiment with tiny homes as affordable housing, the city is taking another look.
The original idea was to have four or five 400 square-foot homes in the city-owned RV Resort on Elk Land Road and Haskell Lane by last fall.
But the pilot project was put on hold until the new city manager, Bruce St. Denis, was hired. Since then, the city has raised more questions about the details: How does the city target tenants who work in Cannon Beach without discriminating? What is the cost of management and maintenance? Will those costs be covered by rents that are affordable?
“It makes sense if it can pay for itself at a rate that makes sense for someone who works here,” St. Denis said. “But if the rent is going to be $1,700 to make it break even? That’s not any help.”
There could also be new costs on the horizon.
A state law that went into effect in January required the development of building codes for tiny homes. One of the changes reclassified tiny homes on wheels so they would no longer be considered RV’s, creating additional challenges for how they could be transported into the city.
Keeping tiny homes mobile was never part of the city’s original vision. But acquiring special permits and trailers could influence the overall cost of the project. Questions about whether tiny homes no longer classified as RVs can be placed in the RV Resort will also need to be answered.
“Tiny houses were able to be moved at one point easily. Now it’s less easy to move,” St. Denis said. “Is that viable? If so, what are the costs associated?”
Regulatory challenges have raised similar obstacles in communities across Oregon looking at tiny homes as a housing option.
Before moving forward, St. Denis is recommending that Cannon Beach have a formal financial analysis done by a housing specialist.
“I think folks are trying to make something happen,” he said. “As we’re getting closer to it, we’re just asking, ‘Did you think of this?’”
With interest in tiny homes growing, John Morgan, the executive director of the Chinook Institute for Civic Leadership, organized a symposium to address some of the issues.
“Over the course of this last year, I kept getting peppered with questions about tiny houses,” Morgan said. “One of the things that became evident to me was there wasn’t a lot of good knowledge about what tiny houses even are.”
While the symposium’s purpose was to help cities and other interested agencies understand land use and the affordable housing crisis, Morgan said confusion about building code changes quickly became the theme of the event.
Sarah Stebbins, state chapter leader of the American Tiny House Association, said no longer classifying tiny homes as RVs has had “huge” effects.
“Well over half of the tiny homes being constructed are on wheels. Builders are threatening to leave the state. Some have done so,” Stebbins said. “Let’s say you are in the process of building a tiny house on wheels. Because your house is no longer considered an RV, you will not be able to get the same RV financing or insurance.”
Dan Bryant, project director for SquareOne Villages in Eugene, is one tiny home activist and manager feeling the impact of other changes.
His project came out of a need to address a growing homelessness issue in Eugene in 2012. His organization, which now manages three tiny home communities, was largely supportive of the new state law because it helped create safety and building standards conducive for homes less than 400 square feet.
But recent changes from state building and fire officials don’t allow sleeping lofts in tiny homes due to fire safety concerns. Bryant argues such changes are too restrictive and affect overall affordability. He and other tiny home advocates are pushing for the codes concerning lofts to be amended next legislative session.
Eliminating lofts as an option reduces the number of people who can be housed, affecting the homes affordability, he said.
“When you look at it in those terms, there is a true human cost,” Bryant said.
While several aspects about tiny homes remain in flux, city councilors in Cannon Beach still believe the small units could help with the housing crunch.
“It’s not a solution,” Mayor Sam Steidel said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox.”