Can tiny houses help in housing crisis?

  • Fri Apr 8th, 2016 8:30am

With a burgeoning housing crisis in San Juan County the Building Advisory Council has created a tiny house subcommittee whose aim is to legalize the use of these spaces as longer term rentals. At under 400 square feet, these mini dwellings are cheaper, easier and faster to build and could help provide much needed housing to islanders and seasonal workers.

“In the past five years the county’s population has increased by another 2000 people,” said Richard Russel, tiny house subcommitte member. “Buildable land is becoming more scarce. What else is becoming scarce is island workers.”

San Juan County residents typically have the greatest gap between household incomes and housing prices of any county in the state, according to data developed by Washington State University. The cost of these tiny homes can be as low as $10,000 but most average at least $25,000 according to an articles at; still much lower than the average stick built home on San Juan Island. The lower cost, small size and less maintenance may trickle down to lower monthly rates for island renters.

State and local governments are required to promote a variety of residential densities and housing types to serve local residents and to encourage the availability of affordable housing, as per the Washington Growth Management Act and State Housing Policy Act. To this end the Building Advisory Council intends to use this policy “to allow where in compliance, the placement of individual tiny houses not in conflict with existing zoning regulations,” according to their proposal submitted to the San Juan County Council in March. The proposal does not include a rural residential cluster or allow for these homes to be used as guest homes or vacation rentals but rather as long-term rentals as part of the county’s affordable housing plan.

At under 400 square feet, these homes will be limited to no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″ which translates to approximately 47 feet long. This specific size allows the structure to be transported legally on public roads without special permits.

Currently tiny homes are not recognized by the county but “are in limbo, brought about by the fact that they are not certified manufactured housing or recreational vehicles,” according to Russel. “While building codes are becoming less obstructive to tiny houses, local land use ordinances proscribe the use and duration of mobile homes on land zoned for single family dwellings.”

Other permitting issues include building code and safety requirements such as earthquake safety, septic systems, room sizes and heating codes. “Until those are resolved, each one is looked at independently,” said Fred Schaller, chief building official. “Anything built on site would have to meet the current code. Anything trailered in or on wheels could potentially be considered a recreational vehicle or a park model RV.”

Skagit Valley College, San Juan Center is offering two upcoming Tiny House seminars at the San Juan Center, led by Russel who also hopes to see the development of a new, local industry in tiny home manufacturing. The first will be April 9, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Sample structural and floor plans will be available. Applicable building codes and other legal aspects as well as self-contained and “off the grid” structures will be discussed. Cost is $65.

On Saturday, April 23 from 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. there will be another seminar where participants will learn techniques, develop resources, and have the experience of preparing an accurate breakdown of building costs arrived at from working drawings and specifications. Participants will learn how to generate detailed lists of needed building materials and how to determine labor costs. A small project will be “costed out” as an example. The cost for this seminar is $65.

For more info, call 378-3220. Stay tuned to the Journal for info about Tiny Houses in San Juan County.