Could tiny homes ease Park City’s employee housing shortage?
Park City resident Amy Roberts admits she might have put the cart in front of the horse this year when she poured her passion for remodeling into building a tiny house. At this point, the fully furnished living space does not conform to local zoning ordinances and is, technically, a house without a home.
“I love to have a project and I’ve always wanted to build my own house, but that wasn’t affordable,” said Roberts of her decision to build first and ask questions later. “I actually went about it backwards, I should have thought it through.”
After months of studying floor plans, working with a welder and a carpenter, then combing through catalogs for compact, environmentally friendly appliances, Roberts completed her 240-square-foot, color-coordinated, mini dream house. The short-term plan was to park it at Jordanelle State Park for the summer where friends and family could stay while spending time at the lake.
The colorful, handcrafted cabin-on-wheels proved to be a fun get-away while also drawing lots of attention from nearby RVers. But when the park closed for the summer, Roberts, who also owns a conventional home in Park City, was left with a dilemma: what to do with her tiny home.
Initially, she thought it would be an ideal accommodation for a couple of seasonal employees, a small contribution toward alleviating the town’s well-publicized affordable housing crisis. But she quickly learned that state building and public health requirements make no allowances for a hybrid house/camper/mobile home.
The irony of the problem was not lost on Roberts, who is keenly aware of Park City and Summit County’s growing affordable housing deficit.
“If the city and the county are serious about affordable housing, they should consider this,” she said. “The easy answer is ‘no’ but other communities, like Aspen, are beginning to allow them. They seem to be more creative and willing to rewrite their ordinances.”
According to Roberts, the tiny home movement is relatively new, and local ordinances just haven’t kept pace. And she is right: Other communities have already acknowledged their potential.
In 2008, Aspen Skiing Company purchased a KOA campground and last year moved six tiny homes (housing for 12 seasonal employees) onto the property. The trial was so successful that, according to an article in the Aspen Times, the company has trucked in 34 more this year. The newer 600-square-foot models will house three employees each and rent for $450 per person per month, upping the company’s seasonal housing inventory by 102 pillows.
Park City Councilor Becca Gerber, a vocal advocate for the town’s young working class, though, says seasonal housing is not her priority.
“It sounds idyllic, but you can only live in a tiny home for so long,” she said. Half in jest, she adds, “Where would you keep your mountain bike and skis? It’s just not a good use of the city’s resources.”
A tiny house village would also require more land than townhouses or apartments, she said.
“As a Council we have decided to dedicate our efforts to year-round housing,” Gerber said. “Tiny houses could be OK in some places. They might be a good fit in a backyard or a park, but we have families of year-round workers who need housing.”
Summit County’s Community Development Director Pat Putt, who has been deeply involved in the community’s quest for affordable housing solutions, says tiny homes offer an intriguing possibility. But he emphasizes that local jurisdictions are bound by state laws that regulate residential housing. As those rules stand now, tiny houses fall through the cracks.
“The dilemma is that tiny houses don’t meet IRC (International Residential Code) standards,” he said. “Outside of a campground or RV park they can’t be used as permanent residences.”
But that could change as communities throughout the state and around the country grapple with similar housing gaps. Several communities in Arizona, for instance, are in the process of amending their codes to allow tiny houses. Putt said the Utah Legislature might even be open to considering some changes.
“It has to start at the legislative level,” he said.
In addition to zoning requirements and neighborhood covenants regarding size and appearance, tiny home owners face another regulatory hurdle as well: meeting federally mandated public health standards.
According to Summit County’s Director of Environmental Health Phil Bondurant, his department is charged with ensuring that all permanent residences have running water and adequate means to dispose of waste water.
He went on to say, “We have no qualms about tiny houses as long as there is a septic system on the property and water.”
Bondurant said he has already had to address a couple of tiny home issues, including one where the owners were dumping the waste from a compost toilet into a horse pasture and another where the owners were planning to draw water from a garden hose attached to a relative’s house.
But he is still open to the overall concept of tiny homes “as long as meeting regulations is part of the planning process, not an afterthought.”
In the meantime, Roberts’ tiny house is vacant, which she finds “annoying,” especially considering the clamor for employee housing as the ski season approaches.
In a recent email, she said, “Our city’s affordable housing plan is nice in theory, but does nothing to address the thousands of seasonal workers who don’t want to live here year-round, or those who only wish to stay a year or two. They don’t want to buy, yet there’s nothing affordable to rent, forcing them to (Salt Lake City) or other areas and contributing to traffic and pollution.”
Roberts envisions tiny home villages possibly sprouting up in nearby state parks during their off seasons or near Richardson Flats. Or in scattered backyards around town.
“I get that neighbors don’t want a million rusted out campers in their view, but with a tiny home, it’s easy to build decks around the wheels and have it very much look like a permanent structure,” she said in the email. “A lot of people here have land. To put one of these on their property and be allowed to rent it to seasonal workers (not AIRBNB), would tremendously help our housing crunch, traffic, environment, and everything else the city counts as a goal.”
It is a debate that Putt thinks is worth having.
“We have to create standards to put people in safe housing, but we also have to include a wide variety of tools,” he said. “It would be hasty to eliminate these seasonal structures. … We have to have the discussion, we have to exhaust all of the possibilities.”
Editor’s note: Amy Roberts writes a weekly column for The Park Record.
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