For the holiday season, Richard Brown has only one decoration: a green stocking.
It’s not because Brown hates the holidays. It’s because when you live in 165 square feet of usable space, you get selective about your possessions. But Brown’s tiny house isn’t bare; colorful, contemporary prints adorn the walls, a shelf holds a diverse collection of books that includes Wood Pallet Projects and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and a little pillow that says “home sweet (little) home” beckons visitors to sit down in the Ikea-style chair.
Before he downsized his possessions to the essentials, Brown had a typical suburban life, living in a conventional 1,200-square-foot house in Southfield. But after some life-changing events including the end of a relationship, it was time to figure out next steps…
[Now] he custom builds tiny houses (so far, no orders but he entertains a lot of inquiries), but for the two he has built so far, they reflect his personal style. The exterior features cedar clapboard siding but it’s not a little log cabin. Inside, there is a modern industrial feel, with exposed wood fasteners and a metallic backsplash in the kitchen, as well as features such as the entertainment system, LED lights, and a sleek heating element.
Before settling in Whitmore Lake, Brown found the best arrangement in the mobile park community where his two tiny houses are located (the other one is a model home for sale).
Another issue Brown notes is that people think it’s easy and cheap. He spent about $20,000 for his house including materials and furnishings, but “you have to remember I was the labor,” he says. “That’s a huge cost people don’t realize but I also spent hundreds and hundreds of man hours doing legwork, sourcing materials. That’s not an easy undertaking.”
Despite the challenges, he envisions redeveloping the land in Whitmore Lake where he wants to have a tiny-house community…
Jonathan Bellows’ tiny house brings him a lot of pride — and a lot of heartache. The former Flint resident began building his 130-square-foot tiny house in 2009 on his sister’s property in Flint. It took him about a year to build the home and he lived on his sister’s land for a while. But then his sister sold the house so he had to move. For a while he was “squatting” at his uncle’s property, but then the uncle sold the house, forcing him to move again.
He started going to town hall meetings to get approval to put his tiny house on a permanent site and kept hitting roadblocks. There was no way to do it legally in southeast Michigan, he says. He then focused his efforts on finding wooded property where he could put his house, and where it would be difficult to spot from the road. He purchased 4 acres of land and moved the house there.
“I knew full well what I was doing,” he says of putting his house on the land even though it wasn’t technically legal, adding that “there is just no legal pathway” to having a tiny house in southeast Michigan. But he was committed to his home.
He moved his house to his new property in September 2011. In January 2012 he came home one day and found a sticker from the township, he recalls. Bellows called the township and was informed that he couldn’t live in the house, which was deemed an illegal dwelling. If someone was still living there in 30 days, it would be taken away. He moved to Oregon and left the house behind.
“It was heartbreaking to leave,” Bellows says, his voice heavy with emotion as he describes feelings of relief and sadness over the situation. The structure sat vacant for a few years until a couple recently bought it, and they moved the tiny house to their property “somewhere in Ann Arbor.”
Three years after Bellows had his zoning issues, Roberts finds herself facing the same barriers as she seeks to build her tiny house in metro Detroit, saying the biggest legal challenge she has encountered has been the minimum square footage. She’s contacted several communities, including Rochester, Richmond, and Capac, all of which have minimum square footage requirements ranging from 800 to 1,000. Roberts adds if there was a way around this aspect, building a tiny house would be “smooth sailing…”
The city of Ann Arbor has been the center for most of the interest in tiny houses in southeast Michigan. The council passed a resolution in June directing city administrators to advise on the practicality and legality of tiny homes in Ann Arbor. Stephen Kunselman, a former Ann Arbor councilman whose term ended in November, sponsored the resolution in June after efforts to build a tiny-house community on city property fell through after safety concerns were raised.