08/15 Steilacoom family’s tiny housing choice raises big question about size

the Johnson family inside their tiny house

Peter and Shannon Johnson built a tiny house and installed it on their property in Steilacoom. The city is, like many municipalities elsewhere, grappling with how to classify such homes. Video by Peter Haley

When it came time for Peter Johnson to pop the question, his wife knew saying “yes” meant more than “for better or for worse.”

“If I’m saying ‘yes’ to you, I’m saying ‘yes’ to living tiny,” said Shannon Johnson about her decision.

Peter and Shannon Johnson and their toddler Hart live in a tiny house of their own construction, August 11. They built it on a trailer and have installed it on their property in Steilacoom. The town, as many municipalities are elsewhere, is grappling with how to classify such homes.

After two and-a-half years of marriage, Shannon Johnson now knows exactly what “living tiny” means: 200 square feet.

A living room, kitchen and bathroom that doubles as the laundry room comprises a majority of that space. A small staircase built into the wall leads to a 50-square foot loft with a queen-size bed.

The Johnsons share the space with 14-month-old son Hart.

The home is adjacent to a 1,160-square foot house the Johnsons own on a dead-end street in Steilacoom. Peter Johnson’s sister lives in the house; they share garage space and utilities.

For 17 months the couple has called the tiny house on wheels home. But they’re not sure how much longer they have in the periwinkle dwelling with white trim.

Steilacoom Town Administrator Paul Loveless sent the couple a letter in late July saying the house did not comply with town building codes.

“I understand the minimalist movement, I understand the other things,” Loveless said. “But to me, and for the town’s official position, it’s a violation of the town’s code and I’m responsible for enforcing the code.”

The Johnson’s situation raises the question: Is it legal to live in a tiny home in Pierce County?

The answer is less clear and influenced by multiple factors, including how local governments interpret buildings codes and whether a home has wheels.

The “tiny house movement” — the description given for the social movement that advocates a minimalist lifestyle often in a home no more than 500 square feet — has yet to hit Pierce County on a large scale.

South Sound building officials have had little experience with tiny homes to date, but expect to encounter more in the future as housing costs rise and homeowners seek more affordable housing options.

“This is a sustainable movement and it addresses our affordable housing issue as well,” said James Weaver, with the Washington chapter of the Tiny House Association of America.

Weaver is the development director for the city of Bainbridge Island, but spoke in his capacity with the tiny house association.

Building officials struggle with tiny houses, Weaver said, because building regulations “truly haven’t caught up with the tiny home movement yet.”

The association is working to change that by seeing uniform tiny house building codes passed at the state level, but until that happens “each jurisdiction has to adopt their own regulations,” Weaver said…

In unincorporated Pierce County people can’t live in an RV, or tiny home on wheels, in a residential zone for longer than six months, according to county building official Rick Hopkins.

Cities like Tacoma, Lakewood, Puyallup and University Place also regulate RV residency. University Place is the most restrictive, limiting a stay to 14 days with a permit.

If a tiny home is built on a foundation the county regulates it like a house and the standard building code applies, Hopkins said.

“I’d like to see some kind of regulations to give some guidance on (tiny homes), but at the present time we don’t have anything,” he said.

Read more and watch the video – https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/article95866897.html


Elaine Walker