When Ruby Perry and her husband, Andy Simon, were building their 400-square-foot house in Burlington’s South End last year, it became the talk of the Five Sisters neighborhood. That’s not surprising: It’s one of the smallest houses in Burlington, and it took shape as the national fascination with the tiny-house movement was inspiring documentaries, TV shows, do-it-yourself classes and conventions.
The red clapboard dwelling on Locust Street is interesting for another reason, too: It’s not tucked into the woods or sitting on a semirural lot; it’s plunked down in a city backyard. So, are super-small houses viable in an urban setting?
Perry answers that question with a resounding yes. For starters, if living in small quarters starts to feel confining, a city like Burlington offers an estate-size array of activities and amenities. Also, she suggests, tiny houses are ideal for urban infill in tight spots.
Could tiny houses be a solution to Burlington’s housing shortage? And can anyone erect a tiny house in their backyard? Not necessarily — Burlington’s zoning codes make the prospect tenuous, depending on where and what is proposed.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. It “should not be daunting to anyone,” Perry says. “We treated it as a community building process and met early, and often, with our neighbors as well as planning and zoning.” The house she and Simon built is located in their daughter and son-in-law’s backyard and owned by the young couple, who are raising a toddler. The arrangement is an exercise in estate planning: The grandparents paid for the $75,000 structure and took charge of the permitting and construction, knowing it would be a way to give their assets to the next generation in advance.
The house was allowed as an “accessory dwelling,” defined under the city’s 376-page zoning ordinance as an efficiency or one-bedroom unit that is “subordinate” to, and does not exceed 30 percent of the total habitable floor area of, a single-family dwelling.
The little red house also had to stay within a 35 percent lot-coverage limit in the neighborhood, which is zoned as residential low density, meaning it’s a district intended primarily for single-family detached dwellings and duplexes.