The diminutive “tiny house” has now firmly entered the mainstream consciousness in the United States as the minuscule residences, evoking rustic cottages or sleek modern designs, provide something of a bohemian counterweight to the country’s suburban sprawl.
For one such home designer in Petaluma, the tiny, wheeled structures have also shown to have a more somber purpose, providing relatively affordable, secondary housing for aging seniors, disabled adults and their caregivers.
While the tiny units sound primed as the ultimate infill project, Stephen Marshall, owner of Little House on the Trailer, cited one major barrier to their widespread adoption in Petaluma and in many cities elsewhere: red tape.
“Being a tiny house on wheels doesn’t get you around any rules,” he said.
In contrast to the image of young, mobile, money-savvy buyers eschewing the trappings of material possessions to live in a quaint cottage, Marshall said more than three quarters of his customers today are over 60 years of age. After eight years in business on Petaluma Boulevard North, many of his current buyers are seeking an accessory unit to their primary home, akin to a concept commonly known as an in-law or “granny” unit.
Those models from Little House range in both size and price, starting at the $50,000 Sport House, a wheel-equipped unit at 400 square feet.
A long-time homebuilder, Marshall said many of his buyers view the approach as a more affordable option to building something from the ground up, since trailer-bound structures avoid the cost of a foundation or the expense of a building permit.
“When I build second units for people, which I don’t do anymore, they start at $300,000,” he said. But with a trailer-based tiny house, “you buy it for $50,000, and by the time it’s all hooked up, it’s $70,000. You’ve created real affordable housing.”
While the approach is relatively straightforward, the rules can be tricky. Trailer-mounted tiny homes are often considered a recreational vehicle, and many cities, including Petaluma, have very narrow rules around their use. Rural areas are generally more lenient, with full-time residence in an RV allowed in unincorporated Sonoma County if conditions like required hookups and safety conditions are met.
Living long-term on an RV as either a primary or accessory dwelling is not currently allowed in Petaluma, said Kevin Colin, a senior planner for the city. Yet the rules do allow pint-sized homes on a more traditional foundation, possibly without the need for a hearing.
“It’s just a small little dwelling,” said Colin, who noted that the structure could be considered an accessory dwelling to a primary residence if up to 640 square feet.
Petaluma does have a handful of mobile home parks with special zoning, with rules around the nature of those units coming down from the state, he said.