2018-07-27 / Front Page

City tackles big issue of tiny homes

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — With affordable housing at an increasing premium, and sustainable lifestyles in vogue, South Portland is tackling the big issue of tiny homes.

District 3 Councilor Eben Rose requested a workshop on the topic more than a year ago. The topic finally got an airing July 24 with a presentation by Corrine Watson, co-owner of Tiny Homes of Maine.

“This is really a new, kind of mind-bending thing from what we are used to,” Rose said, in introducing Watson. “It may not be for everyone, but many people find that this sort of scaling down affords them certain freedoms that they might not be able to get otherwise if they are fettered to a $2,000-a-month mortgage and all the issues that go with that.”

“I think the idea is good,” Councilor Sue Henderson said. “We have, we call them McMansions, today, and that doesn’t serve us.”

But not everyone was immediately on board.

“I’m not there yet, but I was not there when we started (allowing) 5,000 square-feet (lots), either,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said.

“It would be a hard sell based on what we went through when we went to non-conforming lots and how many people thought we were flooding the city with houses on substandard lots,” Mayor Linda Cohen said. “But I’d believe there is a place for them. If we can find a way to ease them in and see how they work, they maybe people could get used to them.” According to City Manager Scott Morelli, some

tiny homes are currently allowed in South Portland, where codes set a minimum residential floor area of just 100 square feet per occupant.

However, local codes are “limited to houses that are constructed on site and inspected, meet all zoning and code requirements, are built on a foundation, and are connected to sanitary sewer, with few exceptions,” Morelli said.

As a regulatory question, Morelli said, tiny homes are most closely related to so-called accessory dwelling wnits (ADUs), which are also allowed in the city.

ADUs must be attached to the primary home, meet all zoning and code requirements, have a livable area between 300 and 800 square feet, and also may not exceed more than 25 percent of the total area of the primary dwelling.

According to Watson, most tiny homes, including the kind she’d hope to clear the way for in South Portland, are actually on wheels.

“The common thread for usage is for an affordable primary residence for everyone from students to retirement that allows for a lot of flexibility, to actually move your home easily if your situation changes,” Watson said, laying out a lot of the technical specifications and legal requirements for such structures.

Watson said a new tiny home, usually about 400 square feet, including a maximum width of 8 feet, typically costs $45,000 to $75,000.

“We do have some financing solutions with 10 percent down, and that could be as little as $362 a month, for a home,” Watson said.

Although tiny homes do have an appeal for some in terms of low cost, maintenance requirements, and energy consumptions, there are downsides. For one, living in a tiny home is not unlike living in an RV or camper, which means dealing regularly with proper disposal of gray water sewage.

“Because mobile tiny homes are considered travel trailers or recreational vehicles, complete with vehicle identification number (VIN) and a certificate of title, they are not treated as dwellings as that term is defined in city code and not subject to inspection for building and energy code,” Morelli wrote in a memo to the council. “Detached ADUs would be, however they are currently prohibited. Additionally, the city does not allow travel trailers to be occupied for living or sleeping purposes, either on a temporary or permanent basis.”

“It seems to me we have a basic policy decision here,” city Planning Director Tex Haeuser, said.

“In the past, I might have said I really don’t see how this would be accepted in our established residential neighborhoods, where it is so important to people to protect the property values of their homes, but times are changing and the economies of the past are not completely working for people today,” Haeuser said. “But I don’t know how we can test doing this without doing it.”

“Let’s try it. Just try it,” Rose said, who suggested a variety of ways to allow on-chassis tiny homes to be licensed, subject to annual renewal, with provisions to possible become permanent dwellings at some point. However, Cohen said he preference would be for any such homes to be hooked into public water and sewer services from the onset.

The council agreed to have staff work up proposed rules governing the placement and use of tiny homes in South Portland, for consideration at a future workshop.

Those new regulations will likely come with a “sunset clause,” Haueser said, triggering the council to review issue after a set time, to determine of the policy should be continued, amended, or scrapped.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

Return to top