If you live in a tiny house on wheels, you may be woken up in the middle of the night and asked to vacate your house. That’s because living in a tiny house on wheels (THOW) is illegal in most of Portland, unless it is parked on an RV lot. It is perfectly legal to park tiny houses on wheels in a lot of places, including someone’s back yard. But living there is a whole other story.
Why Tiny Homes on Wheels are an Important Part of Available Housing Stock:
With Portland’s housing crisis, the particular issue of tiny homes on wheels is becoming an urgent one. Tiny homes on wheels are a good solution for a variety of situations. They provide an option for people who can’t quite afford to live in a “permittable” building, like an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) built with a foundation. THOWs even open up a path to home ownership for folks that never thought they could own a home. THOWs can have a much lower price point than any other type of home because of their size and that they don’t require a foundation and up-to-seismic code construction, like other homes.
Along with their price point, THOWs offer a unique amenity – mobility. They can be the answer to people who want to travel and simply don’t want to be tied down to a static home somewhere. But more importantly, they are great for people who find themselves without a home and need to move around a lot. THOWs could be part of the solution to the homelessness emergency Portland is having right now. The key to mobility, THOW builder Aaron says, is “build using light-weight materials, because ultimately you want to be able to move it.”
Because they are simpler to build than most other habitable structures, a lot of people can build a THOW themselves, like Aaron did. He built a tiny house on wheels for about $4,000 using salvaged materials he found in free piles, salvage yards and The Rebuilding Center, his own sweat equity and work parties with friends for some of the heavy lifting. Compare this to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a house.
And finally, tiny homes on wheels make it much easier for a property owner to have an accessory dwelling unit or structure, with all its benefits like rental income, with almost no cost to her. Without having to build an all-out ADU in her back yard, which is likely to cost more than $60k, a property owner can make her yard available for someone to park his ADU at no cost to her and begin charging rent. A THOW makes an easy and cost effective way to have someone share your property and help pay your mortgage.
But Tiny Homes on Wheels are Illegal…
Despite all the benefits that the option of living in a tiny house on wheels brings, especially during Portland’s state of emergency for housing and homelessness, it is illegal to do so. This is because no one knows how the heck to classify a THOW. Is it a camper? A motor home? An RV? A building? It’s none of those things. It’s a hybrid of a building and a vehicle that falls through the cracks of code categories. But since the current code doesn’t speak to THOWs specifically, city officials have taken the stance that because THOWs don’t meet the Property Maintenance Code, which provides for basic life and fire safety standards, that they are illegal to inhabit permanently.
The code most cited when people in tiny homes are asked to stop living in them is this:
When a property has an illegal residential occupancy, including but not limited to occupancy of tents, campers, motor homes, recreational vehicles, or other structures or spaces not intended for permanent residential use or occupancy of spaces constructed or converted without permit, the use shall be abated or the structure brought into compliance with the present regulations for a building of the same occupancy. (29.50.050)
[Source: Eli Spevak, Orange Splot LLC]
“Like tents, yurts, sheds and RVs, no one can live in THOWs legally, but the reality is a lot of people do,” says ADU expert Kol Peterson. The good news is that the codes aren’t proactively enforced. City officials don’t make it their business to scour neighborhoods for people living in tiny homes on wheels. The only reason you could be asked to move from your THOW is if somebody complains about it, most likely a neighbor.
Though complaints and actual citations may not be frequent, it’s nerve wracking for THOW residents to live in fear of being evicted from their home because it is illegal to live there. One case came to my attention where a THOW owner was made to vacate his tiny house because the neighbors thought that is was bringing down the value of their properties. These neighbors use the code that vaguely addresses the illegality of tiny homes on wheels as a way with which to practically terrorize the THOW owner. His THOW is under constant surveillance to make sure he doesn’t sleep there. The muddied codes regarding this matter have allowed those residents to wield undue power over their THOW neighbor, almost to the point of abuse. “One neighbor pronounced me a person of “zero standing” in this matter, because my name doesn’t appear on the deed of the main house,” the THOW owner said. Sadly, the current codes can be used to reinforce outdated class distinctions and a stigma against living on something that has wheels. Ironically, the THOW in this instance is a meticulously crafted work of art and is arguably better built and more beautiful than the neighbor’s houses, so the claim that it is decreasing the surrounding property values is a stretch.
There is a way to make living in THOWs Legal…
Instead of citing THOWs, the city could legalize them. Eli Spevak of Orange Splot LLC, along with others, has been working to find a legal path for THOWs. The key points to making THOWs legal in this plan are:
1. Regulate the quality of construction of the tiny house (must use stick framing or structured insulated panels (SIPS)), its trailer and hitch, and its size.
2. Regulate what is included in the tiny house – i.e. “basic functional areas that support normal daily routines (such as cooking, sleeping, and toiletry) – or locate it where residents have 24-hour access to such functional areas in another structure on the same property.
3. Designate THOWs connected to water and sewer as accessory dwellings and ones that are not as accessory structures (such as detached bedrooms).
4. Mandate that THOWs follow these requirements from the property maintenance code:
Smoke and CO detectors
Structurally sound and in good repair
With these regulations in place, there is no reason not to legalize tiny homes on wheels. More progress hasn’t been made on this issue largely due to the stigma attached to living in a vehicle. Understandably, residents don’t want people sleeping and living out of cars in their neighborhoods. Due to this fear, THOWs are illegal too, a little like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But with the above guidelines, the city could ensure the life and fire safety, quality and size of the structures.
Let the City Know that Living in THOWS should be Legalized:
This is an opportune time to pass this proposal as the mayor has declared a housing state of emergency. During this state of emergency, it will be easier to push through new regulations that would help ease the housing crisis that previously would not pass due to resistance. Contact the mayor’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org and Joe Zehnder email@example.com and let them know you’re in support of making tiny homes on wheels legal via the proposed path and that this action must be taken now, as part of a solution to the housing emergency.
Also – the Build Small Live Large Summit is coming up tomorrow but registration is closed.
If you are interested in touring a tiny house, there will be four tiny houses in the South Park Blocks (between SW Harrison and SW Montgomery). These houses will be free and open to the public from 8:00am – 7:00pm on Friday November 6 and you are welcome to take a tour.
Check out the other small house events happening this weekend (November 7-8):
The ADU Tour – Saturday, November 7 – Take a self-guided tour of 10 ADUs in Portland at your own pace.
Attendees take a self-guided tour of 10 ADUs in Portland at their own pace. This fall tour will contain a new set of ADUs throughout Portland, never featured on the ADU Tour before. Space still available for this tour.
Tiny House Basics by PAD Tiny Houses Saturday & Sunday, November 7-8th
This weekend workshop is comprehensive but entry-level, introducing you to the unique design and building principles that apply to a house on wheels. Dee Williams and other local experts will teach you about tiny houses from A to Z with a mix of classroom-style learning and a site visit to tour real tiny homes on wheels.