Do you think it is time to change city regulations to allow for tiny homes to be built on existing lots within the city of Ames?
Tiny homes are a great affordable housing option to have on the table. I support reviewing the municipal code and department policies to identify the regulations that interfere with tiny home living so that we can decide how to best accommodate this form of housing.
To learn more about tiny opportunities, I reached out to former Ames resident Jay Shafer. Jay designed and built his first tiny home in Iowa City in 1999 and is now nationally recognized as the “godfather of tiny homes”. During our conversation, Jay told me that as of this year, the International Code Council recommendations now recognize homes as small as 100 square feet, and that the primary remaining obstacles to tiny homes are due to local regulations. Therefore, addressing the issues at the Ames City Council level is the perfect approach.
Although the tiny homes aesthetic is novel, the zoning issues are familiar. Zoning promotes coherence of neighborhoods and protects owners and residents from undesired friction, and we should engage robust public participation when contemplating significant zoning changes. The sooner we explore what tiny homes could mean for Ames, the better.
After a cursory review of the Residential Zoning ordinance which sets specific guidelines for house setbacks from property lines, lot sizes, percent of surface area covered, a specific minimum size of house to be built on a RL, RM, etc. lot is not required. However, many houses are built in developments that have developer covenants that require a minimum size first floor/second floor house be constructed on a lot. In those developments, it would appear that a retroactive change to the covenants would be required, which may be difficult, if not impossible for the city to change.
Hence the following comments are related to existing lots within our community that are not controlled by “standing” development covenants.
Prior to changing or establishing new regulations or ordinances with respect to tiny houses, adjacent neighborhood associations will need to be consulted on the impact of inserting a tiny house/s in between two/multiple larger adjacent houses within a block. Questions will include impact on property values, aesthetics, sense of community, and cohesiveness of the built environment.
I believe the opportunity that does exist to integrate tiny houses into existing areas is through the creation of “neighborhoods” of tiny houses. They would need to be well designed and laid out on the property, with appropriate amenities, access to city services, and paved areas to allow fire access at a minimum. I believe with appropriate planning and forethought, these could fit in well within the fabric of our existing community.
Again, surrounding neighborhoods will need to be included in initial conversations, vision cast, and designs proposed to offer assurances that when complete this will not only maintain the integrity of the surrounding neighborhoods and property values, but also add value and contribute to the well-being of the overall geographic area.
We only need to look as far as Des Moines for tiny house projects that are addressing the needs of homeless and very low-income community members. There are models and funding programs to assist with types of initiatives.
As mayor, I am proposing the creation of many new boards, commissions, strategic planning groups and any other name that we want to give to groups of interested, knowledgeable community members who together will offer creative and innovative solutions. We need to be moving forward with new voices at the table, new ideas, new solutions and mechanisms that turn ideas to actions. I’m confident, that together, we can do great things.
City of Ames zoning regulations already allow for this in a couple of different ways. The minimum house size on a low-density lot is 400 square feet or 20 feet by 20 feet. The regulations do require that a house be built on a foundation. A second option that provides more flexibility would be in the RL-P zoned areas or areas more commonly known as mobile home parks. The minimum size requirement of 400 square feet does not apply in mobile home parks and the mobile homes do not have to be placed on a foundation.
At this point, I don’t have enough information to indicate whether I would support changing regulations to allow for tiny homes or accessory dwelling units. And to be honest, I’ve not yet received feedback from many citizens or developers that this type of housing is in demand here in Ames. Changing zoning or other city regulations becomes very difficult when there appears to be no exact, legal definition of a tiny home. Additionally, many builders of tiny homes conform to Recreational Vehicle Industry Association standards, which further complicates the issue of whether these units are permanent dwelling structures or recreational vehicles. There are also challenges related to consumer financing as traditional mortgages are often not available for this type of housing.
Many of the issues regarding housing, including the types and location of both infill and future developments will be addressed as we move through the Comprehensive Plan. Community feedback will be critical during this process as we work together to build a plan which establishes polices on land use for years to come. Perhaps more importantly, the plan will create a vision for future growth in Ames that will address a broad range of areas including, but not limited to, housing, environmental factors, parks and recreational space, transportation, economic development, and public infrastructure.