Land use is frequently a challenging and complicated area when new housing developments arise. New land uses often leave municipal and state regulators unsure of how to regulate. For example, some cities were initially unsure how to handle the rise of short term rentals through Air BNB, leading to new regulations. Alternatively, the growing number of people looking to operate food trucks has also led to regulatory adaptation. The tiny house movement is another such development that currently needs attention.
HGTV and its various Tiny House-focused shows often make tiny house life look simple. Because many state and municipal regulators have not caught up with reality TV, finding a permanent location for your tiny house is not always easy. As the tiny house movement gets bigger, there becomes a bigger need for regulators to adapt. Local news stories have demonstrated the regulatory difficulties tiny house owners have dealt with so far. For example, one couple had difficulty finding a long term location for their tiny house. Another landowner has was ordered to move his unpermitted tiny houses from his Portland property.
The term "tiny house" refers to a house, usually on a trailer bed, that is under 400 square feet. Tiny houses have been praised as potential solutions to housing shortages or even environmental issues. Because they are comparably inexpensive, they can help people reach the goal of home ownership that they may otherwise be unable to reach. While, in theory, tiny houses can provide a great benefit to communities, they will never be the solution to affordable housing problems without regulatory adaptation.
The first big obstacle to tiny houses in Maine is the fact that they are commonly built on wheels. When a house is kept on a trailer and is easily mobile, this leads regulators to treat them the same as recreational vehicles. Generally, an RV will only be allowed to be occupied in one spot for a limited period. For example, Brunswick's ordinance puts this limit at 180 consecutive days. Brunswick Zoning Ordinance § 211.3.E.4(1)(a). This is a major problem because a homeowner generally wants to keep his or her home in one spot long term. If treated as a camper, the tiny house would be in violation of land use regulations if not moved to different sites periodically.
It may seem like the RV issue is easily solved by just removing the wheels and putting the home on a foundation. However, it's not that simple. If treated as houses, the issue of the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC) arises. Municipalities with a population over 4,000 people are required to follow the MUBEC. The City of Portland has issued guidance on tiny houses noting that, "[t]he biggest challenge appears to be the state building code, which the city is required to utilize." The document goes on to state that city officials are "looking into whether we might lobby for changes in MUBEC to allow more flexibility for tiny homes, but such changes would not happen quickly, and could require legislation." Earlier this year there was an attempt to enact legislation to address the issue of tiny houses in the MUBEC. However, this legislation has since failed. ME HB 622.
The MUBEC establishes the Technical Building Codes and Standards Board which has adopted the technical codes prepared by the International Code Council (ICC). For example, for one or two family residential buildings the Board has adopted the International Residential Code (IRC). 16-642 C.M.R. Ch. 05 § 4. Under the IRC, each home is required to have one room 120 square feet or bigger. Further, other habitable rooms must be a minimum of 70 square feet. Even with those minimums, your tiny house can remain quite tiny. The big challenge is likely to come in the form of sorting out all the technical requirements found in building codes. This is especially problematic for tiny houses because often people like to take the DIY approach. The technical requirements can make building your own tiny house a daunting task.
Prior to building a tiny house, it’s important to be aware of the regulatory issues you may be facing. Consult with an attorney who can help you figure out whether your desired location will allow your tiny house and if your tiny house design may need to be modified to conform with local rules. It’s always better to address these potential issues before you build.