Some not-so-tiny obstacles in the growing market for tiny houses
When Tom Alsani heard about plans for a tiny-home community in St. Petersburg, he got so excited he immediately wanted to know more.
"Right now I have a house with three bedrooms but the kids are gone and I’m trying to downsize,’’ says Alsani, a quality-control inspector for furniture companies. "To me a tiny house is very, very attractive. It’s a state of mind; it’s not about how big you have it but the level of contentment and happiness.’’
Few housing options have captured the public imagination like tiny houses, seen as an affordable and, yes, adorable antidote to the excesses of modern life. Their appeal is wide — to empty nesters like Alsani, soon to be retired and living on Social Security. To millennials, too burdened with student- loan debt to buy a normal-size house. To vagabonds at heart who like the idea of packing up and hitting the road at a moment’s notice.
But for all the enthusiasm, the tiny-house movement isn’t moving very fast. Financing, zoning laws and entrenched attitudes have conspired to limit tiny houses to a tiny percentage of the nation’s housing stock.
"With tiny homes, because it has a new name and is not called an RV or a mobile home, people don’t know how to treat it," says Preston Melson, a partner in a St. Petersburg company that makes tiny houses.
Florida has long had some very small houses, mostly built between the 1920s and the mid ‘50s for snowbirds and retirees. Even as McMansions proliferate in many Tampa Bay neighborhoods, the Multiple Listing Service shows dozens of houses under 700 square feet for sale in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Today, though, "tiny house" typically means a dwelling of 400 square feet or less on wheels. While the mobility is attractive, it has impeded the widespread acceptance of tiny homes.
Legally, wheeled houses are considered recreational vehicles and are generally restricted to RV parks by county and municipal zoning laws. The closest thing to a true tiny home community in Florida is Orlando Lakefront, an RV park with 19 teensy houses whose owners pay $350 to $600 a month to keep them there.
Many so-called "tiny homers" don’t want to live in RV parks, however, because they cater primarily to vacationers, not permanent residents.
Another option in certain circumstances can be mobile home parks. But while tiny homes are mobile and they are homes, afficionados of tiny living tend to look down on people in traditional mobile homes.
"They think mobile homes are trashy; that’s the stigma," Melson said.
Owners who don’t plan to move their tiny homes can build them as permanent structures on vacant land where zoning permits. In St. Petersburg, tiny houses also qualify as "accessory dwellings" — often called "granny pads" — and can be built on the same lot as an existing house as long as the lot is at least 5,800 square feet. Tampa, though, does not allow accessory dwellings in areas zoned for single-family homes regardless of lot size.
Thus the challenge of tiny houses "is where to put them," Melson says. "That’s the No. 1 enemy."
He and Brian Zmich used to flip conventional houses before prices got too high. They decided to go into the tiny-house business after seeing the excitement generated by TV shows like Tiny House Hunters.
In January, Melanie Rattanachane became the third partner in Tampa Bay Tiny Homes, based in an industrial area of St. Petersburg near 1-275 and 38th Avenue N. To date, the company has built nine houses on wheels and expects to start construction on a permanent house soon near Kenneth City.
Among the houses still at company headquarters is the Next Gen, a 280- square foot model that has been hooked to a pickup truck and driven to trade shows and events including the recent Valspar Championship golf tournament. On the main level are a bathroom with shower and space for a washer and dryer; a living area with futon, wall-mounted TV and electric fireplace; and a kitchen with a four-burner gas range and standard-size refrigerator but no dishwasher.
"If you have that many dishes in a tiny house," Zmich says, ‘‘there’s a problem."
Boxy stairs with storage underneath lead to a loft and a queen-size bed. The roof line is high enough that Melson, who is 6’3’’, could sit up in bed without hitting his head. There is also room for a night stand.
The house — -a "smart home" in which lights and a security camera can be turned on remotely — took about two months to build and sells for $63,000.
Paying for tiny houses is getting easier. Since 2013, SunTrust’s LightStream division has offered tiny-home loans — actually, personal, non-secured loans of up to $100,000 for as long as seven years. Interest rates range from 4.04 percent to 11.04 percent, depending on the borrower’s credit history. (The minimum score is 660, and the applicant must have some assets like a 401(k) or stock.)
Though it has fewer borrowers than for car and home improvement loans, the market for tiny-home loans "punches above its weight," says Julie Olian, LightStream’s vice president of public relations. "Our portfolio has grown as the market has increased. It’s a great way to get a first home and it’s one that’s flexible in terms of where it is (located)."
Some banks and credit unions also make RV loans for tiny houses. Tampa Bay Tiny Homes also has an arrangement with an Arizona bank that offers loans of up to $100,000 for as long as 25 years.
The St. Petersburg company gets inquiries about its tiny houses every day, including from folks who see them as an option for aging parents or adult children moving back home. But many lose interest after realizing the limits on where houses can be built or parked.
"If cities would rezone more places for RVs or customers would get over the stigma of going to RV parks, it would help," Melson says.
Developers could also take advantage of existing multi-family zoning to create communities of tiny homes built on foundations. This month, investors planning the six tiny houses in St. Petersburg’s Midtown area won approval to build them on the site of a condemned six-unit apartment building that will be demolished.
In January, the city approved construction of two permanent tiny homes in Eco Village, an urban farm on 15th Street N near the interstate. The goal is to have 12 tiny houses in all.
Not everyone thinks tiny-house living is as delightfully cozy as it is cracked up to be. In a column for the New York Times last year, a man living in 492 square feet cataloged a litany of drawbacks, including cooking odors that linger for weeks and the "domineering" presence of essential household items.
"Embarrassing, ordinary objects like the (laundry) hamper are empowered in small spaces; they become tyrants," Gene Tempest wrote. "In a larger home, this perfectly functional item might recede into a closet or laundry room."
But Zmich of Tampa Bay Tiny Homes says they can be ideal for people like himself. He now lives in a 600-square-foot- condominium but says he would be happy in one of the company’s houses.
"This is perfect for me," he says, standing in the 280-square-foot New Gen. "I’m an outdoors guy. All I need is a place to sleep, take a shower and relax."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate