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Should NH require towns to allow tiny houses?

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The New Hampshire House is considering a bill that would require towns to allow “tiny houses” alongside single-family homes.

Supporters envision a future where tiny house aficionados flock to New Hampshire, bolstering our workforce. Opponents are concerned about the erosion of local control and property values.

What is a tiny house?

A tiny house is generally 100 to 400 square feet. A tiny house can sit on a foundation or on a trailer. Some tiny houses are equipped with full kitchens and plumbing, while others are designed to live off-grid with composting toilets.

Tiny homes have gained popularity as an affordable and eco-friendly housing option over the past decade.

However, many towns, counties, and states have zoning laws or building codes that require houses to have a minimum square footage. Tiny houses on wheels may be categorized as RVs unsuitable for year-round living.

In 2016 New Hampshire passed a law that enabled municipalities to permit small, “detached accessory dwelling units” next to regular homes, but not every town opts-in. Towns can also set their own minimum dimensions for accessory dwelling units.

Brianna O’Brien of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire became a bit of a poster child for the New Hampshire tiny house movement after she tried to live in a tiny house on her parents’ property. The Zoning Board of Adjustment denied her occupancy permit for a few reasons, including that the tiny house did not meet the town’s definition of a detached accessory dwelling unit. O’Brien was forced to abandon the tiny house.

A proposal to welcome tiny houses

This year three New Hampshire representatives – two Republicans and a Democrat – are sponsoring a bill to welcome tiny houses to New Hampshire. HB 588 would require towns to allow standalone “tiny houses” anywhere they allow single-family homes.

If a municipality allows detached accessory dwelling units, HB 588 would require the town to accept tiny houses under the same terms.

The bill establishes various other requirements for tiny houses. For example, tiny houses have to follow fire codes. If the house is on a trailer, the trailer must be licensed, registered, and inspected.

Lastly, this bill requires towns and cities to pass zoning laws to address tiny house parks – a group setting of at least four tiny houses.

HB 588 is a repeat of a 2020 bill, SB 482. That bill died during the coronavirus shutdown.

The House has yet to schedule a public hearing for HB 588.

Update 4/22/21: The House of Representatives failed to vote on HB 588 before its deadline, essentially killing the bill.

Tiny houses, big dreams

Tiny house supporters argue these little dwellings could ease New Hampshire’s big affordable housing problem.

An extremely low inventory of houses and rental units is driving up the median home price and the median rent in New Hampshire. According to the November/December 2020 Housing Market Snapshot from New Hampshire Housing, the median sales price for a home in New Hampshire increased 17% over the past year, while there is less than a one-month supply of homes for sale under $300,000. The median gross rent increased 5% from last year, to $1,413, and there is only a 1.8% vacancy rate.

The cost of a tiny house, meanwhile, usually ranges from $15,000 to $100,000 – a much more affordable option.

Some people are also attracted to tiny houses because they have a smaller environmental footprint than traditional dwellings. This green option might attract more workers and businesses to the Granite State.

Lastly, supporters of HB 588 point out that many people already live in tiny houses “under the radar” of local officials. HB 588 would help these people legally join their communities and pay taxes.

More than a tiny problem for local officials

Opponents of HB 588 argue that New Hampshire should not force towns and cities to accept tiny houses. Instead, towns and cities should be able to decide if tiny houses are appropriate in their communities.

There is concern that tiny houses may lower nearby property values. Towns also already have trouble collecting taxes on manufactured homes and RV camps. Tiny house owners would probably pose similar challenges.

Lastly, there is still ambiguity in building codes around safety standards for tiny houses, particularly those on trailers. Similarly, HB 588 requires tiny houses on wheels to have “a seal from a third party inspection company authorized to provide such certification for tiny homes or recreational vehicles,” but there’s no guarantee that company’s standards will match a town’s desired standards.

Other affordable housing ideas

Tiny houses cannot single-handedly solve New Hampshire’s housing shortage, of course. There are many other proposals related to affordable housing in the Legislature this year. For example, Gov. Sununu recently threw his support behind HB 586, a long bill that modifies various processes and tax credits to encourage workforce housing. Other legislators are looking for a big deposit in the Affordable Housing Fund as part of this year’s state budget. Other proposals look to increase eligibility for property tax breaks or modify the zoning appeals process. You can see all of these proposals on the Citizens Count Affordable Housing and Property Rights topic page

VIEW ALL EPISODES https://www.citizenscount.org/podcast

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