‘These are beautiful houses’: Why is the law so tough on tiny homes?

Tiny homes appeal to those looking for affordable and sustainable housing options. Photo: Tiny Footprint
Tiny homes appeal to those looking for affordable and sustainable housing options. Photo: Tiny Footprint

Pressure is mounting on local and state governments across the country to relax their planning regulations for tiny houses, the small-scale living concept that has garnered feverish interest.

The tiny house movement has no shortage of fans; manufacturers report widespread demand while display homes and exhibitions attract huge crowds.

But the micro-sized dwellings sit in a regulatory grey space within local building laws and planning schemes, and tiny house advocates say such legislative barriers need to change.

“Planning schemes never contemplated tiny houses as a mainstream form of housing,” says Valerie Bares from ESC Consulting.

A tiny house that will be on display at Melbourne Knowledge Week. Photo: Tiny Footprint

A tiny house that will be on display at Melbourne Knowledge Week. Photo: Tiny Footprint

“They deal with single dwellings, high-rise apartments and townhouses but the concept of a tiny house has never been addressed.”

With such small floor plans — in some cases as little as 18 square metres — tiny houses can fall well below minimum floor area requirements. This has meant many owners seek tiny houses on wheels.

“It gets around the need to apply for a development application or a building permit,” Ms Bares says. “But it also creates other issues because if you’re not classified as a building, councils will have local laws around caravan living.”

Local laws restrict how long caravans can park on private property, usually between two weeks and two months.

“Why shouldn’t we let people live in small dwellings if they want to?” asks Ms Bares, who believes tiny houses could offer affordable and sustainable solutions to housing shortages and homelessness.

“It’s recognising that they are not in a tin shed in someone’s backyard that’s not insulated and there’s no ventilation.

The tiny house movement has grown in popularity around the world. Photo: Kylie Bell / Wagonhaus

The tiny house movement has grown in popularity around the world. Photo: Kylie Bell / Wagonhaus

“These are beautiful houses. They’re small but they’re perfectly valid as a house.”

The law varies around the country but in most states, renting out a tiny house in the backyard is prohibited. This is either because granny flats can legally only be used by a family member or because tiny houses may not meet strict regulations for residential premises.

Kate Trivic, the founder of Tiny Consulting, a consultancy firm that specialises in tiny houses, said women over 50 had shown the most interest in permanently living in tiny homes.

“Often, these women are retired, on low incomes or unemployed,” she said. “They are at a stage of life where they often live alone and no longer want to, or can continue to live in the large family home.”

Ms Bares and Ms Trivic, both speakers at a Melbourne Knowledge Week event on tiny houses this weekend, are pushing to establish a set of guidelines for their design and construction.

“Some people in the tiny house movement are DIY,” Ms Bares said. “And some of them are pretty shoddy and that’s the kind of thing we want to avoid.”

“We’re looking to set up a certification process to make sure tiny houses are going to be safe and built properly.”

Advocates have lobbied local authorities, most recently meeting with the Municipal Association of Victoria.

Manufacturers report strong interest from Australian consumers. Photo: Tiny Footprint

Manufacturers report strong interest from Australian consumers. Photo: Tiny Footprint

Next week, councils will vote on a motion to urge the state government to amend its planning provisions to better support small housing.

Association president Mary Lalios said tiny houses could be part of a solution to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing options.