The Tiny House: A Solution for Ireland’s Housing Crisis?

Published by Niall Sargent on

October 18th, 2017

Is tiny the next big thing? Well, it may be in Kildare after a motion passed at yesterday’s Naas municipal district meeting calling on the Government to permit a tiny house pilot project in Naas.

The district will now write to the Joint Committee on Housing to request that the district be “considered for a pilot project for a sustainable tiny house development”.

If given the go-ahead, the pilot project could include stand-alone tiny house properties, as well as tiny houses as Additional Developmental Units (ADUs) on existing properties.

While some have written the tiny house off as a novelty vacation home for the upper-middle-class, this smaller dwelling is being used as part of a holistic approach to housing issues the world over.

Communities are now popping up across North America, with numerous examples of projects using tiny houses as a viable way to tackle homelessness and create affordable housing for low-income families, young couples, students and the elderly.

So how can the tiny house concept work in the Irish context? And can it play a role in tackling the homeless and housing affordability crises hitting Ireland at present?

Tiny House

Boneyard Studios Tiny House Village Photo: Inhabitat

Affordable by Design

One of the main incentives for living tiny is saving money.

The tiny house – typically between 25-30m2 – is far cheaper than the average build in Ireland, offering an affordable, sustainable and self-sufficient way of living for people across all income brackets.

While this size may appear small, it is worth considering that almost 10 per cent of the Irish population currently lives in accommodation with less than 1 room per person.

Even at the upper end of the estimated cost of a more luxury tiny house, the cost is a fraction of the average price of a three-bed semi-detached in Dublin city which now stands at €414,500, an increase of 14.1 per cent over the past year.

And prices are set to keep rising, going up 10.7 per cent in the 12 months to the end of February, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

The Housing Agency has found that house prices in Ireland are unaffordable with the median house price 3.4 times the median gross annual household income. Recognizing the situation, the International Monetary Fund has called for a “close monitoring” of the continuing sharp rise in Irish property prices.

Facing a much less affordable housing market and staggering rents across the country, the Irish people need an alternative option to a mortgage-burdened lifestyle. Tiny houses could be one such option, in particular as Additional Developmental Units (ADUs).

Additional Developmental Units

An ADU is a small, self-contained residential structure sharing a lot with an existing house, the development of which can be traced back to the early twentieth century when they were a common feature in single-family housing in the US to provide a home for elderly members of the family in a familiar and accessible location.

In 2015, California’s fifth largest city, Fresno, became the first large city in the US to define and allow tiny houses in its local codes for use as a second dwelling to address affordable housing issues in the city, as well as providing housing for students and retirees.

A similar system has been successfully developed in Vancouver, Canada where ADUs have been legal for years and the city is now issuing building permits for 500 new units each year.

And here in Ireland, they could also offer an instant source of affordable housing.

Under this system, homeowners could build and rent out the tiny house at an affordable rate. Alternatively, the homeowner could live in the house and rent out their primary larger residence at a controlled, affordable cost for low-income families.

We could have hundreds of tiny homes as second dwelling units that are affordable. It is one of the quickest and cheapest ways of providing housing through the private market.

To date, just over 20 of 1,500 pledged ‘rapid built’ modular units announced in December 2015 under the Implementation Plan on the State’s Response to Homelessness have been completed.

Clearly, at present, we are not able to build affordable accommodation at scale in any community in Ireland. And even if we were to do so, it would not be possible without major subsidies from the State.

In July 2017, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, TD approved the construction of 70 additional rapid delivery houses at three locations in Dublin at a projected cost of €15.3million.

The tiny house as an ADU would quickly address affordable housing issues in Ireland, as well as providing housing for young adults who want to buy their first home but cannot afford it.

There are now over 450,000 persons aged 18 and over – 40 per cent of whom are in employment – living with their parents, however, moving out of home is simply out of reach for them due to spiraling rents and soaring house prices.

If even a fraction of this figure were able to move into an ADU, this would lead to a sharp increase in income for local authorities through the likes of property tax.

Adding new homes in potentially underused backyard spaces is also a sustainable way to provide more housing options in urban neighborhoods. This would help address urban sprawl by reducing the need for cities to grow outwards, decreasing commuting distances and transportation pollution.

Homeless Individual in Dublin Photo: William Murphy

Homeless Individual in Dublin Photo: William Murphy

Pocket Communities for the Homeless

The shocking media reporting this year of the death of several homeless individuals on the streets of Dublin has brought the issue front and center of the public consciousness; however, the crisis has been building for some time.

In August 2017, the Central Statistics Office indicates a huge increase in the level of homelessness, with the figure now at almost 7,000 people, up from 3,744 just five years ago.

As well as the need to tackle the homeless crisis from a moral standpoint, the data is clear that housing the homeless can save the State and local authorities in medical, legal, and social service expenses.

€39 million was spent last year on accommodating homeless Dublin families in hotels and B&Bs. Another €9.9 million was spent on other private emergency accommodation, meaning it’s now costing almost €50 million a year to house homeless families in Dublin alone.

Pocketed tiny house communities for the homeless can offer a short, medium and long-term solution to the problem, with various successful examples coming from the US.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office tasked the top-ranked public policy analysis program at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Public Policy with evaluating the feasibility of using tiny home villages to address affordable housing shortages.

The report found that “tiny homes are a feasible, cost-effective option to house… homeless and marginally housed populations” and that tiny house villages can create “communal support, benefitting residents’ likelihood of long-term housing, employment, and contentment”.

There are already numerous projects across the USA using tiny homes as housing for the homeless, such as Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, OM Village in Madison, Wisconsin, and Community First Village in Austin, Texas. These villages are consistently at full occupancy, and some even have a waitlist of individuals wanting to live there.

Sustainability and Energy Efficiency

Aside from the obvious advantages in terms of cost and build time, the tiny house also offers advantages in terms of energy efficiency, lower overall energy use and a much lesser impact on the surrounding environment.

The structure of a tiny house is extremely efficient due to its small surface area and can easily be built to passive or zero energy standards at a fraction of the cost of larger builds. A smaller living space also means lower energy use because there are fewer lights, less space to heat, and fewer appliances than in the average Irish home.

The smaller area means that tiny houses can be powered and heated entirely by solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal or air to heat devices. Many tiny houses are also entirely off-grid using battery storage and can connect to the grid to export excess electricity back to the national grid system.

Homeowners may one day be able to make a small profit off the excess energy sent to the grid, with long-awaited microgeneration support currently under discussion.

What the Irish Government can do

There are several steps that the Irish government can take to make tiny house communities a reality across Ireland, namely adjusting minimum dwelling sizes.

At present, there is a target minimum Floor Area for a one bedroom Dwelling Houses of 44m2 as set out in the Quality Housing for Sustainable Communities document.

Installing national guidelines for a minimum dwelling size to allow for tiny would quickly provide affordable, and sustainable housing choices to thousands of people across Ireland.

The Government can include tiny houses in the definition of an ADU and streamline the permitting process by offering simple, economical, pre-approved plans for purchase by prospective homeowners.

Clear Legislation Required

Any legislation in Ireland will need to be adapted to prevent developers from taking advantage of the relaxation of building codes to allow for tiny houses.

An appendix to these codes should be allowed for in one-off, individual and community homes where the habitant wishes to build to a smaller footprint, due to circumstance or their individual desire.

Measures also need to be put in place to ensure quality and safety are of prime concern in tiny homes, while still allowing the individual to craft their home to their individual taste and budget.

While the creation of Tiny house communities is not a panacea to solve affordable housing issues, it should be one aspect that every community has available to them to fulfill the needs of those with lower incomes and/or those facing the injustice of homelessness.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London