Credit: Erin Gabel | Mustang News

Sustainable, affordable and atop four wheels, tiny homes may be the future of alternative and eco-friendly housing. Students are hopping on the tiny trend, thanks to a 2018 ordinance that legalized tiny homes in residential neighborhoods in San Luis Obispo.

“We are excited to show how small, simple living can work for a number of people,” Anne Wyatt, executive director of local nonprofit SmartShare, which focuses on housing solutions, said. 

San Luis Obispo was just one of two cities in California to pass an ordinance legalizing tiny homes on wheels in residential neighborhoods un 2018. Fresno was first in the nation to do so in 2016. 

The tiny-house-on-wheels movement took off about a decade ago. While small living structures are rooted in human history — from indigenous dwellings to more modern mobile homes — factors such as the 2008 housing crisis and increased media exposure helped introduce the American public to the movement, according to Tiny House Expedition.

While there is no exact definition of a “tiny home,” the city of San Luis Obispo outlines them as less than 400 square feet, not including loft space, and on wheels. These tiny homes must be registered with the DMV and certified as recreational vehicles (RVs) by the American National Standards Institute. 

SmartShare, along with two other local companies, hosted the Tiny Footprints Expo in October at the Alex Madonna Expo Center Oct. 11-13. The three-day event focused on the benefits of tiny living, from sustainability to lowering housing costs to having a more mobile lifestyle. Tiny home owners, builders and enthusiasts showcased their own homes and models for sale.

“It’s just so fun to see what people do and what spaces they create,” Wyatt said.

Tiny home owners, builders and enthusiasts showcased their own homes and models for sale in October 2019 at the Tiny Footprints Expo in San Luis Obispo. Erin Gabel | Mustang News

Sustainable housing

Small living spaces are a sustainable option for those looking to decrease their environmental impact, according to Anastasia Nicole, who spoke at the expo and is a task force member at SLO Climate Coalition as well as the zero-waste coordinator at Cal Poly.

Nicole said that the materials that go into making a home are some of the most damaging to the environment in terms of emissions and overall carbon footprint. One of the key factors in tiny home living is reducing the amount of material belongings, including materials for the built environment.

“It’s about living well on less,” Nicole said.

This is what motivated biomedical engineering senior Matt Walker to convert a van into his own tiny home. He completed the build in six weeks with help from friends, and a total cost of $3,000 for materials.

Walker has a degree emphasis in sustainability and said he was interested in how to make his new home more eco-friendly.

“I don’t use any gas, no propane, I have enough solar that I can cook with electricity, and I made sure to get all my materials from secondhand places like thrift stores,” Walker said. 

A cheaper way to own a home

Tiny homes are particularly popular with a younger generation of Americans. Approximately 63 percent of Millenials are interested in living in a tiny home, according to a survey by the National Association of Home Builders last year.

One of the demands for tiny homes in San Luis Obispo came from the need for student housing, according to Wyatt. She said students have a unique opportunity to be homeowners by the time they graduate.

“Students could live in [a tiny home] during school, and instead of paying more than a thousand bucks in rent, that money could go towards buying a tiny house and paying it off,” Wyatt said. 

According to city data, single-person households make up 36 percent of San Luis Obispo’s population. Wyatt said single people could also benefit from having tiny homes as a small, low-cost housing option.

That is the hope San Luis Obispo county resident Carolyn Huddleston said she has for her daughter Elysion, who she said is looking to move to San Luis Obispo to be closer to work, but cannot afford the cost of living downtown. 

“When [my daughter] was looking for apartments, she found they would cost more than half her income,” Huddleston said.

The mother-daughter pair decided to build a tiny home instead, with the hopes of finding a backyard in San Luis Obispo to place it, close enough for Elysion to walk to work. 

The two have no previous construction experience and are currently halfway through their build. Their materials cost $18,000 so far, and Huddleston predicts the total projected cost to be around $35,000 by the time they finish the build sometime next year. 

They saved tens of thousands of dollars by building the houses themselves. Had they hired contractors, Huddleston said the cost would have doubled. They rely heavily on online communities of tiny home builders. Within an hour of asking a question, Huddleston said she could get an answer from a contractor or a fellow DIYer online without having to pay a professional to step in. 

Tiny living

Jennifer Brandenburg and Rhett Fulbright are one such pair of tiny home enthusiasts who built their house on wheels earlier this year. Since then, the couple from Georgia has been travelling the West Coast and visiting tiny home festivals and national parks with their golden retriever, Aspen. 

“The biggest pro of this lifestyle is that we’ve just gotten to see so many beautiful places,” Fulbright said.

However, Brandenburg said there are a few downsides to having all of their belongings in a home hitched behind their truck.

“You have to tow your house everywhere,” Brandenburg said. “That’s the most stressful part.”

Their home includes a queen bed that converts into a couch, washer/dryer hookups, a full shower, kitchen, workspace, attic and outdoor equipment storage — all carefully fit into 120 sq feet, about the size of an average bedroom.

The roadtrippers blog about their nomadic lifestyle under the name Cozy Rollers, and have started selling their tiny home model to interested buyers. They offer their original tiny home design and construction for $30,000, with an additional $2,000 fee to get RV certified.

Other models featured at the expo showcased the diverse models available for interested buyers.

Tiny House Tools, founded by Forrest Jones, focuses on building efficient tiny homes with options such as a composting toilet and solar panels. They offer a variety of models ranging in price from $26,000 to $34,000. 

Central Coast Tiny Homes took a different approach in tiny home design, focusing on the comforts of a modern home with models that feature chandeliers and stainless steel appliances. Their homes start at $79,000.

Other builders focused on accessible living, such as Modular Lifestyles’ tiny homes that are designed for seniors in need of assisted living or students with disabilities. Prices vary depending on size and special accommodations.

Finding a place for tiny homes

A challenge many tiny home owners face is where to “park” their tiny homes. In San Luis Obispo, owners would have to factor in backyard rental space, which Wyatt predicts would be about $400-$800 per month given location and availability.

That availability may be low, associate City planner Kyle Bell said. He said many residential neighborhoods in San Luis Obispo do not have big enough lots to accommodate a tiny home.

Additionally, Bell said the process from application submission to actually receiving a building permit from the City can take anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks for a tiny home on wheels.

“A lot of the industry is looking into how to develop these and make it easier to provide [space] and make them more affordable to purchase,” Bell said.

Only two homes have been placed in backyards with two more approved for permits. 

Despite the current pace, Wyatt said she has high hopes for the future of tiny home living in San Luis Obispo.

“Our goal is twenty houses placed in twenty backyards in the city by October 2020,” Wyatt said.

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