Tiny Houses In Boise Still Face One Big Problem

Mar 8, 2016

The house Shaun Wheeler is standing in can only be described as tiny. It’s 310 square feet, half the size of a semi trailer. He designed and built it from the ground up. When it’s done, it’ll have everything a normal house has, in a fraction of the space.

 

Wheeler owns Wheeler Homes, and builds tiny houses. He used to build typical homes, even mansions in Sun Valley. But after going to college, his mentality about housing changed.

“My college degree was in environmental studies and sustainability, so I started looking at construction differently, the way we build houses differently and couldn’t really justify doing the same old status quo,” Wheeler says.

The tiny house he is currently building is a rich midnight blue with cedar. Wheeler says although it may be simple, it’s got everything you need in a house, and more.  

“We are standing in the kitchen. The whole time we’re in the kitchen and the bathroom, we’re underneath a loft. This loft is the master bedroom.”

But there’s just one problem: Once Wheeler finishes this tiny house, there is nowhere to legally park it.

A Coding Issue

The city of Boise doesn’t allow builders to put a house on a foundation unless it’s bigger than a few hundred square feet. A work-around is to build them on trailers.

But since trailers are on wheels, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Idaho Transportation Department, like an RV.

However, people aren’t really supposed to live in an RV year-round. Also, permanently parking an RV on a street or a lot in the city can lower property value of nearby homes.

So Shawna Embry has nowhere she can legally or permanently park her new home.

Embry is a student at Boise State University. In the middle of a divorce and struggling with student debt, she’s leaving behind her three-bedroom rental house for something much, much smaller.

“It’s just kind of a big leap of faith in that respect,” Embry says. “I knew I wanted to do this so I wasn’t going to have everything figured out before I started.”

Looking around her current home, she checks off the furniture she can’t take with her: the couches, the dining table, her dresser, most of the things in her closet.

“Everything’s going to go. I really don’t feel sad at all—it’s just stuff.”

Embry figures she’ll be able to pay off her new house and her student debt in only a few years.

Her home will cost around $50,000. The hardest part has been finding financing for the project.  Because the tiny house movement is so new, there’s no loan in place to build one.

 

Shaun Wheeler (left) and his employee, Christopher Manning (right) have spent the past few months building this 310-square-foot tiny house for Boise State University student Shawna Embry.
Credit Jessica Murri

Back in Wheeler’s shop, Shawn’s crew finished the exterior of Embry’s tiny home. Embry wasn’t able to get enough funding for them to finish the interior. She hopes she’ll be able to do the rest herself, but says she knows little about construction.

That didn’t stop Macy Miller, who may live in one of the most famous tiny houses in the world. It’s been featured in Time Magazine, on NPR and HGTV.

Nestled in Boise's North End, her home is 232 square feet. She built it herself.

“This project for me was an educational project," Miller says. "My background is in design, but I’ve never really built anything."

She did it using YouTube videos and do-it-yourself books from Home Depot five years ago. She lives with her boyfriend, her 2-year-old daughter, her 4-month-old son and her gigantic Great Dane.

Miller faces the same problem as hundreds of other tiny home owners, including Embry. Even though she has the landowner’s permission to park on his lot, she’s still parked illegally — according to city code.

Some cities are changing their laws to accommodate tiny houses. Fresno, California now allows tiny houses to be parked alongside traditional homes as a permanent second dwelling — similar to a cottage.

Portland is also considering the tiny home under the regulations of Accessory Dwelling Units — like a mother-in-law quarters.

Boise, on the other hand, remains skeptical of the safety of tiny homes. The director of planning for the city, Hal Simmons, says they aren’t built to any construction standards. That makes him worry about the health and safety of those living in the homes. He says they’re allowed to park in RV parks, but not on residential lots.

Simmons says tiny homes are on the city’s radar, and he’s collecting codes from other cities to see how they’ve dealt with the tiny dwellings. If the demand continues, he said the city will likely create a provision in the code.

Correction: In the original version of this story, we reported Shawna Embry was recently divorced. That was incorrect. She and her husband are separated and in the process of getting a divorce. 

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