Facts About the Budget Amendment for Tiny Houses

Going Places Village, a tiny home community in Portland, Oregon.

During the last week Councilwoman Roach has made a number of false claims — ranging from serious accusations of wrongdoing, to the simply absurd — on social media and in the news about a budget amendment passed to encourage development of so-called “tiny home communities” as an affordable housing option.

Normally I try ignore this sort of thing, but a lot of folks are believing her and inundating the Council with calls and messages of concern. I will attempt to respond here.

This is the “Tiny Home” amendment as it was originally passed on a bipartisan 6–1 vote with Councilwoman Roach in opposition.

The reference to the “Homeless Empowerment Labor Program (HELP)” is just the “pay-for” in budgetspeak. In order to add a new expense, there has to be a new source of revenue or in this case, a cut. The HELP program, which I supported, was rejected by the Council and we were unsuccessful getting a responsive bidder on the second effort, so the funding in the Executive’s budget wasn’t necessary.

FACT: One of the greatest problems when discussing “tiny homes” is that they conjure a range of definitions depending on your experience with the subject. Councilwoman Roach for some reason assumed this was about the sort of glorified shed we’ve seen in other places that are basically a step up from tent encampments for people experiencing homelessness.

I’m not sure I or anyone else on the Council would be supportive of such an effort for a number of reasons I won’t go into here.

The truth is, this is about providing another potential tool for affordable housing. We’re in the teeth of a terrible housing crisis and some people see tiny homes as an attractive option.

In some ways this is a return to the past. The cost to construct housing, adjusted for inflation, has not increased on a square footage basis in decades but the size of homes has steadily increased, driving up prices.

Average size of newly constructed homes keeps increasing while the cost to construct has stayed flat.

Some of increasing size of homes is based on market demand, and there’s not much we can do about that. But it’s also about building codes. There appears to be a market to construct homes that are much smaller than what we might normally anticipate and want to encourage that market. One way we might make it pencil for a spec builder is if you could achieve sufficient density.

The budget appropriation would support feasibility and pre-development costs for tiny home communities (some of the language was amended yesterday to narrow what it could be used for).

FACT: Nothing in the budget amendment could, or would, allow dense, urban level development in the rural areas. The only reference to location is in the term “unincorporated Pierce County” meaning outside of cities. That is the only place where the County has jurisdictional control over land use.

In some parts of Pierce County that does mean rural zoning where development like this is prohibited outright. The proposal is for the large urban unincorporated area where this level of density is permitted — communities like Parkland, Spanaway, South Hill, and Fredrickson. The “countryside” had absolutely nothing to do with it and she was told this repeatedly by staff and the rest of the Council.

I think we all agree that putting housing for the homeless in rural areas, far from services and transportation, would be inappropriate and counterproductive. The amendment never changed that fact despite Councilwoman Roach’s claims.

Even if we wanted to, the state’s Growth Management Act, Pierce County Comprehensive Plan, and zoning code would all prohibit such action.

FACT: The amendment followed all of our normal procedures for the budget process, was introduced and passed at the first reading of the budget (the only ordinances where our procedures require two readings) which is why she had time to make these false claims to the public and have staff draft a series of amendments.

In fact, the “Tiny Home” amendment was introduced in exactly the same way that she passed a couple of her own amendments last week.

FACT: Not a single amendment that Councilwoman Roach offered on the subject passed.

The amendments would have prohibited pets, restricted who could live in them, and mostly bizarrely, impose a curfew if the resident was unemployed. Keep in mind, these are private residences in a private development.

Each was correctly ruled out of order, ironically because she was attempting to do what she falsely accused everyone else of doing — creating new land use code in the budget without public notice. There was no protest from any other councilmember on the Chair’s rulings because the amendments not only violated our rules but were also prohibited by state law or constitution.

Councilwoman Roach wasn’t even at the study session or final vote to defend her amendments or vote on the budget. She did manage to make time to stop by for a tv interview.

The truth is we have some work to do on the policy side. Planning and Building staff have already begun looking at potential conflicts in building or fire code that can come up when you shrink a structure. Some modern construction methods just don’t scale down to that level very well.

There are also potentially some other issues related to the development and zoning code. Any new code changes will go through the Planning Commission, Community Development Committee, before reaching the final vote.

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Pierce County Councilmember. Serving Gig Harbor, Fox Island, Key Peninsula, Ruston, and parts of North and West Tacoma.

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Derek Young

Pierce County Councilmember. Serving Gig Harbor, Fox Island, Key Peninsula, Ruston, and parts of North and West Tacoma.