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Thinking small, and even tiny, about home

Oregon is smack in the middle of a housing crisis. The numbers tell the story: Oregon has a 3.5 percent vacancy rate, compared with 7 percent nationally, according to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office. The renters association in Jackson County puts the rental vacancy rates at somewhere around 2 percent.

And it has been even worse in Ashland, where the vacancy rate has been as low as 1.8 percent.

Oregon would have to build 25,000 housing units every year to keep pace with the numbers of people who need a place to live but, according to the Oregon Home Builders Association, only 15,000 are being built.

With high demand and few units affordable, housing is not easy to come by. Enter “tiny homes.”

The idea is that a builder could fit three tiny houses on the space where one big house would go. That extra housing can address availability, price and energy efficiency all at once.

“It’s a recognition of wanting a smaller carbon footprint and it’s less expensive to build,” says Brandon Goldman of the city of Ashland Planning Department.

A self-admitted fan of tiny houses, Goldman says building one, typically defined as less than 400 square feet, “is readily achievable.”

The city of Ashland has rules in place for cottage development, which gives incentives to those who can and want to build homes of less than 500 square feet. Those rules require the houses to be built on permanent foundations, be hooked into city services and that the zoning and lot size are appropriate if more than one house is to placed there.

There are advantages for builders, with less permit expense, reduced parking demands and, since the houses qualify as two-thirds of a home, room for three homes on a site zoned for two full-size homes.

“There is no minimum house size; if you can meet the requirements, it’s fine,” Goldman says.

Sharon Harris lives on Fifth Street in Ashland and is well aware of the tiny house movement. — she’s been building them since the '80s. When she bought her home near downtown Ashland she planned to fix it up and restore it to its early 1900’s roots, but it was destroyed by a fire in October of 2013.

“It was kind of a tragedy when it happened," she said. "I had hoped to restore it. But now I have this.”

Harris has her main home and just in front of it is a 12-by-16-foot home — 192 square foot — with a metal roof. While it is hardly tiny compared with some homes that can be as small as 8-by-10 feet, it's still a tenth the size of many typical homes. Harris' small house has a sleeping loft and a small living space with a full bathroom.

“In America we think we need an excessive use of space compared to other parts of the world,” Harris notes.

Tiny houses use space efficiently both in building them and living in them, according to Harris. Evidence of that is right in front of her tiny house, in a design studio on wheels her house guest is building.

You cannot reside in a house on wheels, however tiny, unless it is in an RV park. Anything on wheels is not considered year-round housing according to Goldman. It has to be connected to services and be on a foundation to be a legal dwelling.

“You can’t live in something that isn’t attached," Harris says, "but you can have a small studio or RV.”

Gateway Realtor John Wieczorek agrees with the distinction. He, too, admits to being a fan of tiny houses as long as they are attached to foundations, habitable and durable enough to stand up over time.

“Do it right or don’t do it all," he says. "People should be able to live in tiny homes and they should have their dignity.”

He believes tiny house villages would create solutions to affordable housing and a lack of housing in Oregon. He expects it to become the next wave in housing: “I see it as a valid business model.”

The city of Medford has recently entered into discussions with a homelessness and affordable housing group and is considering a proposal to set up a tiny house village on city-owned property a few blocks north of downtown.

Wieczorek says he and a few others are looking into creating something like that in Ashland but nothing has been formalized. He points out that Ashland has an affordable housing trust which would allow the development of a tiny house community. The hitch is that the trust must be financially sustainable over time.

He says the city of Ashland has had this trust for years but nothing has come of it.

“There hasn’t been a willingness to solve the financial piece,” Wieczorek says.

If tiny homes are considered a house under 500 square feet, Goldman says, there are hundreds in Ashland, but most are attached as accessory units. He says there’s a reluctance among builders to wade into more affordable housing developments. Tiny houses cost about $35,000 to build, he said.

But both Harris and Wieczorek both say demand for and construction of tiny homes will increase as people learn how efficient and easy the small homes are both to build and to maintain.

Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at akinsj@sou.edu and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.