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  • Demand for housing in Washington DC is going through the roof.

  • Over a thousand people move into the city every month, driving up the cost of housing

  • and they're turning the nation's capital into a construction zone.

  • Tower cranes piercing the sky above the city streets have become so common

  • they're just part of the background.

  • But as fast as the cranes have gone up,

  • demand for housing is rising even faster.

  • Making DC among the most expensive places to live in the United States.

  • And one innovation whose time has come

  • shows just why the demand for housing is far from being met.

  • I kinda got driven down the tiny house road because of affordability,

  • simplicity, sustainability and then mobility.

  • Tiny houses are very cheap to build, you can build one of these for ten thousand dollars

  • you can build one for thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars,

  • but they definitely come in far beneath the cost of a regular home

  • especially in a city like DC.

  • They're very sustainable, they take very little energy to heat or cool.

  • So having a space that I could hook up to solar

  • that I could, you know, catch rain water and use for a simple shower and sink

  • was very very appealing to me.

  • They are mobile because many of them are built on wheels

  • but the reason they're often built on wheels is because it then escapes

  • a lot of the kind of coding requirements which these homes would violate

  • not because they're unsafe places to live,

  • but because the minimum size of a room you know must be 120 square feet

  • and if these homes are 120 square feet altogether you then have obvious issues.

  • This is not a tiny house, it's the Office of Zoning, the Zoning Comission,

  • the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Office of Planning

  • which, along with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs

  • implements, adjudicates and enforces 34 chapters and 600 pages of regulations

  • governing property use and building requirements int he nation's capital.

  • The director of the city's Office of Planning, Ellen McCarthy,

  • described the problem with allowing tiny houses in the city:

  • and so the zoning authorities have allowed a few experiments in affordable housing

  • like this apartment made entirely from shipping containers.

  • But the city is constrained by a zoning ordinance that was drawn up in 1958

  • that's 56 years of cultural change and building innovations, like tiny houses,

  • that the code wasn't designed to address.

  • and for small builders like Jay Austin, getting a special exemption from the zoning authorities

  • could cost tens of thousands of dollars and years of time

  • with no guarantee of success.

  • The proposed changes to zoning rewrite won't effect what we're doing at all,

  • we are, tiny homes on wheels are still a little bit further out

  • probably many years out, of decades out.

  • It's totally legal to buy one of these and to park it somewhere.

  • And really it only becomes illegal once you step inside and say 'this is my home.'

  • We could leave these houses on the lot I imagine for 20 years

  • and there wouldn't be any issue with it

  • but if we declared these are full time residences then there, you know,

  • would be a little bit more, little bit more trouble perhaps.

  • The laws that keep Jay Austin from living in his own home

  • have their genesis in New York City's zoning resolution of 1916.

  • For the first time in history, committees of urban planners

  • began to reshape an entire American city.

  • They split up skyscrapers to provide more sunlight on the streets below.

  • Industrial factories were separated from residential property.

  • Immigrant communities were kept apart from neighborhoods of the elite.

  • And when the supreme court ruled these laws didn't violate property rights,

  • zoning quickly spread to every major city in America.

  • Every city, that is, except for one.

  • Houston for me is an experiment.

  • It's an experiment in overt capitalism.

  • And therefore very much at home in Texas,

  • there is a kind of libertarian way of thinking here.

  • It's much more alive in a way, much more organic, than a typical zoned city

  • that is more restricted by these old fashioned measures that no longer are viable.

  • If you live in an unzoned city, you have to develop a dialogue or negotiation.

  • And that of course we have seen in our country is not easy to come by.

  • I have architect friends that have to operate in places like Berkeley

  • where the zoning board is sort of a group of aestheticians without training

  • say 'that's no good, this is good, this is Berkeley, this is not.'

  • And this sort of, you know, it's silliness but has enormous economic consequences

  • is operating in those places.

  • While here, you can almost get away with anything.

  • Anything, like a house clad entirely in beer cans.

  • In Houston a few simple laws govern lot sizes and set backs from the street.

  • There's even a new historical preservation ordinance.

  • But for the most part, developments are regulated by private covenants

  • and deed restrictions.

  • And without city codes, committees or planners to regulate land use,

  • all sorts of creative expression are possible.

  • When architects began to build homes out of corrugated metal,

  • a cheap material associated with poverty and trailer parks,

  • no one had the authority to stop them.

  • As it turned out not only were tin houses economical,

  • they also kept homes cool by reflecting sunlight during Houston's sweltering summers.

  • Today tin houses are cherished as a unique Houston innovation.

  • Whether it's a tin house in Houston or a McMansion in McAllen,

  • homes in the sprawling state of Texas

  • will always be cheaper than the densely populated northeast.

  • But compared to the rest of the sun belt where cities are zoned and the land is plentiful,

  • unregulated Houston is still the most affordable large city in America.

  • I totally agree that regulation is about preventing bad things from happening.

  • Houston's success in creating affordable housing for the middle class

  • is one reason why the city is disparaged by the one group whose job it makes obsolete.

  • Urban planners like Harriet Tregoning, formerly of the Washington DC Office of Planning.

  • I hate to make Houston the whipping boy, right?

  • Oh go ahead.

  • You know, that's a place that doesn't have zoning, it doesn't' have regulation

  • and it's not exactly the full flower of urbanism.

  • Two hours down the gulf coast from Houston is Victoria.

  • A city that hasn't had zoning since it was founded 190 years ago.

  • And the most unusual thing about Victoria is that it's not very unusual at all.

  • I don't notice anything greatly different about Victoria

  • and the look that Victoria portrays

  • and the look that they have in San Antonio, Austin or Houston.

  • So, property rights in Texas are sacred, you can do what you want to do with your property

  • and I think most of the people here in Victoria want to protect that right.

  • The city's growth and land use is based more on economics and the will of the owner

  • rather than some quasi-governmental body that you have to ask permission from.

  • East of town was a rendering plant where they took dead animals and processed them.

  • The people that were in favor of zoning would say

  • 'well what if there's a rendering plant next to your house?'

  • Economics dictate that you're not going to put a rendering plant

  • next to a residential subdivision

  • economics dictates that you're gonna build a shopping center on a major thoroughfare.

  • It's worked very well in Victoria for a number of years and I trust we'll continue to do so.

  • Now it's true if you look hard enough in Victoria or Houston

  • you can find the odd high rise poking out of a low density neighborhood

  • and sometimes economics dictates that you'll have to eat your butterscotch dilly bar

  • next to the bail bondsman.

  • But tolerating a little disharmony, a dash of kitsch

  • and the occasional strip club in a strip mall along the Texas gulf coast

  • is a small down payment on the right to be the architect of your own life.

  • Because if you're Jay Austin, you can build the home of your dreams,

  • you just can't live there.

  • For now his tiny house is a part time residence and a full time showpiece

  • to present to the public in the hopes of changing a zoning committe

  • that hasn't updated a zoning code in 56 years.

Demand for housing in Washington DC is going through the roof.

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B1 INT US zoning houston city victoria housing tiny

Jay Austin's Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House

  • 633 15
    Samuel   posted on 2018/05/26
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