TN Tiny House Zoning Limits Choice Under the Guise of Helping

For those hoping that new zoning regulations would “free” the tiny home movement, the details look more like an effort to suppress nomadic living than a change of heart.

Apparently officials in Carter County, Tenn., felt they should respond to local demand for zoning with a resolution that would specifically allow tiny homes. In doing so, however, they’ve actually put future tiny homes in a regulatory headlock.

Tiny House Zoning Aims to Limit Choice Under the Guise of Helping

According to local reporters, the rules that commissioners arrived at narrow the possibilities of tiny living in many ways. In no subtle fashion, they aim to eliminate the movability and affordability of these homes—the very features that make them attractive.

Here are some of the little zoning grenades they tossed into the resolution:

  • One Size Fits All. The resolution allows only single-family dwelling that is not less than 200 square feet nor more than 400 square feet. Given the other regulations below, the maximum square footage becomes an arbitrary figure. The reason tiny homes generally fall under 400 sq. ft. has to do with portability. It’s hard to move anything larger down the highway.
  • Site Built Only. The structure must be either site built or prefabricated and permanently anchored to a foundation. One caveat, however, is the house can’t be a “manufactured” home. So who decides the difference between “prefabricated” and manufactured? The resolution says you can’t call an RV a tiny house. That makes sense, but the anti-manufactured clause sounds excessive, a catch-all term used by people who associate all manufactured housing with low-end mobile homes.
  • Don’t Even Think About Moving It. The resolution says that not only can’t you put wheels on a Tiny House but you also can’t build it on a frame that might allow it to be moved later. One suggestion I’ve made in my past writing about Tiny Homes is that they could be “hybridized” to be bolted to permanent foundations, with the option that they could later be moved by unbolting them and slapping on some wheels. This clause attempts to suppress any future attempts to move the house.
  • Heavy Construction Only. The tiny structure has to meet the same code as its larger new construction brethren, the International Residential Code and current National Electrical Code standards. This means most structures will be extremely heavy, based on past experience—in the 10,000 lbs or greater range. This of course will make them much harder to move. But that, too, is part of the plan: paint them into a regulatory corner that makes them less alluring.
  • No Rural Getaways. A tiny home in Carter County cannot be placed in an R-1 low density residential district, the resolution states. This is especially onerous, because it stomps out any dreamers who might think they want to try off-grid living or homesteading in a more rural part of town with an affordable tiny house
  • No Alternative Conversions. For those who might fantasize about converting an old shipping container, trailer, shed or “similar object” to a tiny home, fuggedaboutit. That also goes for any type of storage building. The commission doesn’t want to see your non-traditional version of a home. Again, this sounds like thinly disguised NIMBYism. I’ve seen dozens of beautiful and durable container homes, for example. Shed conversions are one of the most affordable ways for people of modest means to create a tiny house.

The reasons given for all of this rulemaking and restrictive zoning, of course, are safety concerns. While it’s legitimate to worry that a building not wired properly or with inadequate window egress could endanger inhabitants, those are issues that could be addressed specifically either in the planning stage or during framing.

I’m not opposed to tiny homes being held to IRC code standards. But as I’ve written about in the Tiny House Tactical Guide, they can be built with steel framed walls, SIPS, and other materials that are just as sturdy but much lighter. 

Why lighter? Because the ability to move these homes is fundamental to their appeal. 

Many people will want to live on a family member’s land in one for a few years while they save money, or put one on a rural property so they can try farming for a living. Tiny homes, given the freedom they deserve, open up alternative ways of living.

They also offer desperately needed affordable housing, and autonomy for people of limited means. These restrictive zoning recommendations, clothed in “we hear you” packaging, are disingenuous. They aim to keep the tiny house movement down, not raise it up. 

Let’s call it what it is: elites concerned about their resale value and neighborhood conformity, pulling up the drawbridge under the cover of “safety.”