There’s a reason tiny homes aren’t popping up much in Routt County
Despite regulatory roadblocks, developers push for tiny housing developments to help address crisis
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Michael Buccino’s tiny home development in Milner is fairly unique in Routt County. Six tiny homes, each under 400 square feet, are arranged on a subdivided property with an open area in its middle. For a relatively simple concept, he said he had to jump through many hoops.
He made an attempt to “legitimize” — as he called it — the tiny house concept, making it so that the home’s owner also owned the land it sat on. Buccino, a local developer, interior designer and member of Steamboat Springs City Council, encountered regulatory red tape to the point where he nearly walked away from the project. He used the acronym NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” to describe the problem.
“I had 38 people oppose my project. They signed a petition and argued with the (Routt County) commissioners,” he said. “They loved tiny homes, as long as they weren’t in their backyard.”
Those residents were concerned with water use as each property in Milner maintains its own well and has no central system. Buccino said the residents were basically afraid his six new units would take all the water. Ultimately, Buccino had to dig his wells far deeper than normal and at a steep cost.
Just last week, however, he received county approval for the final piece of the subdivision and is moving forward with construction next week. Three of the six homes have been presold.
Colorado recently ranked sixth in the list of top states for tiny homes, according to social data. Tiny homes have become a trend that transcends a specific demographic. The homes are beloved by the young, old, wealthy and less affluent.
“You can’t pigeonhole a demographic,” Buccino said. “It crosses a lot of different needs.”
People like tiny homes because of their simplicity and mobility, according to local developer Paul Brinkman.
“You don’t have somebody living on the top or bottom or sides of you; you have a parking spot right in front of your house; you have a deck that opens to the outside,” Brinkman said. “While they are comparable in size to an apartment, they are homes.”
Building a tiny home and parking it anywhere you want in Colorado’s wide-open backyard seems like a dream, but it’s one that doesn’t always come true. Buccino’s project, much like other tiny home developments, are outside Steamboat’s city limits for several reasons.
Appendix Q of the Steamboat Springs Revised Municipal Code sets forth regulations for tiny homes within the city. It defines a tiny home as 400 square feet or less on the first floor, not including any loft area.
“The tiny house on a foundation really hasn’t taken off because everyone’s building them on trailers so they can be mobile,” Buccino said. “All they really are are campers.”
In Routt County, however, you can’t live in a trailer or camper for longer than 180 days.
“We basically treat (a tiny home) as any other home. If it meets the International Residential Code and it’s on a foundation, it can be located anywhere that it meets setbacks and height,” according to Michael Fitz, a technician with the Steamboat Springs Planning Department.
Unlike in the 1990s, Steamboat no longer has a minimum dwelling unit size. So, in theory, somebody could create a 300-square-foot home, Fitz said. But not many tiny homes have been coming through the planning department, he added.
The economics wouldn’t necessarily make sense, according to Darrin Fryer, an associate/broker at Steamboat Sotheby’s International Realty and co-owner of SmartPads, a locally-based modular home building company.
“It’s not just the city, it’s just that the economics don’t make a lot of sense when land is so expensive,” Fryer said. “You really need to go vertical to get the value of your land.”
Brinkman, whose company built Skiview Place Apartments in Steamboat, was able to build 42 units on 1.1 acres. That’s considered high density.
“To do something of a tiny home concept where you have a single-story and everybody has their own parking, you’re going to have a lot less,” he said.
Developers would rather get more out of the high cost they’ll pay for land, meaning their design would largely be vertical and not individual tiny houses.
Still, Brinkman believes it’s best to diversify the types of housing available.
“The more options you have and the more upward ability for people to own if they so choose, the better,” he said.
Brinkman also owns the 12-unit Hayden Village Townhomes, a development of mini-duplexes. They rent for between $1,100 to $1,400 for about 400 square feet of living space.
Despite its size, the homeowner gets a feeling of living in a home, rather than in an apartment or condominium.
“We tend to be headed in the right direction in the entry-level apartments, but how do we diversify the product type and address what people want and address the affordability question?” Brinkman said.
Brinkman purchased the Hayden development from Fryer’s company SmartPads, which originally had the idea of selling the tiny homes opposed to renting them out.
“In my opinion, there was more of a rental demand for that product type than there was for sale,” Brinkman said.
SmartPads manufactured the homes offsite at its facility in Vernal, Utah. That construction process allowed for costs to be kept at a minimum, Brinkman said.
“If you can’t get cost down, it doesn’t really help address the issues of being able to provide more units and more affordable units in Routt County,” he said.
While it may be a feasible process elsewhere in the county, finding affordable land within Steamboat city limits would make it difficult to create a tiny home development.
“There’s got to be more flexibility with zoning and where these can be built,” Brinkman said. “In a community where affordable housing is an issue, you have to have flexibility to allow cost-effective approaches to housing.”
Buccino’s answer was to build his Cheney Creek Tiny Homes in Milner. He essentially created what is called a “bungalow court,” a style of multifamily housing that features several small houses arranged around a central garden or open space. It was the central housing style in southern California from the 1910s to 1930s but has largely become endangered due to regulatory restrictions.
While it’s not prohibited in Steamboat, the specific development does face a different regulatory process as it’s a conditional use. But, according to Fitz, such a development hasn’t come before the city.
The city has approved, and even encouraged, the construction of accessory dwelling units. Any property owner can build a home, under 650 square feet, on their property in addition to their main dwelling. But it has to be on a foundation, and it can’t — or wouldn’t likely — be sold, according to Buccino.
“You can build a tiny home on wheels, lift it and put it on a small foundation — in essence strapping it to the ground,” Buccino said. “Now you have something the building department can come inspect.”
Buccino’s mission is to show proof of concept: that a so-called bungalow court, or tiny home development, can really be built in any community.
“When people see what these look like and the community that I’ve developed, they’re going to be able to go, ‘Oh, that’s OK,’” he said.
He wants to show it can be done so that building codes can be changed to allow for more affordable developments.
When he approached his bank for financing, he was told it had never worked on such a project. That was repeated by local inspectors. But they were eager to work alongside him, he said.
Being a pioneer, as he described it, has cost him.
“Once you create the example then I can go back and say, is it reasonable to say that I should be paying $6,000 for a sink, toilet and kitchen versus this monster 4,000-square-foot home that has the same $6,000 tap fee?” he wondered. “Could you guys change the code so we now have, if it’s under 400 square feet, it’s now $2,000?”
In the next year or two, Buccino said he will broach the subject in an attempt to change the codes, using his experience and common sense.
“To solve our affordable housing, yes, we need to have small pocket developments of tiny houses, bungalow courts,” he said.
With no deed restrictions on the homes, first-time homebuyers are able to utilize assistance programs to obtain a mortgage. A 30-year mortgage for about $200,000 would mean about $600 a month in mortgage payments, and they would own the home and the land.
That’s how Buccino believes it fits in as another solution for the local housing affordability crisis.
“It’s a spoke in the wheel,” he said. “It’s one of the options that gives someone who wants to own something that they can buy for under $200,000.”
He’s so enthusiastic about the tiny home projects that he’s already planning another in Oak Creek, to put four tiny homes on a parcel of land that’s already connected to electric, sewer and, yes, even water. He’s hoping the process there will go more smoothly.
To reach Bryce Martin, call 970-871-4206 or email bmartin@SteamboatPilot.com.
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