Jay Shafer is often referred to as the granddaddy of tiny homes. He’s largely credited with sparking this modern-day movement.

It all started back in the ’90s when he moved into a 14-foot Airstream. He began to understand what he needed for simple living and that, for one, included better insulation. So he set out to build himself a tiny home, a portable abode built for full-time use — something that actually looked and felt like a home.

Enter: The blueprint for the tiny homes you know and love today.

Jay went on to establish the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which designs and builds tiny homes. Now, Jay is passionate about helping solve the housing crisis in America with tiny living.

Jay joined the Tiny House Lifestyle podcast and walked through the past, present and future of housing regulations and codes and how they affect tiny houses.

The Past: The Rise of the Tiny Home and Hazy Legalities

Back in the ’90s, Jay recognized a trend he wasn’t willing (and frankly couldn’t afford) to get behind: The McMansion.

“The average American could no longer afford the average American house at that point,” he says. “It's just that houses were being built for profit and not for people — and I for one couldn't afford one of those larger houses.”

That’s why he built his first tiny home. It was 8-by-12 feet, and he lived in it for about six years in an Iowa City backyard.

The only hitch? Legal building codes and zoning laws didn’t exactly allow you to build a shelter so small and call it a home.

That’s mostly due to national housing laws, which were first implemented in the 1920s by a private corporation. These laws tended to favor the housing industry and the government — not the dweller. This, Jay says, is when a lot of the madness began and when a lot of laws started to make housing a profitable industry.

These laws didn’t favor tiny dwellings.

When building a tiny home, you’ll come to realize pretty quickly that, if you follow all the nonsensical housing codes line by line, you’ll end up with a house that just doesn’t make sense.

“You're going to wind up with a house that's got a very small interior because the walls are so thick and overbuilt,” Jay says. That’s thanks to insulation requirements.

In reality, when it comes to insulation, the first inch is the most important. The R-value of insulation diminishes after about three inches. In a tiny home, you don’t want to take up precious space with, say, 10 inches of required insulation.

To skirt these irrelevant codes, Jay put his first tiny home on a flatbed trailer. He called it camping — problem solved.

At that time, when this idea was still so new, the housing and zoning department didn’t really know what to make of it, so they played by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with Jay.

The Present: Navigating the “Wild West” of Housing Laws

These days, Jay calls the housing laws the “Wild West.”

Generally, he’s found that building officials are pretty hands-off if something is on wheels. Technically, that classifies the house as an RV, so they’ll more than likely defer to the zoning department.

But new issues arise there. The zoning department may not allow a second house on the property or require more square footage.

That, Jay says, is where the racist and classist origins of building codes reveal themselves. These codes set unfair and unnecessary building requirements, and Jay believes they’re downright unconstitutional.

“For a law to be constitutional, it has to address matters of health, safety and welfare, and if it’s not doing that, it’s not actually a valid law,” he says. “All the laws pertaining to minimum size standards are contrary to constitutional law, because the smaller you build a structure, the safer it is.”

Think about it. A small home will weather earthquakes and high winds better than a McMansion because, well, they’re smaller and sturdier. Jay has also seen a lot of tiny homes flee the California fires, thanks to their portability.

Plus, building a smaller house requires less materials and less expensive materials because you don’t need, say, huge 2-by-12 engineered floor joists to hold up a loft.

Thankfully, laws are beginning to evolve in ways that could help tiny homeowners. For instance Appendix Q of the International Residential Code (IRC) allows you to build homes on small foundations. And room dimension requirements have shrunk from 120 square feet to 70 square feet. (Though Jay believes this is still too restrictive.)

Last year in Minneapolis, officials rewrote zoning rules, which had restricted residents in certain areas from building anything other than a single-family home. In California, they’re allowing tiny houses as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), like a backyard cottage, in an effort to solve the housing shortage. (Accessory Dwellings has a list of cities that allow these.)

Additionally, pocket neighborhoods, which Jay is a big fan of, are gaining more and more attention. These are small planned communities consisting of small bungalows or cottages.

The Future: Will Tiny Houses Ever Be Fully Legal in Every State?

Jay is optimistic about the future of tiny houses and the laws surrounding them. He has hope tiny homes will one day be deemed legal dwellings across all 50 states.

“It goes back to the constitutional laws, and they do state that if [a law] is not for the health, safety or welfare of the general public, it's not really going to hold water,” he says. “It's been holding water for a long time, but I think it's because they haven't really been scrutinized much.”

Now, don’t get it wrong. Not all zoning officials are evil, and not all regulations are bad. Jay says some regulation will be necessary, especially when you’re constructing homes to rent out to people.

But, at the end of the day, if we want to build smarter housing and solve the housing shortage in the U.S., codes and zoning regulations will need to change.

“Codes are prohibiting a lot of people from having any homes at all, so I would like to see that kind of perspective on it and just allow people to create for themselves a safe place to live,” Jay says.

Jay is still living in a tiny home all these years later. His latest dwelling is just 50 square feet. You can explore more of his perspective in his essay, “DIY Housing Crisis: A Beginner’s Guide.”

Listen to Jay's interview:


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