Maine towns should be more welcoming of tiny houses


Maine’s housing market has become an affordability nightmare, but one town recently took a bold step that could help to reverse this statewide trend.

As Maine seeks solutions to its demographic crisis, attracting more residents — especially young people — remains vital. But our current housing market is anything but welcoming, and it’s getting worse.

In 2017, a household needed to earn $52,000 to rent a 2-bedroom home in Portland, up from $44,000 in 2016. Overall, 54 percent of households in Maine couldn’t afford to purchase a median home in 2017.

Nationally, Maine is the ninth most unaffordable state for housing. The entire northeast region is losing population as people move south and west in search of more attractive housing opportunities.

Young people throughout the country are looking for affordable housing options that won’t saddle them with a hefty mortgage. And many of them are turning to tiny house living as the solution.

Tiny houses are exactly what they sound like — compact, typically under 400 square feet, minimalistic, and filled with the bare essentials for a single person or a small family.

Tiny house living requires sacrifices, of course. Cramped spaces, little room to entertain guests, and the need to keep material possessions in check are among the drawbacks.

But for those who embrace a minimalistic lifestyle, tiny houses offer financial security and independence.  The average price of a tiny home in 2016 was roughly $23,000. For those handy enough to build their own using second-hand, recycled materials, tiny homes can cost less than $10,000 to construct — about 5 percent of the cost of a typical full-size house.

A major impediment to the tiny house movement is the fact that the vast majority of state and local building codes and zoning ordinances discourage or out-right ban tiny houses by imposing minimum lot size requirements, square footage standards, and other restrictions.

In recent years a few states — especially California, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida — have adopted more tiny-friendly policies, but progress has been slow.

None of Maine’s New England neighbors have expressed much interest in welcoming tiny house dwellers, creating an opportunity for Maine to become the Northeast’s magnet for this movement. This time last year, Maine added construction guidelines for tiny homes to the state’s building codes, but municipal governments still have final say in the matter.

Last week, my home town, Rockland, took a historic step in revising its zoning ordinances to encourage tiny house living, becoming one of the only medium-sized towns in Maine to do so. Towns and cities across Maine should follow Rockland’s example.

The tiny house movement isn’t a panacea for all our housing woes. For large families, people with physical diasbilities, or those who just want more interior space, tiny houses may not be feasible.

But they do appeal to many millennials looking for financial stability and a simplified life — just the kind of people Maine needs. Arbitrary rules should not stand in their way.


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