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Little homes may bring big changes

Call them tiny houses, elder cottages or mother-in-law apartments, these little buildings officially known as accessory dwelling units are becoming big news—and causing municipalities around the country to figure out if, and where, they belong.

It’s a simple idea that’s been around awhile—having a small second dwelling, complete with kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area, on the same property as your single-family home. But the interest has been growing in recent years and can be traced to a variety of sources. Among them:

  • Aging parents and boomerang children. Homeowners interested in having their parents close to them but not under the same roof are building small apartments in the backyard. It also works for adult children who have moved back to their childhood home to save money or because they can’t yet afford to live on their own.
  • Rental income. Some long-time residents have seen home values in their neighborhood increase beyond their means, especially in hot tourism markets near the coast or near lake and mountain resorts. Adding an accessory dwelling unit in the backyard provides rental income to defray the increased cost of living.
  • Older homeowners. As children move out, some seniors are left with a large home with amenities they no longer need or want. They may not want to leave the neighborhood – or a resort location – but they want a one-story home with less upkeep. A small house on the property can become their new home, while they rent their original home to someone who wants a larger residence.
  • Affordable housing. Tiny houses can provide safe, affordable places to live in neighborhoods that are out of reach for low- or middle-income people. This is often the case for service industry workers who can’t afford to live in the resort towns where they work.
  • HGTV. The home and garden network is home to four programs showing off what is possible in small living spaces. These shows—"Tiny House, Big Living," "Tiny House Hunters," "Tiny House Builders" and "Tiny Luxury"—sell the fun and functional lifestyle of living in a home as small as 100 square feet.

It’s a trend that is coming to South Carolina where cities from Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island to Upstate communities are grappling with whether to allow the tiny houses, and how to regulate them in city neighborhoods.

"The question local governments need to ask is, ‘What’s your end goal? Where does this come from? Is it because it’s trendy? Or is it addressing a real need? Is affordability the catalyst?’" said Josh Stevens, Oconee County’s deputy director of community development.

Stevens said the needs and questions may be different in high-growth areas like Charleston and Mount Pleasant compared to smaller cities like Walhalla, but the issue will continue to surface throughout the state.

"All of it goes to the need for your community. Is there a need and is this a tool to address it?" Stevens said. He suggests looking at what has been done in cities such as Asheville, North Carolina and Portland, Oregon—where the city governments have been addressing the ADU issues for awhile—learning from them and adapting those lessons to individual communities.

Stevens said allowing small houses on existing residential lots can make economic sense for cities. While there may be an increase in the need for services such as water and sewer, it’s less expensive to increase capacity than it is to run new lines to new neighborhoods.

But planners also point out the cons, including the possibility of destroying the character of established neighborhoods, increasing traffic, safety and parking concerns, and complaints from neighbors who moved to the area with a promise of tranquility and privacy.

Around the country, some cities have looked at limiting the size of a second building on a lot to 500, 800 or 1,000 square feet, and requiring a setback of 6 to 10 feet from the property line. Others place height restrictions on units, making sure they aren’t more than 25- to 30-feet tall, while requiring the buildings to be put at the back of the property so they can’t be seen from the road. Most communities require one additional parking place per ADU in addition to what has been there for the original home.

On Hilton Head Island, ADUs are seen as another way to rent beach property, allowing homeowners an additional rental income. The buildings also could be useful as rental property for workers in the food and beverage industry, said Terri Lewis, Hilton Head’s land management ordinance official.

Hilton Head officials looking to adapt their ordinances to address ADUs struggled with how to regulate density, along with issues including parking and aesthetics, Lewis said. The town worked with a consultant and considered making changes but decided to hold off.

"Even with the conditions our consultants were recommending, we couldn’t get comfortable with it," she said.

Up the coast in Myrtle Beach, planners received an application for a tiny house development last summer. While the city doesn’t have a minimum square foot requirement on houses, it does have minimum lot sizes. The developer wanted to subdivide the single-family lots to allow for many smaller lots. The city denied the request.

"In essence, we allow tiny houses, but not tiny lots. If he was in a district that allowed multifamily housing, we would have allowed it," said Kelly Mezzapelle, planner with the City of Myrtle Beach. "It was not zoning regulations that prohibited it, it was subdivision regulations."

She said the developer could have put a tiny house development in the city’s five zoning districts that allow multifamily developments.

"Our concerns were tourism-related." Mezzapelle said. "The proposed project was within a couple of blocks from the beach, and we envisioned investors buying them to rent by the night or the week to tourists intrigued by the ‘cute little houses.’"

That would quickly lead to parking issues, she said. It’s still too early to know if the mini structures are merely a fad or here for good.

"I think it’s a media trend," said Mezzapelle.