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The Real Story Behind Tiny Homes

Columnist: Bob Andrews
April, 2017 Issue

Bob Andrews
All articles by columnist

For me, the very mention of tiny homes triggers alarm bells.


I often wonder how much of “the real story” we get about various government projects. More than a year ago Sonoma County officials floated the idea of putting a cluster of “tiny homes” on county land in Santa Rosa for use by homeless veterans. For me, the very mention of tiny homes triggers alarm bells. Let me explain how this connects to “the real story.”

Check out any Tiny House episode on HGTV. My wife and I watched several and listened to potential buyers wax enthusiastic about traveling the country with their homes, which often look like 200-square-foot cottages on wheels. But then we had a wait-just-a-cotton-pickin-minute moment.

Why do these Tiny House programs never discuss the sticky issues? How do you legally move them on roads or highways? Are they too heavy to be towed by a regular truck? And, if so, how many thousands of dollars does it cost to move them? Must they be registered with the DMV?  Do they need license plates and annual registration stickers? Is it true that tiny homes don’t comply with construction rules pertaining to recreational vehicles?

Bigger sticky issues: Where can you legally place a tiny home?   Isn’t it true that some building codes consider tiny homes too small to be classified as habitable dwellings? How do you get legal access to water, electricity and sewage connections? And at what cost? What permits are necessary? When we see images of tiny homes parked in lovely, bucolic, sylvan settings, we want to know where the water and electricity come from, and, most especially, where the sewage goes. Some tiny homes have composting toilets, but that doesn’t tell us where the grey water (or sullage) goes. Why do we never see propane tanks or, for that matter, electrical connections on these TV shows about tiny homes?

Would the Sonoma County Fairgrounds RV Park allow a tiny home to pull into a space and hook up to utilities? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “yes,” though it hasn’t happened yet. The 14-day occupancy limit may be a significant discouraging factor.

So how does all this connect to Sonoma County’s proposal? The answer is there is almost no connection between what the county is funding and the tiny homes seen on TV. So it may have been misleading to use the term “tiny homes.” The only two similarities: First, the county’s homes are small240 square feet plus a tiny storage unit; and second, they can be transported, though not on wheels. Here’s the rest of the story.

The county intends to put 12 living units on space currently designated as a parking lot in the county center. The county has approved funding to construct the 12 single-occupancy units (at a construction-only cost of $36,417 per unit) and to carry out due diligence studies, environmental mitigation studies and site preparation. This last item is expensive because it includes water, sewage and electricity. Since county power lines can’t be used (a long story) there will be photovoltaic panels on each unit, plus batteries and a backup generator. Twenty more units will be constructed on a separate piece of property on Western Avenue in Southwest Santa Rosa, and the twelve original units will be moved there.

The units are solely for veterans who meet the definition of homelessness, according to the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (1987, President Reagan) as modified by the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act (2009, President Obama), and who qualify for other veterans’ benefits such as mental health and physical support. There will be one manager who qualifies for benefits and lives on-site. A rental rate will apply to these units. One-third paid by each veteran, and two-thirds paid by Community Housing Sonoma County.

To qualify for government funding, the units can’t be on wheels. They must be considered “permanent” and comply with county codes, and have a useful life expectancy of 55 years. These are modular units, brought by trucks and placed on special non-concrete foundations.

Therefore, this is clearly not a county-sponsored RV park with slots for tiny home trailers. Instead, it’s a pilot project to help vulnerable homeless veterans who will live in small, one-person modular units. It’s also an expensive project to help twelve veterans at first, and then twenty more, later. The initial funding is more than $1.8 million paid from the County Fund for Housing. Significant additional funding is needed to complete the total project for 32 veterans.

Is this an efficient use of money? Time will tell.

A native of Santa Rosa, Bob Andrews is a former pension trust officer at Exchange Bank and was a long-time co-owner of a retirement plan administration firm. He's married, with two children and three grandchildren.  He loves everything to do with wine. Contact him at"



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