Fresno Passes Groundbreaking ‘Tiny House’ Rules

A 'tiny house' parked in front of Fresno City Hall. Fresno recently updated its development code to legalize these kinds of homes on wheels as permanent structures adjoining a residence.

A 'tiny house' parked in front of Fresno City Hall. Fresno recently updated its development code to legalize these kinds of homes on wheels as permanent structures adjoining a residence. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)

It may seem surprising that Fresno, better known for sprawling new developments, is paving the way when it comes to rules for eco-conscious tiny houses.

“We are the first city in the nation to actually write into its development code authorization for ‘tiny homes,’ ” says Mayor Ashley Swearingen. “If there’s one thing that Californians should know about Fresno, it’s that we are full of surprises. And just when you’ve think you’ve pegged us to be one type of community, we’ll surprise you.”

Fresno’s new rules specifically pertain to tiny homes on wheels, which are often treated like RVs in other cities. So that means there are limits on where and how long they can be parked. That’s angered some tiny-house activists, like the folks at “Containertopia” in the Bay Area. I spoke with them recently for a BBC documentary about reducing Californians’ carbon footprint.

Some counties, like Alameda, Contra Costa and Napa, allow cottages on wheels  as caregiver dwellings in the backyard of someone who needs assistance. Here’s a list of California rules from the American Tiny House Association.

“This is an important step forward for the tiny house movement because it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions nationwide,” says Amy Turnbull, one of the directors of the American Tiny House Association. “This ordinance sends a clear message: we need to adapt our codes to accommodate new housing models and we need to do it quickly and decisively.”

Fresno’s zoning code now allows any homeowner to park this kind of tiny home on wheels as a permanent second dwelling, either for use by the homeowner or as a rental unit.

“This is a hot new trend in the United States housing market,” says Swearingen. “It attracts people who are drawn to the prospect of a simpler lifestyle with less stuff, and more financial freedom.”

Some of Swearingen’s motivation comes from wanting to support local jobs and manufacturing. A new Fresno company, California Tiny House, is now building these custom homes for people all over the state. It recently held an unusual open house to celebrate Fresno’s new rules, parking a 270-square-foot cottage on wheels in front of City Hall.

Nick Mosley is the 28-year-old entrepreneur behind California Tiny House. He gave me the five-minute complete tour, featuring the compact fridge, composting toilet and combined washer-dryer.

“It does the whole cycle, washes and dries,” Mosley explained. “All the water that you use through the house goes back to the water table. It’s all gray water.”

I nearly bumped into Fresno resident Cheryl Spencer as I stooped to check out  the tiny upstairs loft with a built-in bed.

“You’re not intimidated that your head could hit the ceiling?” I asked her.  “No, ‘cuz I’m short,” she laughed.

Spencer says the fact that new custom-built tiny homes like these start at $45,000 could really be a game-changer, especially in a city that was hit hard during the foreclosure crisis.

“More and more families are having to combine into one household,” Spencer told me as she admired the built-in cupboards. “This is ideal, a way a lot of people could afford a home that otherwise couldn’t. ”

That’s not to say Fresno is a tiny-house mecca yet. So far, all the tiny houses manufactured here have gone to Santa Cruz, Napa and other California cities.

  • Laura Ice

    I have been fascinated by the idea behind the Tiny House movement ever since I first learned about it years ago. I live in Sebastopol. Rents just keep going up. Buying is WAY out of my reach. The right Tiny House design could be just perfect for me!

    • siliconsleep

      I’m the same! I’m a late-twenties, brand-new educator in the Bay Area. Rents are INSANE here and I want out. It sucks that Fresno is not “a great” city…yet. I think the future is going to be rife with tiny home development and interest as rates increase and populations shift and boom.

  • BFlatlander

    You kids are the right kind of rubes that the “movement” is looking for. You are being trained that less is a virtue. That living in 150 sq feet is some sort of good deed to the world. When it comes to this tiny house nonsense, Land is ALWAYS going to a problem. You’ll have your 150 sq foot cell sitting in someone’s backyard, and then the rent increases will come. And continue to come. Then you will have to move it somewhere else, and the rent will be much higher…. because thats what landlords do. If you think it through, these people are going to be SCREWED. There is no place on this earth that you are going to be able to drag that potting shed and not have it cost you money. And then you’ll be stuck in it for the rest of your life.

    Move to Indiana. Move to Ohio. Save your dignity. Save every red cent you are there until you can afford to live in California.
    But don’t live in a shack.
    Just don’t do it!!! You deserve a better life than that.

    • Paul

      What’s the difference, you’re paying rent for land or for an apartment. Either way the landlords always win.

    • Mike Rotch

      You do realize traditional houses sit on land too, correct? Do you think some magical land fairy gives people the land for their houses? Do you think someone would be unable to afford the smaller plot of land required for one of these tiny houses, yet be able to afford a large traditional house, on a much bigger piece of land?

      Of course it will cost money to put it somewhere – the same as any other dwelling. It will cost significantly less than a traditional house though. Did you even bother to think about this for more than 5 seconds?

      • BFlatlander

        You obviously have no idea what you are talking about.

        • Mike Rotch

          Houses require land.
          Land costs money.
          Small houses require less land than traditional houses.
          Therefore, small houses cost less than traditional houses.

          Do you understand my syllogism? It is very simple.

      • BFlatlander

        You’re unable to follow the discussion, Mike. Try to focus and leave your emotions out of it. When you calm down, try again.

        • Incorrect. Mike understands the issues of getting land for a tiny house in proportion to a land needed for a large house. What emotions do you see, BFlatlander, or did he edit his post to retract his emotions?

        • Mike Rotch

          It’s not me having trouble following along. I’ll try to make it even more simple for you.

          Your said: “Land is ALWAYS going to a problem” and “There is no place on this earth that you are going to be able to drag that potting shed and not have it cost you money.”

          Simplified, your argument was as follows: Small houses require land, land is expensive, therefore small houses are prohibitively expensive.

          Your solution was: “don’t live in a shack.”, implying it is better to live in a traditional home.

          My response was as follows: Small houses do require land. Traditional (big) houses require more land. Therefore, if money is the bottleneck, small houses are undeniably the better option.

          Was that still too complicated for you? I’ll simplify it even more.

          BFlatlander: “Because small houses require land, and land costs a lot, people can’t afford them, so they should get big houses.”

          Mike: “Big houses need more land than small houses, and that makes them cost more. See, wasn’t that simple, idiot :)”

          • BFlatlander

            Nonsense. It’s rather humiliating for you that you’ve completely misunderstood this entire conversation.

          • Mike Rotch

            Houses need land.
            Land costs money.
            Small houses need less land than big old houses.
            Now we know, small houses cost less than big old houses.

            I tried to keep the words as small as I could for you. Let me know what you still don’t understand.

    • I think you miss the point of the tiny house movement – use less resources, cut down on the amount of stuff you DON’T need, and spend less time working on and cleaning your house, and have more money going to other things rather than a house costing $270,000 on the market ending up being over $1M when the mortgage is paid off, and that doesn’t include repairs, modifications, etc. over the life of the house. I have heard about Indiana and Ohio (and been there with family living in Ohio). Not for me because of the climate and the religious atmosphere there. Another thing – when I have land of my own, I can call the driver with a mule and get it moved to the land of my choice. You can’t do that with a fixed-foundation house.

  • eddieevans

    This
    is a snapback to the Mc Mansion craze and a more ecologically sustainable way of
    living. Plus, it offers mobility. As for the “land question,” it’s been a
    problem for the European migrants for a long time. When cities begin building
    infrastructure for these tiny houses, we’ll see a return to car free existence
    rather than everyone living in a big parking lot, like Los Angeles
    County. Besides, those big paying union jobs no longer exist, for whatever reason. Those big pay checks are gone for many of us. The next generation needs a new way of living, like living without the 40 work week in a sustainable manner. This is one approach.

  • Call me back when I don’t need the “Primary Dwelling” that I can’t possibly afford to qualify for this magnanimity.

    • This is what I want to know about – is this only for primary homeowners to buy tiny houses as a second dwelling to be used for families and renters? This change defeats the purpose of a tiny house. Now, you can only have one by upsizing – from a single house on a lot to a house AND a second dwelling. This is dumb and potentially gentrifying – this applies only to those who are not house-poor.

  • John Harlan

    I just don’t think you folks really understand the homeless problem, and I know you already know everything so I can’t help you with it!

  • Jackie

    No mention of why tiny houses are banned: Taxes. Government likes to mandate the sizes of lots and square footage of homes because of property taxes and voting patterns, as well as government school sizes and budgets. Government should not be dictating how large someone’s home is.

    • This is all part of the Housing Mob. This is made up in turn of a few Mobs – the Financial Mob, the Legal Mob (working for the Homebuilding Mob), and the Enforcement Mob who make sure that illegal houses are dealt with.

  • Scottilla

    How is this different from a mobile home? Haven’t trailer parks been around for quite a while?

Author

Sasha Khokha

Sasha Khokha is the host of The California Report  weekly magazine program, which takes listeners on sound-rich radio excursions around the Golden State.

As The California Report's Central Valley Bureau Chief for nearly a dozen years, Sasha brought the lives and concerns of rural Californians to listeners around the state. Sasha's reporting helped exposed the hidden price immigrant women janitors and farmworkers may pay to keep their jobs: sexual assault at work -- and helped change California law with regard to sexual harassment of farmworkers.  She's won a national PRNDI award for investigative reporting, as well as multiple prizes from the Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

She began her radio career in waterproof overalls, filing stories about the salmon fishery at Raven Radio in Sitka, AK. She has produced and reported for several documentary films. Calcutta Calling, about children adopted from India to Swedish-Lutheran Minnesota, was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Sasha is  a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Brown University, and is the mother of two young children.

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