Tiny homes offer small solutions to a large housing problem

Photos by Mae Stier

Zoning changes would allow more affordable workforce housing

By Mae Stier 

Sun contributor

As the housing market in northern Michigan continues to grow more competitive, some young entrepreneurs are finding creative solutions to their housing problems.

Emily Grof is the architectural associate at the firm Design Smiths in Traverse City. She is one such creative problem solver who, with the help of Facebook Marketplace and Traverse City-based tiny-home builder Levi Meeuwenberg, has come up with a small solution for herself to the looming question of where to live.

Grof began looking for a new housing solution in January 2021, four months before the lease on the home she was renting downtown Traverse City would expire. She had the option of renewing her lease, but the two-bedroom spacious home was more expensive than Grof could continue to pay at $1,250 per month, especially while trying to save to eventually purchase her own home.

She had always admired the concept of living in a tiny house, so when the opportunity to rent one came across her Facebook page, she reached out to Meeuwenberg, who is approaching the affordable housing crisis in Leelanau, Grand Traverse, and Benzie counties by building tiny houses and renting them to individuals. He also offers rent-to-own and shared equity financing options. Currently, the renters need to find a location to park and live in the tiny houses. The tenants are also responsible for addressing the legalities of hosting a tiny house on a property.

A home is typically considered a “tiny house” when it is smaller than 400 or 500 square feet. They are often built on a trailer to qualify as a “temporary dwelling unit,” allowing for their usage in certain municipalities. Michigan does not have any statewide legislation to allow tiny homes, which leaves zoning up to individual communities.

According to Meeuwenberg, when a “tiny home is built on a trailer with wheels … most zoning regulations treat them like an RV camper trailer or temporary dwelling. If it’s simply a tiny building that’s not on wheels, then they’re usually classed as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or out-building.”

Each of our local communities has varying regulations that allow for different types of housing situations, many of which limit the usage of ADUs and temporary dwellings to the extent that tiny homes are essentially not a legal solution in most northern Michigan communities. 

Housing North works to create partnerships between public and private entities to create housing solutions. The organization does a lot of work with our local communities to rework policy to address the housing shortage. Part of their approach has been to encourage communities to consider smaller-square footage properties and mixed-density options for housing. 

Executive director, Yarrow Brown, says that while tiny homes don’t work for everybody, Housing North is working with communities to include smaller square-footprint homes in their plans to become housing ready. She says that there are some local examples of community organizations looking at tiny homes to meet seasonal workforce need, and many of our communities are currently looking to change their zoning to allow for a broader range of housing types.

Charlevoix County, in particular, is leading this with an ADU program to provide workforce housing that helps to offset the short-term rental impact. Traverse City also recently changed its zoning to allow for more ADUs in the city, something that Housing North recommends to help address the housing crisis in the region. By limiting ADU height and size restrictions and allowing their use as long-term rentals, communities can begin to create solutions on existing residential lots.

Housing North also recommends creating incentives for workforce housing by offering public land, reduced hookup fees, and reduced minimum dwelling sizes in districts that target workforce housing, among other solutions.

As Meeuwenberg considers possible solutions to the housing problems, he says, “I would like to encourage people who already own property in this region to be more open to mixed-use and mixed-density housing developments. The exclusive focus on large, single-family homes doesn’t serve everyone’s needs and is contributing to the overconsumption of limited natural resources.”

Meeuwenberg also recommends that communities regulate tiny homes differently than other temporary dwellings, allowing their usage year-round. One example of a community that has done this is Briley Township, located east of Gaylord.

Briley Township amended its zoning ordinance a few years ago to allow for “economy efficient dwellings,” which it definse as “a dwelling that is more than 240 sq ft and less than 500 sq ft,” with specific height and length restrictions. This type of zoning allows for smaller homes, offering a cheaper price-point for building and the possibility of building multiple units on one lot if the zoning allows. Briley Zoning Administrator Dave Guest sees these types of dwellings as “a good thing” but has yet to have anyone apply for a permit for an Economy Efficient Dwelling in their community. 

Emily Grof moved into her tiny home in May. She has a one-year lease from Meeuwenberg and has parked her home on a property she acquired from her family, where she eventually hopes to build a cabin. Thanks to her more affordable housing costs, she can now set aside some money to put towards a down payment on her house.

Grof’s tiny house is hooked up to electricity which, along with water, are the only utilities run on her property. She utilizes a composting toilet to manage sewage waste. She heats the house with a wood stove and an electric space heater on frigid winter nights. She has an electric water heater for her shower, and her oven runs on a small propane tank.

Part of what Grof has enjoyed about moving into a non-traditional home are the lessons she has learned. She likens her experience as being more closely a “co-housing” solution, sharing tools and labor with her parents and her brother, who live on the property next door. Her experience has encouraged her to think outside of the traditional “American Dream,” which no longer seems accessible or sustainable to many. Her experience has redefined success to no longer mean owning everything you may ever need but instead sharing resources with neighbors and family to lessen an individual’s footprint.

While getting creative and pushing her boundaries has helped Grof find a housing solution within her budget, she acknowledges that it is unfair to put the responsibility of finding housing on those who are most at-risk of accessing it.

“I fully believe this is a policy issue,” she says. “My answer (to affordable housing) was the creative solution, but the bigger (conversation) that needs to happen is how we can help the residents who are the heart of Traverse City, who are here year-round, that can’t live here anymore …”

This is where Housing North comes in, advocating for individuals whose income does not allow them to compete with the current housing market, a demographic that is, unfortunately, growing as the housing market skyrockets. The organization offers a wide array of resources for municipalities and individuals to better address the housing shortages in their communities. You can access resources, such as their “Housing Ready Checklist” and recommended “Zoning Changes for Affordable Housing” on their website at HousingNorth.org. You can also learn more about and register for their Housing Summit, a virtual conference that will take place virtually October 19-21, which focuses on solutions and highlighting current projects.

Housing North is also a part of the Housing Michigan Coalition, which is working on the state level to pass bills that will open up incentives like employer-housing tax credits. You can learn more about the supported legislation and how to reach out to your elected officials on their website, HousingMichigan.Weebly.com.

Meeuwenberg plans to continue building tiny homes to offer as affordable rentals. He utilized the income qualifications for HUD rental assistance in Traverse City to determine the monthly rent, which he has set at $575/month. At this rate, individuals who are qualified as “low income” in our region ($47,600/year) or “very low income” ($29,750/year) can afford the rent on his tiny homes by paying no more than 30% of their income on housing (which is the amount deemed “affordable”). 

In the future, he hopes to offer land for his tenants to live on and is “exploring cooperatively purchasing property with a group of like-minded individuals … Ideally, the property would be close enough to Traverse City that it’s a reasonable commute to work, however property in that proximity … is suffering the inflated price valuations of this debt-leveraged housing market.” This plan, of course, would depend on tiny homes being allowed as permanent dwellings in the municipalities as well. 

To learn more about Meeuwenberg’s housing project, visit RealizeHomestead.com/tiny-homes.