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Will Micro Homes Multiply in Burlington?


Published December 16, 2015 at 9:45 a.m.
Updated December 29, 2015 at 1:45 p.m.

Ruby Perry and Andy Simon’s tiny house sits in a South End backyard. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Ruby Perry and Andy Simon’s tiny house sits in a South End backyard.

When Ruby Perry and her husband, Andy Simon, were building their 400-square-foot house in Burlington’s South End last year, it became the talk of the Five Sisters neighborhood. That’s not surprising: It’s one of the smallest houses in Burlington, and it took shape as the national fascination with the tiny-house movement was inspiring documentaries, TV shows, do-it-yourself classes and conventions.

The red clapboard dwelling on Locust Street is interesting for another reason, too: It’s not tucked into the woods or sitting on a semirural lot; it’s plunked down in a city backyard. So, are super-small houses viable in an urban setting?

Perry answers that question with a resounding yes. For starters, if living in small quarters starts to feel confining, a city like Burlington offers an estate-size array of activities and amenities. Also, she suggests, tiny houses are ideal for urban infill in tight spots.

Could tiny houses be a solution to Burlington’s housing shortage? And can anyone erect a tiny house in their backyard? Not necessarily — Burlington’s zoning codes make the prospect tenuous, depending on where and what is proposed.

The kitchen has open shelving and a multipurpose island. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • The kitchen has open shelving and a multipurpose island.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. It “should not be daunting to anyone,” Perry says. “We treated it as a community building process and met early, and often, with our neighbors as well as planning and zoning.” The house she and Simon built is located in their daughter and son-in-law’s backyard and owned by the young couple, who are raising a toddler. The arrangement is an exercise in estate planning: The grandparents paid for the $75,000 structure and took charge of the permitting and construction, knowing it would be a way to give their assets to the next generation in advance.

The house was allowed as an “accessory dwelling,” defined under the city’s 376-page zoning ordinance as an efficiency or one-bedroom unit that is “subordinate” to, and does not exceed 30 percent of the total habitable floor area of, a single-family dwelling.

The little red house also had to stay within a 35 percent lot-coverage limit in the neighborhood, which is zoned as residential low density, meaning it’s a district intended primarily for single-family detached dwellings and duplexes. One of the biggest hurdles was about parking. Simon and Perry, who don’t own a car, convinced the Burlington Development Review Board to waive the normal requirement for one off-street parking space. Instead of an asphalt driveway in their cozy yard, they have a garden.

And, yes, it’s allowable to rent out the small house to nonfamily members so long as the primary dwelling is an owner-occupied, single-family dwelling, says David E. White, Burlington director of planning and zoning. Perry, a retired 63-year-old community development worker and activist in the group Save Open Space Burlington, believes that thinking small about housing is a great idea for the city. And she’s convinced the public is ready for new ideas on housing.

“It isn’t just a fad,” she says about small houses. “It’s a whole movement about living differently.”

The living space fits a dining table, desk and seating area. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • The living space fits a dining table, desk and seating area.

It may not be a movement just yet in Vermont. White says he’s not seeing many proposals for what would constitute tiny houses in Burlington. Nor are local real estate agents getting calls from legions of prospective tiny-home buyers. “It hasn’t caught on yet,” says Robbi Handy Holmes, a realtor at Century 21 Jack Associates in South Burlington. “We’re not quite there yet.”

What exactly is a tiny house? It’s generally understood to be a structure less than 350 square feet, sometimes on wheels. Perry and Simon’s abode is a tad bigger and has a foundation. But it embodies many tiny-house principles, starting with the potential to save money.

“Our major motivation was to find a way to live cheaply,” says Perry.

That’s often the driving factor when people build small, says Lina Menard, a small-house designer, consultant and blogger who teaches at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield.

When people aren’t working to pay off a fat mortgage, they have more liberty to choose the lifestyle they want — jobs or volunteer work that satisfy, or pursuit of personal ambitions.

“One of the words I most hear associated with tiny houses is ‘freedom,’” notes Menard, who lives in a 100-square-foot house she built herself for $25,000.

Most of the tiny houses she’s aware of in Vermont are in rural settings, but Menard believes the model will eventually hit the city. “I think there’s probably going to be more in urban areas than rural areas,” she says. “People are trying to figure out ways to live in the city affordably.”

The city waived an off-street parking requirement so the tiny house can have a garden instead. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • The city waived an off-street parking requirement so the tiny house can have a garden instead.

In Burlington, tiny houses would be allowed under zoning in much of the city as accessory dwellings, but they have to meet height, lot-coverage and parking requirements, says White. Burlington does have one plus for fans of tiny houses, though: There’s no minimum square-footage requirement for new homes. “Construct it in your backyard, and there you go,” White says. “Whether it’s a tiny house or a traditional carriage house, that certainly would be an option for somebody as an accessory dwelling unit.”

Still, due to high land costs, he predicts that micro apartments in the 350- to 500-square-foot range will come to Burlington first. Apartment units can be stacked upward, maximizing density and financial return on land.

Perry’s own journey to living small happened gradually. She and her husband owned a country house in Westford for many years and decided to downsize about six years ago. They bought a school bus and explored the country, living in the vehicle on and off, as well as in apartments in the Burlington area.

The tiny-house idea came after Perry’s daughter and her husband bought a single-family home across from Calahan Park. The young couple were expecting a child, and all agreed it would be nice for the grandparents to live close by.

Simon and Perry raided their retirement funds to build the little house 20 feet from the main house’s back door. The arrangement allows the older couple to enjoy city life, live up to their environmental standards and help care for granddaughter Lyle Ruth, now 18 months old.

A garden and park are visible from the open bedroom’s window. - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • A garden and park are visible from the open bedroom’s window.

The bright, airy, U-shaped interior of their house is reminiscent of a nice studio apartment. The kitchen has open shelving, a reclaimed enamel sink, and a superefficient refrigerator and freezer. There’s enough room for a wood-topped table with two chairs, a secretary against one wall and a woodstove that provides most of the heat for the heavily insulated home, which has 12-inch-thick walls. Two slipper chairs, a rocker and a lime-green ottoman form a sitting area in a corner next to an open bedroom.

With a big garden right outside and the park visible beyond the backyard’s picket fence, the house does not feel cramped.

“It doesn’t take a lot of maintenance, and it reflects our taste,” said Perry.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tiny in the City"