Young, environmentally conscious Phoenix-area residents are facing obstacles in attempting to downsize into incredibly small homes.
Chris and Ashley Clemmons are among the Arizona pioneers in the tiny-home movement, but after spending the past year building their 167-square-foot custom dwelling in a warehouse on her parents' property in Scottsdale, they can't find a parcel on which to plop it down legally in the state.
“We wanted to buy land, but there were a lot of regulations,” says Ashley Clemmons, 28, an architectural intern. “So we decided to take it to Colorado.”
Downsizing to portable houses with less tha
n 400 square feet of living space — and in some cases, as little as 80 square feet — is a somewhat of a national trend. The minuscule houses are particularly popular in cities such as Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco among young people seeking to live minimalist, green lifestyles cheaply.
But across greater Phoenix, zoning rules and regulations have made it nearly impossible to find permanent places to plant itsy-bitsy houses.
“You cannot put a tiny house anywhere,” says Elaine Walker, founder of the American Tiny House Association, which helps educate interested buyers and builders of such abodes. “There are still so few places you can put them.”
Zoning regulations in Arizona and other states typically specify minimum square footage for new construction on a foundation. Even parking a little home on wheels can be prohibited because of local regulations against camping. In master-planned communities, which cover a lot of Arizona, homeowners associations typically don't allow them in backyards. And even most RV parks don’t permit tiny homes because they don't meet recreational-vehicle standards.
“It’s very hard to find a place to live in one,” says Walker, who downsized from a four-bedroom house to a 120-square-foot tiny home when her children went to college. “It’s really the biggest issue right now because of zoning problems.”
After six months of traveling the country in a van, Taylor Vos and his wife, Annie, began designing a 400-square-foot home that was slated to be Scottsdale’s first tiny home.
“We thought we could live in a tiny house because it would be four times as much space as the van,” says Vos, 29, an urban planner. “I just wanted something I could build myself that was environmentally friendly.”
After unsuccessfully scouring the Valley for months in search of land to place his tiny home, Vos abandoned his plans and instead purchased a 750-square-foot house in downtown Phoenix.
“That dream of ours was killed,” Vos says. “We don’t know of anyone who has placed a [tiny] house in Phoenix and is living in it on a lot as the only property."
During their search for land, the couple connected with local owners of tiny homes, including one who had moved to Arizona from Louisiana, and was also having trouble finding a place to set down the house. Vos now rents his backyard, in an area of Phoenix that does not have an HOA, to the woman for her 160-square-foot home.
For the Clemmonses, a tiny house meant lowering living expenses and owning a home outright without a mortgage.
“We did it definitely to save money,” says licensed architect Chris Clemmons, 30. “The idea of building our own home and not having any debt associated with it was very appealing for us.”
The couple spent most of their savings and an entire year on building the dwelling — which is smaller than some walk-in closets and features a small dishwasher, no stove, and an upstairs loft with a bed.
When they could not find land in Arizona for the house, the couple settled on rural property in Colorado and plan to move by the end of the month.
“Honestly, it’s been very hard on us,” Ashley says. “We are kind of at a point where we know the end is coming . . . and we are happy.”
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Despite the challenges, the couple hope to one day use their expertise to create a business designing tiny homes and furthering the movement.
“It’s almost like a novelty now, but there is definitely a market,” she says. “There’s still a big future for tiny houses.”
Vos also is optimistic about the future of the tiny-home movement and believes the Phoenix area may eventually loosen its regulations.
“If tiny houses are going to be a reality, there are ordinances that need to be changed to accommodate them,” he says.