How Zoning Laws Squash Alternative Lifestyles

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tiny house, zoning laws

You’ve probably heard of the “tiny house” movement.  For freedom-loving people, the movement is admirable:  People are choosing to forego the tradition of spending a huge fraction of their income to own and maintain a full-sized home, instead opting for a tiny house of about one to four hundred square feet, plenty for the basic essentials of living.  This frees up all the money they would normally be spending on their rent or mortgage, not to mention electricity and heating, to put towards their other passions in life. Imagine what you would do if you were freed from all those bills? That money could go towards anything from pursuing your hobbies, saving for retirement or education, starting a side business, you name it.  It’s a way to improve your life by thinking outside the box a little–a very libertarian thing to do.

“Not so fast”, says Big Brother.  In many parts of America, living in a tiny house is illegal.  Zoning laws vary by municipality, but most set a minimum size for structures that may be lived in, which is far larger than a tiny house.  Also, building codes set arbitrary restrictions for the size of stairwells, doors, and even windows that make a tiny house impossible.

Of course, there is a pretext for why these restrictions are needed.  Proponents of zoning laws claim that tiny houses are unsafe because they don’t have enough fire exits, or that they encourage amateur builders who may make dangerous mistakes.  However, the real reason for banning tiny houses is transparent: They are considered by some to be an eyesore. Some people are disturbed by the sight of any dwelling place that doesn’t conform to their idea of suburban American life, with its white picket fences, cookie-cutter lawns, and pretty, orderly, wasteful houses.  Predictably, they use the state to enforce their idea of how people ought to live, and then rationalize the rulings afterward with baseless claims about safety.

To be fair, alternative types of dwelling places absolutely do come with their own risks and drawbacks.  Yes, it might be a bit more difficult to escape from a tiny house that is on fire, if it has only one door.  Yes, tiny houses are often built by amateurs, who may be more prone to make dangerous building mistakes due to their lack of experience.  The argument against zoning laws is not that these risks do not exist, but rather that free citizens ought to be allowed to choose to take such risks.  Besides, similar risks exist in traditional homes as well.  Sure, a tiny home isn’t ideal for escaping quickly in case of a fire, but neither is a house that is cluttered with junk.  Why isn’t a messy house against the law? A tiny house may likely have been worked on by an amateur who didn’t know what they were doing, but so might a conventional house.  Is it illegal to look to Youtube rather than a professional when you need to, say, install a new light fixture? The fact that it doesn’t reinforce the truth about zoning laws:  It’s not about safety. It’s about conformity.

Living in a “normal” dwelling place such as a full-sized house or apartment is expensive.  Alternative living arrangements such as tiny homes allow a cheaper option to help struggling people get on their feet.  Just as low-wage jobs serve as the “bottom rung” on a ladder to better employment, alternative living can create bottom rungs to better housing.  

One fear often touted by opponents of tiny homes is that developers will churn them out and rent them to low wage workers for cheap, creating unsightly rows of shacks where the poor live in cramped conditions.  Please, let that happen! As it is right now, millions of poor workers are kept pinned down by rent costs that take up half or more of their income, barely making ends meet and unable to save to improve their future.  Access to cheaper living–even if it meant less living space–would allow low wage earners to save money and improve their situation sooner. By requiring housing to adhere to arbitrary standards set by an older generation, we deprive people of types of cheap housing that would make sense in their situation.

The use of zoning laws to enforce traditional types of dwelling places goes far beyond making it illegal to live in a tiny house.  Many Americans choose to live in an RV, which brings all the advantages of living in a tiny house, plus the added freedom of mobility.  That’s not illegal by itself, but if you buy a piece of land to park it on, in most of the US, you’re violating zoning law. Want to buy property and live in a rustic cabin?  Illegal. Want to camp long-term on your own land? Nope, illegal. The message is clear: According to the proponents of zoning law, Americans are supposed to live in traditional houses.  Not tiny homes, not RVs, not cabins or tents, houses. Your right to live an alternative lifestyle on your own property is less important than their supposed right to see “normal” houses everywhere they go, without the view being marred by a house that is smaller than the others, or one that is on wheels.

Also, zoning laws in most urban areas make it illegal for the homeless to pitch tents–even where the property owners are perfectly willing to allow it, such as often happens on church grounds.  You can argue that people shouldn’t have to live in tents, and that’s a very compassionate and well-meaning thing to believe. But is the solution to tell them that sleeping in a tent is illegal?  A tent may be poor living conditions, but taking the tents away isn’t improving anyone’s situation. Now, on top of the already-significant stresses related to being homeless and poor, they have to deal with the fear of law enforcement coming in and clearing out their only place to stay.  Zoning laws make it illegal to rent out cheap housing, but also illegal to sleep in a tent. For people who cannot afford expensive urban housing, and cannot stay in a shelter due to lack of space or substance abuse issues, there is literally no legal place to sleep.  That’s not a situation anyone should be in.

The issue of zoning laws doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in the libertarian community.  Zoning laws impact the freedom of individuals just as much as laws regarding chemical substances or firearms, but they don’t receive nearly as much press.  This issue emphasizes the need for Libertarians to get involved in politics at the local level. We can’t win back the freedom to self-medicate or to own certain firearms without action in the federal government, and we have a long battle ahead of us on those issues, but the freedom to live in a tiny home we might just be able to win back one county or municipality at a time.  Now is a good time to do it, with tiny homes and awareness of wasteful lifestyles entering the mainstream. When people balk at the suggestion of repealing zoning laws, we need only ask the question: What is more important, your desire for the houses around you to be pleasing to the eye? Or the individual right to choose a lifestyle and make use of their property as they see fit?

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