A Legal Path for Tiny Homes in Portland

by | Oct 22, 2014

Proposal.  Create a legal path for the occupancy of small accessory structures or homes-on-wheels that meet sanitary and life safety requirements drawn from Portland’s Property Maintenance code and Oregon Landlord-Tenant law.  To be legally occupied, a tiny home would have to pass a ‘habitability’ inspection and receive a certificate of occupancy.

tiny house 2

Motivation.  This proposal would legalize new forms of small, safe, low-cost, environmentally friendly, and discreet housing that further important city goals, including:

  • Providing affordable rental opportunities for homeless and/or low-income residents requiring little or no public subsidy;
  • Supporting extended family and other community living situations that don’t always fit well within traditional single family homes;
  • Generating construction jobs to build tiny homes; and
  • Creating opportunities for people to live in the City of Portland with much smaller environmental footprints than is achievable through more traditional residential development forms.

Context: Building vs. Property Maintenance Codes.  City building codes must be met at the time a home is built.  Once constructed, the applicable code becomes the property maintenance code, which focuses on performance measures (ie. ability to heat them, ingress/egress, access to hot and cold water…) that can be evaluated without opening up and inspecting hidden parts of the building’s structure and envelop.  The vast majority of homes in Portland, including nearly every stately old home in close-in neighborhoods, would not meet today’s building codes.  Yet they are legally habitable because they comply with the property maintenance code. This proposal would allow the habitation of new and converted structures that meet the property maintenance code and other standards, but not necessarily today’s building code.

1.  Small Accessory Structures.  In residential zones within the City of Portland, building code allows the construction of accessory structures up to 200 square feet in size and up to 10’ tall without building permits.  Examples include garden sheds, play houses, meditation rooms, dog houses and saunas.  Electricity and plumbing can legally be extended to these buildings so long as the installer obtains trade permits and gets the work inspected.  The building code does not, however, allow such buildings to be used for ‘habitable’ purposes.  This proposal would allow for the habitation of these structures if they meet specific performance standards.  It would not extend to larger accessory structures for which building permits are required.

2.  Homes on Wheels.  Residential zones also allow for the parking of vehicles, including homes on wheels.  These are not technically buildings, so are not covered by the building code.  They can legally be used for many of the same purposes described above for small accessory structures.  But there are currently a couple provisions in the property maintenance code (ie. 29.50.050 – Illegal Residential Occupancy, 29.20.010.J – Disabled Vehicles, …) that disallow them or prohibit them from being used for ‘habitable’ purposes.  This proposal would create an allowance within the maintenance code for the habitation of these structures if they meet specific performance standards.

Permitting Mechanism.  Either of the above structure types could be granted a certificate of occupancy (C. of O.) by meeting specific conditions of approval.  It would be the property owner’s responsibility to request and pay for this inspection.  Re-inspection would only be required if a tiny home gets moved to a different property, due to potential changes in the way utility connections are handled.  Once a C. of O. is granted, code compliance would be handled in the same way as it is for any home.

Conditions of Approval.  Following is a sample list of standards, plucked in part from Portland’s Property Maintenance code, Zoning Code, Building Code, and Oregon Landlord-Tenant law.  Something like this could be used as a habitability inspection check-list that would need to be signed off in order to provide a C. of O.