Tiny Home

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story misstated Malcolm Smith’s former occupation. He worked in tech sales. 

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. — Ryan and Cheryl Marcus took a leap of faith this summer to live a smaller, simpler life.

They downsized their belongings, left behind their spacious two-bedroom rental apartment, and on their own built a 240-square-foot, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired tiny house on wheels.

For about two months, the Pomona, New York, couple have been living in it while finishing up the home’s façade and interior.

“It’s a whole different lifestyle now. We’ve never been happier, my husband and I,” said Cheryl Marcus, 42, who chronicled their adventure on a series of videos on YouTube. “It changed everything: How we look at things, how we feel toward our family and friends.”

Ryan Marcus, 35, who is a physical education teacher with the East Ramapo school district, echoed his wife’s sentiment, saying that the couple’s mortgage-free home ownership — which cost about $25,000 so far — instilled a sense of pride and freedom.

“We are in charge of our own place. We know some of the challenges with the heat and electricity. Those are the things for us to figure out. But that’s what we set out to do,” Ryan Marcus said, noting that the house is powered by a gas generator, but their goal is to use solar energy in the near future. “We’d rather work with each other than have to deal with anybody else.”

The couple are part of the growing movement of tiny house living, which has been spreading throughout the nation via several TV shows, including Tiny House Nationand Tiny House, Big Living, documentaries such as Tiny: A story about living small, and social media.

While tiny houses are celebrated as affordable, eco-friendly, minimalist housing options, the challenges facing their owners are outsized: A majority of municipalities, including the ones in the Lower Hudson Valley, don’t recognize tiny houses in their zoning, building and fire codes.

As a result, many tiny house dwellers live under the radar.

“I don’t want everybody to know where my house is parked,” Cheryl Marcus said. “It’s supposed to be in the middle of nowhere.”

Obstacles 

The definition of a tiny house varies, but in general, houses smaller than 400 square feet are considered to be tiny. Many tiny houses are built on flatbed trailers so that they can be classified as recreational vehicles. Tiny house pioneers preferred a wheeled structure because if built on foundations, tiny homes have to meet building code requirements like normal houses.

But whether they are built on wheels or on foundations, local zoning codes in the region often make tiny houses illegal.

Malcolm Smith, 39, of Bloomfield, New Jersey, owns a tiny house parked in Rockland. He has been dealing with zoning challenges since he started building his house in 2015.

Smith — a musician who previously worked in  tech sales to pay the bills — said he was drawn to the tiny-house lifestyle for its cost-effective nature, allowing him to spend more time in music.

He designed a wheeled tiny house and started construction in a rented yard in Montclair, New Jersey. But within two to three months, he had to move out because his trailer was too big to be legally parked there. He found a commercial lot in Newark, and about a year of hard work later, he finished building his 270-square-foot house.

Earlier this year, he brought the house to Rockland, where his girlfriend, Nina Baiardi, lives and works.

The fact that Rockland municipal zoning is slightly friendlier to recreational vehicles compared to northern New Jersey was also taken into consideration for the move, Smith said.

Rockland towns generally allow storage of one recreational vehicle on a residential lot in unincorporated areas, but it has to be unoccupied. As a result, Smith still maintains his New Jersey address. He did not want to publicize the specific location of his tiny house for fear of scrutiny.

Towns such as Haverstraw also have a provision allowing a caretaker’s cottage to be built as accessory to a house on a lot larger than two acres. In other words, a tiny house can be built if it’s on a foundation.

But such a cottage has to meet the state Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code standards in addition to the zoning, which requires the structure to be built at least 50 feet away from the property line.

“There would definitely be high hurdles in front of an application” for a tiny house, Haverstraw town Building Inspector George Behn wrote in an email.

No tiny house dwellers have been identified in Westchester, and that’s not a surprise because of strict zoning regulations, said Alec Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Innovations and a staunch advocate for affordable and workforce housing.

Roberts said that even though his organization has been awarded a $400,000 grant to assist construction of 10 manufactured homes in Westchester, he’s having a tough time to find a place to build them.

“It’s all about the zoning,” Roberts said. “Everybody talks about being interested in affordable housing as long as it’s someplace else.”

Some advancements 

Zoning and building challenges have been a stumbling block for existing and prospective tiny house owners nationwide, but some positive changes are happening in recent years.

Amy Turnbull, president of the American Tiny House Association, a volunteer advocacy group that promotes tiny houses as a viable, formally acceptable dwelling option, said more municipalities are becoming open to look into tiny houses as affordable housing options.

“The trend used to be for us to reach out to municipalities,” Turnbull said. “Now municipalities are reaching out to us. It’s a trend that’s we’ve seen in the last several months.”

Some municipalities — including Rockledge, Florida; Spur, Texas; Fresno, California; and Nantucket, Massachusetts — have approved local ordinances to allow tiny houses in recent years.

Meanwhile, the International Code Council, which develops model codes and standards widely used in the United States, has approved a construction code for tiny houses built on foundations — initially known as Appendix V Tiny Houses, and now Appendix Q — in its 2018 edition of the International Residential Code. The next step would be for each state to adopt the new code.

Maine is one of the several states currently considering adopting the appendix, said Alan Plummer, the Maine chapter representative of American Tiny House Association.

Make it legal

Smith, for now, classifies his tiny house as his music studio, but he wants to call it home.

His meticulously finished tiny house — which he spent between $20,000 to $30,000 in materials and appliances to build — consists of two lofts, a small office space, kitchen equipped with propane RV stove and refrigerator, and bathroom with sink, composting toilet and shower.

A majority of the construction work, including plumbing and electric wiring, he did himself, although he’s got some help for framing and custom-built cabinetry, Smith said. His brief stint in construction right after college came in handy, he said.

Pleased with the outcome and seeing opportunity in the Lower Hudson Valley market, Smith — along with his mother, Liz Jessup, a licensed builder and real estate agent — has launched a tiny house construction firm, Wildwood Tiny Homes.

Smith is hoping to get the appendix approved in the state of New York, as a first step to make tiny houses legal here.

“A majority of people — especially in this area — are really living under the radar, residing illegally, unfortunately,” he said. “The challenge is to make it legal.”

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