DULUTH – Some locals are hoping part of a solution to the city’s big housing problem could come from looking small.
On Monday night, the City Council passed an ordinance to change zoning laws to allow tiny houses on residential properties, making Duluth the latest city to open its doors to the fad.
Across the country, cities and towns have looked to tiny houses — which often mean dwellings that are 400 square feet or less — as possible answers to a number of problems plaguing communities today.
The small homes attract a variety of people, said Adam Fulton, Duluth’s interim planning and development director. Some may be interested for environmental reasons or drawn to the relatively low costs; others may simply want to downsize.
But as tiny houses have grown increasingly popular in the United States, they have also created backlash, often from those with concerns about the effect the developments could have on larger, bordering properties.
“There is always a level of nervousness when there is change in a neighborhood,” Fulton said.
Tiny homes existed in Duluth before the code change — they just had to be classified as “accessory dwelling units,” meaning they shared a lot with a standard home.
Now, the city has eliminated its house size requirements — a single family dwelling previously had to be at least 20 feet wide. Duluth will require tiny homes to have a permanent foundation, Fulton added.
They will also have to adhere to the Minnesota State Building Code, which includes requirements for light, ventilation, heating and sanitation.
City Council member Joel Sipress said at Monday’s meeting he thinks Duluth still has a long way to go to address its housing problems.
“I appreciate this as sort of a small, but hopefully meaningful, contribution to addressing the affordable housing crisis in our city,” he said.
Fulton hopes the change fosters “creativity” among developers in the area. With housing in Duluth becoming increasingly expensive and hard to find, tiny homes could diversify the city’s stock.
“It’s a good way to offer density within existing neighborhoods without having a negative impact on the neighborhood’s character,” Fulton said.
Locals have expressed concerns that increased density could exacerbate parking problems in parts of the city that are already short on space. Fulton said city code will still require each home, of any size, to have at least one off-street parking spot.
He added that since he came to the city in 2015, he’s gotten two or three calls a month from people interested in building tiny homes in Duluth — so construction could start taking off soon.
It could be helped by companies like Members Cooperative Credit Union (MCCU), the largest credit union based north of the Twin Cities. Now that the zoning barrier to tiny houses is taken care of, financing could be the larger challenge for those looking to purchase a small home.
Steve Glonchak, MCCU’s chief lending officer, said there aren’t many properties that lenders can compare to tiny homes, which makes appraisals difficult. MCCU assesses the cost of construction to determine how much credit to extend to a borrower.
“I think tiny homes could be pretty transformational for a community,” Glonchak said. “It’s not just necessarily means to affordable housing — it’s really just a means to needed housing in the city of Duluth.”