By Riki Markowitz

In the Austin-Round Rock metro, there’s a housing trend that’s not so much bubbling under the surface, but rather, it’s close to bursting at the seams. In this case, “seams” is synonymous with zoning constraints. The tiny house movement is not a recent phenomenon. This is an important distinction because its longevity demonstrates that as soon as developers build a tiny-home community here in Austin, we expect that people will come.

Historians of the genre credit author Henry David Thoreau with being the godfather of the tiny home movement. In 1854, Thoreau chronicled his experience living in a 150-square-foot cabin next to Walden Pond. Today, Walden is to tiny-home enthusiasts what “On the Road” is to fans of 1950s beat-poet, road-tripping culture. “Tiny Houses,” published in 1987, was possibly the first book about micro homes and a return to living modestly.

Between the 1850s and 1980s, tiny homes were pretty common on private property. They were known as granny cottages, in-law suites, guest apartments and the pool house. The first company in the United States to build tiny homes, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, was founded in 1999. Many credit owner Jay Shafer with kickstarting the modern movement when he co-founded the Small House Society, an organization that promotes small-living lifestyles. In 2007, the movement received widespread recognition when Oprah aired a video of Shafer and his 96-square-foot home, and then gave her audience decorating tips.

Just over a decade after Oprah endorsed tiny-home living, the movement has only had some moderate success. For some reason, there’s a big gap in the numbers of people who watch tiny house hunting, decorating, and building TV-shows, and actual tiny house owners. It may even be considered one of Oprah’s biggest failures if there weren’t so many laws that restrict builders from developing micro-housing communities.

In Central Texas, the housing market continues breaking sales records quarter-over-quarter, year-after-year. But with each increase, the middle class gets further away from being able to afford homeownership in popular metro areas. It would seem like Austin is a perfect location for tiny home neighborhoods.

In land development code terminology, tiny homes are known as accessory dwelling units (ADU). An ADU is a fraction of the cost of an ordinary home. At about 1,100 square feet and under, they use less gas and electricity. Micro houses are primarily a one or two-person household. In Austin, 35 percent of homes are a one-person household. Those who support eliminating ADU restrictions argue that developing tiny house communities will help ease the area’s affordability crisis, while opponents fear an onslaught of short-term rentals (STR), which is something that supporters agree with as well. On the other hand, there is a population of Austin residents who see STRs as a way to create a new income stream.

In the past, zoning laws worked against building ADU communities. In 2015, as more and more people expressed interest in buying tiny homes, the city relaxed certain restrictions. Practically overnight, permit applications increased 34 percent over the previous year. Some of the changes approved by city council included reducing lot size, driveway and parking spot requirements.

As RealtyLine goes to press, the Planning Commission is about to announce its recommendations regarding draft three of CodeNEXT. Before autumn, after public hearings, city leaders will vote on the city’s first land development code revisions since 1984. If CodeNEXT passes, even more ADU regulations will be abolished, affecting water sub-metering and construction permit processes.

Starting in June, the first tiny home community in the Austin area will open its gates, allowing potential buyers to view plans for more than 80 micro homes designed by Kasita, an award-winning, Austin-based builder and architectural design company; and Sprout Tiny Homes, a Colorado-based builder. Homes will range from 400-700 square feet.

The development, called Constellation ATX, will be located on a two-acre parcel of land on South Manchaca, near the Moontower Saloon. The gated community will operate like a condo complex with an HOA. There will be a pool, clubhouse, jogging trail, outdoor BBQ, and many other amenities. Residents purchase their micro home and then hold a 99-year lease on the lot. Joe Davis, director of sales, a tiny dwelling specialist, and broker at One Way Realty says, “Our number one mandate was to unlock affordable housing and provide residents a chance to feel pride of ownership.”

Marketers have been studying tiny home markets for at least a decade. All indications point to a city like Austin as a model location for micro home housing communities. Developers at Constellation ATX say that Millennials, first-time homebuyers, professional women and empty nesters have already expressed genuine interest in the property.

City planners and developers will be watching Constellation ATX closely to see if it’s something that people want. Austin residents will keep their eyes trained on the new community to see if it becomes a haven for STRs (Austin already has strong laws regulating STRs). At the same time, there’s a nationwide trend of building small home communities for the chronically homeless and disabled. Essentially, lots of different groups want to know if the tiny home movement takes root in Austin, will it help alleviate the housing crisis? Can it reduce homelessness? Those who oppose this project — many of who also adamantly oppose CodeNEXT — believe they’re helping to preserve the integrity of Austin neighborhoods. So it will be interesting to check back in a year or so to see if Austin’s first tiny home community for mainstream homebuyers turns out to be a good disruptor, an irritating menace or fits right in. RL