EASTHAM — Tiny houses — often defined as dwellings smaller than 400 or 500 square feet — may be coming to Eastham if regulatory departments and the local zoning task force decide that allowing them would be one more way to address the shortage of housing in town.
Eastham won’t be the first community in the region to explore the possibility of allowing tiny houses. Nantucket approved a zoning bylaw allowing tiny houses in certain zoning districts in 2016. Although it passed muster with the state attorney general’s office and remains on the books, the state’s building and health codes prevented any from being built.
The zoning bylaw was approved by Nantucket town meeting voters thanks to a petitioned article written by Isaiah Stover. “I was single when I spearheaded the effort,” Stover said in an email on Sunday. Shortly after the bylaw passed, however, he got married and started a family. “I just didn’t have the time to continue to carry the torch.”
He hopes someone else will move the initiative forward.
Stover has watched the continuing housing crisis on the Cape and Islands and says he still would like to see the option of a tiny house become a reality.
In 2018, Provincetown voters approved a nonbinding petitioned article, proposed by Stephan Cohen, asking local officials to take a look at bylaw changes that would allow for “tiny house villages” and to develop bylaw proposals for the 2019 annual town meeting.
Those bylaw amendments would create a new designation of “tiny house village,” defined as a lot with multiple year-round occupied dwellings. Each unit would be under 500 square feet and sit on a foundation, even though most tiny houses are manufactured on wheeled platforms. The referendum asked that officials work to identify town-owned land for such villages.
A second article drafted by Cohen and approved at the 2018 town meeting called for urging then-Gov. Charlie Baker and the state legislature to take action on building code changes that would allow for tiny homes.
The legislature has since adopted Appendix Q of the International Residential Code used by Massachusetts. The appendix, which went into effect in the state in 2020, relaxes code requirements for tiny houses such as minimum ceiling height, regulations related to stairways, and rules related to lofts. One adjustment relates to skylights or roof windows that could be used as exits in an emergency. A tiny home is categorized in the code as having less than 400 square feet of floor area, excluding any loft.
Cohen said his concern over lack of housing prompted him to develop the petitioned articles back in 2018, but he didn’t know exactly what had happened with the tiny house study by officials. “I think the board did look into it,” he said. He did not remember the idea ever being rejected outright.
Provincetown Town Manager Alex Morse, who has been in charge for over two years, said he isn’t familiar with any study related to tiny houses. But he did have an opinion about their limitations: “Tiny houses are not a good land use when facing a housing crisis,” said Morse in an email.
“Town staff and the select board want to maximize density on any town-owned parcel that we envision for housing,” Morse said. He cited the affordable housing project being constructed on the former VFW property as an example. The town envisions something similar for the site of the current police station, Morse said.
Still, he didn’t entirely discount the value of tiny houses.
“Tiny homes, or some variation of them (ADUs or ‘sheds to beds’), would make sense in certain areas of town,” Morse said. “We are looking at our zoning map and other bylaws as to how we can encourage them on private property.”
Shana Brogan, Eastham’s projects and procurement director, would likely concur. She told the Independent that although Eastham has just begun its exploration of tiny houses, “Our initial thoughts are not necessarily a village.” They are more about “potential for the homeowner to put one on their property,” she said, as a less expensive alternative to accessory dwelling units.
That’s one reason select board chair Arthur Autorino enthusiastically supports a further look into tiny houses. “You don’t have to spend $700,000,” he said. “You can spend $60,000 or maybe a little bit more and end up with a nice house.”
Going forward, Eastham will not have to deal with the problem of conflicts with state building codes since those were resolved by the adoption of Appendix Q.
Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, the town’s new director of health and environment, told the select board, however, that tiny homes must be owner-occupied under state regulations — a rule local officials will need to consider as they develop new bylaws.
Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe said Brogan’s presentation at the select board’s June 26 meeting was to see whether the board was interested in pursuing a closer look at tiny houses. Now that it’s clear there is interest, Beebe said, a meeting to bring together the planning, building, health, and fire departments is the next step.
According to Town Planner Paul Lagg, bylaw changes to accommodate tiny houses would include a change to the town’s definition of “dwelling,” which sets the minimum size at 500 square feet, and an increase to the unit density to allow multiple dwellings on a single lot. The town’s long-term wastewater management plan would also factor into density changes, Lagg said.
“We may need to create a new category for smaller homes that are on foundations,” said Beebe, adding, “We used to call these cottages.”