Florida small home owners seek peace with local governments

Krsna Balynas and her husband Govinda Carol finished building their first tiny house in Alachua in May 2020 and listed it as Airbnb a month later – mostly just to see what would happen. In two weeks it was booked almost a month later.

Almost two years later, the couple’s business Simplify further now rents 12 tiny homes in Alachua County through vacation rental websites: 11 in the town of Alachua — four of them on their own property — and one in La Crosse. They hosted over 7,500 guests.

However, great trouble was caused to them because of this. Balynas, 28, said a code enforcement officer from the city of Alachua came to their home on Feb. 10 and said she and Carol, 35, had one month to comply with the municipal regulations or get rid of about half of the houses.

“To come knocking on our door and basically give us 30 days to shut down our entire business and livelihood without any consideration – I thought that was a bit audacious,” Balynas said.

Watch below: Krsna Balynas and her husband have been running their small house business for nearly two years. “It actually started when COVID started and we got our first stimulus check,” Balynas said. “We used the money to build our first little house.” (Veronica Nocera/WUFT News)

The couple are one of those in the area who have pursued the small-house lifestyle or the bustle of business, and one of many in the state who have faced government repression.

The little houses are usually less than 600 square feet, which, according to their owners, allows them to live a simplistic and environmentally friendly life. Houses can be built on foundations or on wheels, providing greater freedom of movement, and sales increased during the pandemic.

It’s unclear how many people in the region and across the country live in tiny homes, as some choose to live under the radar to escape government and legal obstacles.

However, the Florida Tiny House Enthusiasts Facebook Group has over 15,000 members and nationwide tiny houses have become popular vacation options. Related Airbnb searches increased 791% between 2019 and 2021, and the properties accounted for 17 of the 100 most searched homes of the year, according to a Airbnb Travel and Life Report.

But owning or renting a tiny home can be far from stress-free.

Dan Fitzpatrick, 72, is president of the Tiny Home Industry Associationa trade organization founded in 2016. Because tiny homes aren’t typical living units or even technically RVs, their owners struggle to comply with municipal building and zoning codes, Fitzpatrick said, former longtime city and county administrator.

Some states, he said, are gradually becoming more supportive.

In 2021, Maine passed a law giving tiny homes the same status as single-family homes. However, no such statewide law exists in Florida, which means current and potential owners of tiny homes are often at the mercy of where they want to live or move.

“If you have a good working relationship with your municipal government, you can change some codes, rules, and regulations to make them more user-friendly,” Fitzpatrick said.

For Balynas and Carol, cooperating with their local government has been a struggle.

Their tiny houses do not respect the share of the International Residential Code which requires small homes under 400 square feet to meet regulations for single dwellings. The appendix was adopted in the seventh edition of the Florida Building Code in December 2020, but like all building code schedules, it is applied jurisdiction by jurisdiction.

On February 16, Balynas and Carol met with Alachua Town Manager Mike DaRoza and officials from the Planning and Community Development Division to make their case. The couple insisted that the code in question only applies to small homes on foundations, and because theirs are on wheels, they must follow the RV code, which Balynas says is outside the scope. city ​​jurisdiction.

A week later, DaRoza sent Balynas a letter asking him to clarify the use of his structures.

“As you know, many names were mentioned repeatedly, which made it extremely different for the city to assess any issues with them,” Balynas read the letter in a video posted to Instagram on February 24. “Please provide specific names for the type of units built and the uses of those units.”

Balynas replied that she and Carol would speak with a lawyer before committing further.

“It seems the battle has been won but the war continues,” she wrote in the Instagram caption.

The city was still working to resolve the issue and would not comment further on it, DaRoza wrote this week in an email to WUFT News.

Other small home owners say they would like to seek changes to related laws.

Robin “Shorty” Robbins, 64, lives in a small house in St. Johns County. She sits on the national board of directors of the Tiny Home Industry Association, which plans to introduce legislation in the Florida Legislature next year. The proposed measure would change the state Department of Motor Vehicles code so that tiny homes on wheels are not considered recreational vehicles, Robbins said.

“We want to live in our tiny homes full time, so not being registered as a motorhome is a better thing for us,” she said. “It really is an industry that needs to start being looked at and taken seriously.”

Robbins herself built her tiny house in 2014 and used it for three years to travel. She said she understands the regulations to protect small homes from issues like natural disasters. But she also hopes that governments can consider them as a potential solution to affordable housing. In Los Angeles, the houses have been used to tackle the city’s homelessness problem.

Kurt Hunt, chief operating officer of Orlando-based Atlas Cottage Homes, also said tiny homes can help fill the affordable housing gap, especially for people entering the workforce. His company’s homes are built on foundations, including some in Ocala and Inverness, Citrus County.

“The demand is outstripping the supply, so it’s raising all the rents, it’s raising all the house values,” Hunt said, “so we’ve started building country houses…in the urban areas, especially, which are lacking affordable housing for the workforce.”

Mike Cheatham, 46, from Melbourne, owns and operates Movable Roots, a family business that designs, builds and delivers tiny homes. The process can take up to 13 months for purpose-built homes, and he’s sold more than 30 homes since the start of 2017, Cheatham said. Working with state, county and local governments to educate officials on the difference between tiny homes and RVs has been painstaking — but necessary, he said.

“County commissioners are the ones who really make the change,” Cheatham said.

Some areas are more suitable for small homes than others. Brevard County, for example, changed building and zoning code sections that allowed small house communities like Properties of Braveheart. But with the tiny home legal fight underway in many counties, others are helping portable home owners who need a place to park while on the go.

Maureen Murtha, 34, a communications specialist for Gainesville Regional Utilities, has cows, chickens, dogs and small homes on her 10 acres of land near Lake Butler in Union County.

Although she doesn’t have a small house herself, Murtha said she saw people needing a place to park their house on wheels. At her peak, she had seven parked on her farm.

“I’ve had singles, I’ve had couples, I’ve had people who are engaged, people who are breaking up, getting engaged — the whole spectrum,” Murtha said. “A lot of different backgrounds, a lot of different economic backgrounds.”

Watch below: Maureen Murtha lets people park their tiny homes on her 10-acre property near Lake Butler in Union County. In his heyday, she said, Murtha had seven small houses on his property, which also housed cows, chickens and horses. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

Jessica Tittl’s little house sits on wheels on Murtha’s farm.

Tittl, 34, who learned about the lifestyle from a documentary about minimalism, moved from her home in Ohio to a small house in Lake Butler to stop “living this life of frantic racing”, a- she declared. This allowed him to return to school and study coral reefs at the University of Florida.

“It was a scary thing to do,” Tittl said, “to go from what everyone tells you to do in life and just say to yourself, ‘I’m going to build a little house and live on the farm. from a stranger.'”

Where Murtha lives, there aren’t many code restrictions or neighbors, and she said there are loopholes for people who have farms, such as allowing multiple married quarters on farms to help with the work. She said she was lucky to be able to enjoy it.

“If you’re cool and you want to live in nature, minimalist, and you have a tiny house and you love me and you love property, then it works,” Murtha said. “All the people who have lived here, for better or for worse, have become my closest friends.”

Mark Cox, 32, lived on Murtha’s property before moving nearby to rent out his tiny home as an Airbnb. Before that, he traveled the country in his portable home, spending time along the way at a llama farm in Tennessee and in the mountains of North Carolina.

Cox had planned to stay on Murtha’s property for a month before moving on, but he stayed for four years.

“Now I consider it my duty to invite others to come and see it,” he said, “hoping I can either open their eyes or influence them if they had the idea. to build a small house.

Meghan McGlone

/

WUFT News

Small homeowners have plenty of parking space and can enjoy the cows, horses, dogs and chickens on Maureen Murtha’s property near Lake Butler in Union County.

Comments are closed.