For 12 years, the 25 residents of a “tiny house” community known as Walden EcoVillage managed to live in peace with both nature and local zoning officials in the town of Peterborough, New Hampshire.
That peace ended on December 15, when the city ordered the eviction of all the community’s residents, whose diminutive dwellings, many of which were less than 400 square feet, offered an inexpensive but technically illegal housing option. An application from the village’s owner to add more units to the property had alerted planning officials to the fact that its cottages and casitas were not permitted as full-time residences. A site visit also discovered a host of building code violations, including supposedly dangerous wiring.
“The timing for this is awful,” Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker admitted to New Hampshire Public Radio. The code violations nevertheless necessitated the mid-winter evictions, he said. Former Walden tenants are now suing the village’s owner, claiming he violated their leases by renting out homes that were not up to code.
A year earlier on the other side of the state, tiny-house owner Brianna O’Brien faced a similar struggle. In 2018, O’Brien had purchased a $29,000 prefabricated tiny house that she eventually plopped down on her parents’ property in the town of Hampton Falls. Within a few months, planning officials were telling O’Brien that her humble abode’s single exit, lack of plumbing, and proximity to the property line made it impermissible under the local zoning code. O’Brien also lacked the occupancy permit that is required for full-time residences.
Fixing these problems presented O’Brien with a Catch-22. “There is no building code for tiny houses, so you have to get an occupancy permit to get it zoned,” she told Business Insider in December 2020. And you can’t get an occupancy permit for a home that does not comply with the building code. “It’s a cycle that feeds into itself,” O’Brien said.
In August 2019, the Hampton Falls Zoning Board of Adjustment ruled against O’Brien, forcing her to move out. The tiny home still sits on her parents’ property. She is just not allowed to live in it.
New Hampshire’s quiet war on tiny homes hasn’t escaped the notice of lawmakers. Last year, state legislators introduced an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have required local governments to allow tiny houses on residential plots.
Tiny houses offer an attractive, affordable option for many residents of the “Live Free or Die” state by cutting down on the floor space and frills that make standard homes so expensive. But that economizing often does not sit well with local zoning boards, which commonly require that rental properties come with costly amenities. For too many tiny-house residents, the regulatory pursuit of quality housing means they end up with no housing.