As Teresa Lewis entered her fifties, she began to seriously consider how she would afford retirement. An executive assistant in the Dallas area, Lewis worked full-time while also taking care of her mother, and it had become quite clear that “no pot of gold” waited for her come age 65. She’d watched friends spend their retirement years trying to scrape by on Social Security—“it’s not pretty,” she says—and wanted to better position herself by finding a way to dramatically minimize her living expenses, while still maintaining a decent quality of life.
Her solution? A tiny house, something she’d read about online. In 2015, she headed to Colorado Springs for the first Tiny House Jamboree and toured some houses on display. The visit inspired her to plan in earnest for a downsized lifestyle. And this summer, Lewis, now 56, will move into her own 375-square-foot tiny home alongside a dozen other similarly sized dwellings in what could be the country’s first urban tiny home community that’s officially sanctioned by a municipality.
Lake Dallas, a city of roughly 8,000 located about 20 miles north of Dallas on Lake Lewisville, approved the tiny home development plan last October in hopes of bringing more foot traffic to its sleepy downtown and elevating its profile. Once a center for commerce, downtown has been overshadowed by a heavily developed, highway-accessible corridor of chain stores and fast-food restaurants. A regional commuter train regularly rushes past Main Street without stopping, as the city opted years back not to join the funding authority that operates the service.
The City Council voted 4-1 to change the zoning for a one-acre property about a block from downtown from single-family dwelling to a planned development district with a “tiny house park” as an allowed use. “We will have some more people living right downtown here,” says city manager John Cabrales, Jr. “Tiny house people tend to be well-educated, employed, with disposable income. They can help bolster downtown businesses.”
The developer, Terry Lantrip, is a familiar face in town—he ran the weekly newspaper for two decades and has built several mixed-use buildings downtown. Lantrip hopes that the publicity surrounding the tiny house community will bring additional downtown investment. “It shows that Lake Dallas is open to new ideas,” he says. “It says, if you bring us something of quality, we’re more than willing to listen to you.”
The park won’t be ready until June at the earliest, but Lantrip already has more than 50 people on the waiting list for one of the 13 lots. That’s not surprising given that, even as HGTV has popularized the previously fringy concept with programs like “Tiny House Hunters,” finding a place to put a tiny house remains the greatest challenge. Zoning typically does not allow for such small dwellings, which are commonly no more than 400 square feet. The houses, which are often built on wheeled trailers, do not conform to local building codes for single-family dwellings. And while some are built to meet the certification standards for a recreational vehicle, zoning usually precludes year-round living in an RV.
So it is that the vast majority of tiny house residents are living illegally. Some municipalities with severe affordable housing shortages, including Fresno, CA., Portland, OR., and Nantucket, MA, now allow a tiny house to share a lot with an existing home as an accessory dwelling unit (with various restrictions). But proposals for tiny house communities have run up against staunch resistance in densely developed areas, usually due to neighborhood pushback or uncertainty about how to regulate and tax them.
“I think once one community in an urban area is successful, it will be the model for others,” says B.A. Norrgard, a well-known Dallas-area tiny house advocate. A former litigation paralegal who traded her career and Tudor home for greater independence, Norrgard now lives in (and travels with) a 78-square-foot house on wheels she built herself. (She parks it in a friend’s backyard in Garland, Texas, which technically isn’t legal, but, she says, “The mayor knows I’m here. He’s okay with it.”) Norrgard says she has helped advise other developers who have wanted to set up tiny house communities, but Lantrip is the first to be successful.
One major factor that worked in his favor was the International Code Council’s approval of a model building code for tiny houses for inclusion in the 2018 International Residential Code. The ordinance adopted by the Lake Dallas City Council requires that all tiny houses in the park be constructed in compliance with that code, which regulates such things as ceiling heights, ladder safety for accessing a lofted bed, and emergency exits.
The concept also found an enthusiastic advocate in the city planner, Kevin Lasher, who worked with Lantrip on drafting an ordinance and responding to issues raised by councilors. (Lasher now works for another city.) And finally, Lantrip says his track record and longevity in Lake Dallas “helped tremendously” with gaining officials’ trust that he would stick around to manage the park.
“It’s very doubtful that an outsider could have gotten it through,” he says. “I’ve been here 32 years, so I’m obviously not going to cash out and move on.”
The park will include eight 800-square-foot lots, accommodating homes up to 35 feet long, and five 900-square-foot lots, for slightly longer homes. All lots will have water, sewer and electric hookups. Rents will run around $500 a month (including water and sewer charges) on a 12-month lease. Houses must be owner-occupied and on wheels, so they can easily be removed if the owner isn’t complying with community rules, Lantrip says.
Cabrales says they aren’t yet sure how the park and its residents will be taxed – the city attorney is still researching that. And Lantrip hasn’t yet obtained financing, as he is still waiting for the engineering for the utilities, drainage, etc., to be completed, but he doesn’t anticipate a problem. He already owns the land.
With input from Norrgard and Jet Regan, another tiny house activist, Lantrip designed the park so that cars will be parked on the perimeter, leaving plenty of interior room for shared community features, such as a bike storage shed, fire pit, garden area, and a laundry area. If all goes well, an antique farmhouse on the site will eventually be converted to community meeting and dining spaces.
Regan, 36, is a database engineering analyst who got interested in tiny house living primarily because she has “a whole lot of” student loans. “I don’t foresee being able to ever afford a mortgage,” she says. “And secondary to that, I just don’t have a lot of stuff.” She has participated in seven “community builds” of other peoples’ tiny houses organized through a Dallas/Fort Worth Meetup group started by Norrgard. She plans to build her own in 2019.
For Norrgard, the Lake Dallas village brings tiny homes one step closer to being accepted as a mainstream housing option, rather than one that must be hidden. So many people are now “pushing at the zoning wall” that blocks tiny houses, she figures it won’t be long before more communities follow Lake Dallas’s lead. If you think about it, she says, “it’s a low-risk endeavor for these municipalities. Why not give it a try? If it doesn’t work, the people can all just pack up their houses and go.”
Lisa Prevost is a New York City-area journalist specializing in housing and real estate development. She is the author of “Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate” (Beacon Press, 2013), and a regular contributor to The New York Times.