Tiny house makes a big splash at the Ag Fair

Volunteers at tiny house exhibit said the response far exceeded expectations.

The tiny house on display was a huge hit. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Less than an hour after the gates to the Ag Fair opened on Thursday morning, there was a growing line of people waiting to see the tiny house exhibit, a 144-square-foot dwelling on loan from owner Kathy Rose. Much to the surprise of the cadre of volunteers who manned the wee house over the next four days, the lines never stopped.

“I would say thousands came through,” Kathy Rose told The Times. “The first hour of the fair, we had over 100 people.”

“It was the hit of the fair,” Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust (IHT) said. “We were blown away by the response.”

“We were swamped,” volunteer Mike Mitchell said. “People kept asking where they could buy one. If I were a salesman I could have sold 100 units.” Mr. Mitchell said almost all of the comments were positive. “Many elderly people said it was the ideal for them,” he said. “A single mother with a small child loved it and wanted to move in ASAP. One woman said it was too small for her, but she wanted to put one on her property for her son, in his 20s.”

Mr. Mitchell said the only outspoken critic of the tiny house was a town official from Edgartown, whom he did not identify. “He said maybe one would be acceptable, but he was flat-out against a cluster of these houses arranged around a community center, because they would create low-income, trashy trailer parks.”

Mr. Mitchell, a carpenter who specializes in historic renovation, lives in a house in the Campground Meeting Association (CMA) in Oak Bluffs. “I asked him if he liked the gingerbread houses, which he did, and I explained that these are the original tiny houses, and they were moved around all the time. I asked him if he thought of the Campgrounds as low-income, trashy cottages. He didn’t answer, but I think he got the point.”

A year in the making

The impetus for the tiny house display came from Marina Lent, housing advocate and Chilmark board of health inspector, who tried unsuccessfully to have a tiny house display at last year’s fair.

“I contacted several manufacturers and asked them to exhibit a tiny house, but that didn’t fly,” she told The Times. “But I kept talking about it, and tried to get people interested. Then I saw the article in The Times (July 9, “A Visit with Kathy Rose, Tiny House Pioneer”) about Kathy Rose,” she said. “I realized, We have a real live tiny house on the Island, and I tracked her down. She was up for it, and things happened very quickly from there. We got in the fair just under the application deadline. The [Ag Fair] board was very supportive.”

Community support was quickly galvanized. Donaroma’s Nursery donated services to landscape around the tiny house. “Donaroma’s did an amazing job, on one week’s notice,” Mr. Mitchell said. “People couldn’t believe that they were standing on a trailer.”

Ms. Lent said the most frequently asked question was what a tiny house costs. “There’s a huge range. They can start at $20,000. Some people were surprised when I said one could cost $60,000, but you have to use quality materials. The per-foot cost can be every bit as much as a regular house, maybe a little higher.”

According to mortgagecalulator.org, if a person puts a $10,000 downpayment on a $60,000 tiny house, a 15-year mortgage for the remaining $50,000, at 4 percent interest, would cost the tiny homeowner $432.34 a month.

A movement is born

As a result of the tiny house triumph at the fair, volunteers have organized the Island Coalition for Tiny Housing (ICTH). “We have to build on the response from the fair,” Ms. Lent said. “In four days we got 766 signatures on a statement of support for tiny houses on Martha’s Vineyard. If towns are going to take on zoning changes, they need to know the population wants it.”

“The great thing about tiny houses is that they can happen on the Island right now,” Mr. Jordi said. “People in West Tisbury and Chilmark can already put a 300-square-foot accessory house on their property. We’re going to actively engage property owners about this.”

“We could actually get something done quickly; this isn’t pie in the sky,” Mr. Mitchell said. He also made the distinction that tiny houses should not be confused with publicly subsidized affordable housing: “These houses are sold at market rate. There are no subsidies of any sort.”

While the ICTH members are brimming with enthusiasm, they are well aware that they face a permitting and regulatory gauntlet at the state and local levels.

“Technically tiny houses are illegal in Massachusetts. So you can’t get permits for septic and water,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We need to be politically savvy to help move this along at the State House level. I’d like to see a few test prototypes that are given an exemption for a year.”

To address the murky legal questions about tiny houses, Oak Bluffs building inspector Mark Barbadoro wrote a three-page memo on August 25 that begins, “Dear Tiny Home Enthusiasts.” Mr. Barbadoro said, “Particular attention must be given to the room dimensions, egress ventilation, emergency escape and rescue openings, and structural requirements.”

The memo goes on to state that one room must be 120 square feet, all other habitable rooms, except kitchens and bathrooms, must be a minimum of 70 square feet, and ceilings need to be at least seven feet high in all habitable rooms, except for 6 feet, 8 inches, in the bathroom. Every legal dwelling needs a sink, toilet, and a bathtub or shower, as well as a kitchen with a sink.

“If you can jam a bedroom and kitchen into 120 SF, you might get away with 160 SF, otherwise maybe 230 SF,” Mr. Barbadoro wrote in an email to The Times.

The number of occupants also has to be considered. Mr. Barbadoro cited the state sanitary code, which states every “dwelling unit” must contain at least 150 square feet of floor space for its first occupant, and at least 100 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant, the floor space to be calculated on the basis of total habitable room area. Every bedroom must have at least 70 square feet of floor space for a single occupant, and at least 50 square feet of floor space for each additional occupant.

Given the current regulations, the tiny house at the Ag Fair that sparked a movement is illegal.

“There are regulatory issues and zoning issues,” Dan Seidman, chairman of the Tisbury planning board and treasurer of IHT board of directors, told The Times. “There’s only certain parts of the Island where it can be done. Tisbury has a regulation for a mobile home park, but it needs to be updated. You want to put density where density is. If you do that, there has to be some form of payment to those towns to offset the education costs. There are a lot of components involved, but it can be solved. Cluster housing can give working people on the Island a realistic shot at home ownership.”

“A tiny house is a real, viable solution for younger people don’t want to leave the Island, and for old people like me,” Ms. Rose said, adding that she can make her tiny house functional with only an electrical outlet, an extension cord, and a working garden hose.

“I think we reached a tipping point at the fair,” Ms. Lent said. “We’re not saying this is ‘the solution’ to the housing shortage, but it’s a solution.”