Tiny houses on wheels aren't allowed in Santa Cruz County — but the Board of Supervisors is considering changing that.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County homing in on tiny houses as a fix for big affordability issues

To tackle housing affordability and homelessness issues in Santa Cruz County, First District Supervisor Manu Koenig wants to turn to tiny homes. County leaders are agreeing to explore the idea, though the process will take time and several questions remain.

To help fix a big problem, Santa Cruz County is considering joining other California counties by going small: County supervisors have unanimously voted to have county staff explore a proposal by supervisors Manu Koenig and Bruce McPherson to pave the way for more tiny homes to tackle housing affordability.

“Obviously our community is struggling with affordable housing and tiny homes and movable tiny homes provide an excellent option for creating alternative forms of housing that are affordable,” Koenig told fellow supervisors during a recent county board meeting.

Several California cities and counties have recently updated and/or revised their building, planning and zoning codes to include tiny homes. Koenig, who took office in January after campaigning on solving housing woes with the help of tiny homes, said Santa Cruz County should follow suit.

In March 2020, Santa Clara County amended its zoning code to include tiny homes. Other counties that have done the same include San Mateo, Contra Costa, Humboldt, Sacramento and San Diego. “So there’s lots of model ordinance out there, much of which we’ve provided to the planning department to work with,” Koenig said.

Under the county’s current rules, dwellings the size of a tiny home would generally need so-called Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) permits before being built. But putting wheels on such structures — which is common when it comes to tiny homes — “would, under our current ordinances, make these structures today illegal,” Koenig said.

Also, under current county rules, dwellings can be no smaller than 150 square feet. Tiny homes are often smaller than that.

The measure approved by the Board of Supervisors directs the county’s planning department “to explore a permitting process for tiny homes to include, but not be limited to, the addition of tiny homes within the county’s Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance and/or the recognition of tiny homes as primary residences within a new standalone ordinance.”

ADUs, more commonly known as granny flats, have undergone a building boom as of late, with state legislation slashing local restrictions and granting rights to most California homeowners to build them in their yards.

But with Santa Cruz County’s already insufficient affordable housing stock further strained by the pandemic, and residents losing homes to the CZU Lightning Complex fire, Koenig said tiny houses could offer people more options as they look at moving back onto their properties. They also could help address homelessness, he said.

Tiny homes, built to resemble a typical cottage or bungalow, are generally defined as being smaller than 400 square feet. And they come cheaper, Koenig said, than other housing alternatives and can be built quicker.

According to HomeAdvisor.com, the average tiny house in California costs between $40,000 and $100,000 to build.

Movable tiny homes, set on chassis to drive them around, can be between 8.5 feet and 13.5 feet wide, but typically fall into the 8.5-foot range because they need to be able to fit on highways, Koenig explained. They are typically 13.5 feet high.

First District Supervisor Manu Koenig's Tiny House proposal
First District Supervisor Manu Koenig’s pitch to county supervisors to pave the way for more tiny homes during a virtual county board meeting on Jan. 26.

Although fellow supervisors were in support of exploring the proposal further, some cautioned that a number of details would have to be fleshed out. Among other things, Supervisor Zach Friend wondered whether generators would be allowed and whether a new ordinance would differentiate based on zoning or size of a parcel.

“I want to be sure that we’re not doing something that actually has an adverse impact by not thinking through some of these things,” he said.

Others on the board questioned how practical a space of 100 square feet — the starting point for tiny homes in some ordinances in other communities — would be for a resident.

“It’s hard for me to imagine something that small having everything that somebody needs to live,” Supervisor Greg Caput said.

The proposal is expected to come back before the board Feb. 23 with a potential process and timeline for gathering public input. Supervisors also asked to send it to the county’s housing advisory commission and its planning commission for consideration before the item returns before the board.

Go deeper
  • Read the county documents
    Read more about the proposal for permitting tiny homes in Santa Cruz County and submit your comments about the idea. (Note, you must register for the county’s meeting portal before being able to comment.)