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Tiny houses approach completion, Friday, June 16, 2023, at VCP Village in Longmont. Veterans Community Project will soon open doors of VCP Village - a tiny home community for homeless military veterans. VCP Village will feature 26 tiny houses, 5 houses for families, and a community center. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

LONGMONT — The popular tiny home movement is growing bigger in Colorado thanks to a new law aimed at allowing factory-built homes of about 400 square feet or less to become permanent fixtures in neighborhoods and in one case, to be used as an emerging therapy to get homeless military veterans back on their feet.

Advocates say House Bill 1242 , which went into effect July 1, will spur more purchases since it sets building standards for the scaled-down structures. The new rules also allow cities and counties to create legal pathways to let people live in tiny homes for a lifetime as opposed to just 180 days, advocates say. 

“Before this law, we saw a lot of tiny homes the owners weren’t allowed to live in permanently,” said Art Laubach of Einstyne Tiny Homes in Brighton. Sometimes, depending on local laws, a tiny home would be wheeled into a mobile home or RV park and be considered a residence. 

Generally tiny homes were not legally a permanent, living structure in Colorado, Laubach said.

“But now, the new law outlines building codes for counties to use on tiny homes and gives those governments a way to allow people to live in them permanently,” Laubach said. “It’s just another option for people who otherwise can’t afford a standard home.”

“This is a huge deal for tiny-home owners and manufacturers,” he said.

A first-of-its-kind tiny home village is about to open in Longmont, where homeless military veterans can temporarily live for free while getting counseling to overcome symptoms of PTSD. The Veterans Community Project was started in Kansas City, Missouri, by a group of combat veterans looking to get their brethren off the streets and into stable housing. The nonprofit is in the midst of a national expansion that includes the Longmont project.

Tiny homes are a perfect incubator for a community that provides counseling and kinship for emotionally battered veterans who need a place to heal, said Jennifer Seybold, executive director of the Veterans Community Project in Longmont.

Jennifer Seybold, executive director for Veterans Community Project, stands for a portrait inside a model tiny home in Longmont. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“These are people who are used to living in small spaces and this gives them privacy and a dignified space,” Seybold said. The 26 tiny homes in the veterans community vary from 240 square feet for individuals to 320 square feet for families. 

Each home is built on a concrete slab foundation and attached to city utilities, and has a kitchen and a full bath.

Small footprint, tiny cost of living

Sandy Brooks is not surprised by the progress of tiny homes. Brooks bought her 250-square-foot tiny home on her 75th birthday in 2019 and moved to Durango to live in Escalante Village, a tiny home community. Brooks spent about $100,000 on her new home, ignoring her brothers who mocked her choice.

“They told me it’s just a fad,” Brooks said. “It’s not a fad. It’s a lot more affordable than trying to buy a $800,000 house. And a lot more people are figuring that out.”

“My footprint is very small and it takes hardly any time at all to keep it clean. And I spend about $42 on electricity,” Brooks said. “I spend my time outside where I can talk to my neighbors or do something else rather than be locked into my home all the time.”

“It’s time and money well spent for me,” she said.

A model home representing the tiny houses for individuals at the Veterans Community Project Village in Longmont includes a bathroom, sleeping and living areas and a kitchen. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nationally, tiny home sales were expected to grow by about 4% in 2022 and accelerate in 2025, according to The Ascent, a service of The Motley Fool investment advisor group. The growth is fueled by the high cost of owning a traditional home, The Ascent said.

The median price for a home in the United States in 2022 was $428,379, while the median monthly mortgage payment is $1,200, according to Redfin. In all, Americans spend over 50% of their income on housing, according to The Ascent. 

The median price for a tiny home — about 206 square feet — is about $60,000, while total monthly housing costs can be as low as $600 and rarely exceed $1,000, according to Business Insider. This includes utilities and costs of renting a plot of land but does not include monthly loan payments to buy the tiny home.

Laubach is organizer of the annual Tiny House Festival, which finished its sixth run last month. He said the festival features RVs, homemade campers and other on-the-go vehicles for the adventurous. 

TIny homes have lately grown more popular among people wanting to scale back on living costs, he said. This shift in attitude among people from all financial backgrounds comes as American homes, on average, have grown larger over the past few years despite shrinking family sizes, he said.

“People are just looking for a minimal lifestyle and something more affordable to live in,” Laubach said. “It’s quicker to clean and to take care of.”

A huge, lush lawn, meanwhile, is not as alluring in these days of drought and fires, Laubach said. “You realize as your home gets larger, your water use gets larger. And then you see all these fires around us. People pay attention to that.”

Law had affordability in its sights

Colorado has an estimated 3,000 tiny homes, but until House Bill 1242 there was no rule addressing how long someone could live in one. Larimer County started fielding more requests from residents who wanted to live in their tiny homes for more than 180 days. That prompted officials to push for legislation that calls for tiny home standards, including allowing people to reside in them long term, said state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins.

The result will be more viable housing options for Coloradans priced out of the traditional housing market, Kipp said.

“We have such a housing affordability crisis,” said Kipp, who co-sponsored House Bill 1242 during the 2022 legislative session. “We are giving people another option to where to live.”

The bill directed the state Division of Housing to draft rules, including a standard for permanent residency of tiny homes, that took effect July 1. The new law calls for standards to connect tiny homes to utilities, including water, sewer, natural gas and electricity.

In Larimer County, officials will treat tiny homes like other structures that had not been permitted for full-time occupancy, but set a path for prospective owners toward getting a building permit, said Eric Fried, the county’s chief building official.

Building permits allowing permanent residency will be granted if an applicant complies with zoning, setbacks, flood plain and other land use code rules, gets certified by a Colorado professional engineer, master electrician and master plumber, and otherwise follows rules for bedroom emergency escape and rescue openings,  sanitation, ventilation and wildfire hazards, Fried said.

Local governments will establish their own rules for tiny homes, he said. 

“I assume some local governments will adopt similar rules, some may prohibit non-state approved tiny homes entirely, and others may be more lenient than us. It will be up to each authority having jurisdiction,” Fried said in an email.

Some cities and towns in Colorado have already made tiny home living “legal,” including El Paso and Park counties, Durango, Leadville, Lyons and Woodland Park, Laubach said. He said in a news release that he backed the state legislation because it will make tiny home living a “more viable option.

“The legislation will protect consumers by setting standards for tiny home building and manufacturing in Colorado,” Laubach said. “The legislation will also provide a path for counties to recognize tiny homes as permanent dwellings and open up financing opportunities.”

Many hands make light work

Longmont’s Veterans Community Project depends on donations and sweat equity from 90 community partners. Many volunteers show up in the mornings to put finishing touches on the tiny home village, which is set to accept residents by the end of the year, Seybold said. 

Volunteers install a roof, Friday, June 16, 2023, at VCP Village in Longmont. Veterans Community Project will soon open doors of VCP Village – a tiny home community for homeless military veterans. VCP Village will feature 26 tiny houses, five houses for families, and a community center. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Many of the people who will be housed in the village now are living in cars, shelters or are sleeping on couches in a friend’s house, Seybold said. “They really are living in fairly tenuous situations. There is not a lot of stability, which hurts them when they are trying to get on their feet, get permanent homes or jobs.” 

The village rests on 2 acres west of the Boulder County Fairgrounds and includes community spaces such as a fire pit for veterans to gather around. The group also recently opened a 3,000-square-foot community center, where veterans will be able to see case managers to work on problems with health, employment, financial stability and social isolation, Seybold said.

Most will stay up to a year before they strike out on their own, she said. They will have case managers working with them once they leave.

The tiny home village is being developed alongside attached duplexes for Habitat for Humanity and 110 single-family homes and 149 townhomes as part of the 66-acre Mountain Brooks subdivision. The neighborhood is located south of Rogers Road and west of Hover Street.

The venture between the city of Longmont, Veterans Community Project and HMS Development — the builder of the subdivision — is the first in the country to integrate the tiny homes with a high-end developer of single family homes. “A lot of those homes will go for $500,000 to $1 million,” Seybold said. “But that is something we want. To let our veterans be part of an overall community.”

Last year, the Longmont City Council voted unanimously to waive about $189,582 in development fees for the tiny home village. It was an easy decision, Waters, the Longmont councilman, said, since the work done there to get veterans back into society is likely to bring benefits in the future.

“I think it was a small investment that is going to reap benefits later on,” Waters said.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @monteWhaley