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Can tiny houses provide a partial solution to the District’s affordable housing woes? What about for young residents who are thinking about moving elsewhere to find cheaper rent?
The D.C. Council’s Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs on Monday heard testimony from witnesses concerning the Minimum Wage, Living Wage, and Millennial Tiny Housing Amendment Act of 2015, a bill introduced by At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange last November. Orange, who serves as the BCRA chairman, has proposed a plan to build 1,000 tiny houses around the District, which could be purchased by residents making the minimum (currently $10.50 an hour) or living wage ($12.50 an hour), senior citizens, and people between the ages of 18 and 33—otherwise known as “millennials.”
Orange has a certain idea of what these houses will look like. “Don’t let the media construe it: I’m talking about a minimum of 600 square feet,” he said at the beginning of the hearing. Besides size, the bill requires each house to include amenities like a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. The bill would also require all of these houses to be constructed by local small businesses, with a $50,000 cap on construction costs for each home. Orange said that the houses will meet all District requirements and zoning laws.
Location of the proposed houses is an ongoing debate. The bill currently calls for the 1,000 units to be evenly spread across D.C.’s eight wards. “Finding six to 10 acres in each ward is going to be problematic,” Orange said. Some witnesses, including the CEO of KASITA, an Austin-based startup that builds tiny houses and apartments, suggested that building smaller units, and stacking them vertically, could lessen the necessary land use.
The hearing seemed to create more questions than determine definite policy points. Mina Marefat, the principal of design research at the American Institute of Architects, questioned whether a 600-square-foot home available for $50,000 would be sustainable under current market conditions. Once a home was purchased, what would stop the purchaser from reselling it at a much higher price? “There is the potential to increase costs of housing instead of alleviating it, which underlines the importance of regulations,” she said.
The concerns did not stop there: Halfway through the hearing, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau expressed doubts over Orange’s plan to amend the Housing Production Trust Fund Act of 1988 to finance the bill.
While discussing the bill’s plausibility, Jim McGrath, chairman of the D.C. Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition, argued that tiny houses aren’t always viable options for minimum wage workers. Even at $50,000, he said, these houses are “very, very distant possibilities for so many. And what does a family of four do?”
Most of those testifying at the hearing, including Orange, agreed that the plan would inevitably play only a small role in providing cheaper, accessible housing to residents who fit a certain age bracket or make the minimum wage.
Late in the hearing, witness Briane Cornish called into question the fairness of eligibility for the tiny houses. “You are running the risk of perpetuating income inequality in this city,” Cornish said. Millennials, she added, “are going to be the beneficiary of this bill, as opposed to those who are struggling the most.” She said that if the “millennial provision” was tweaked or removed, the bill would still provide fair and necessary housing while creating local jobs.
Disagreeing, Orange said, “I have a commitment not just to the living and minimum wage population but to the millennials as well. We need our young brains to be in the District of Columbia.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery