Reason.tv released a new video this morning, “Jay Austin’s Beautiful, Illegal Tiny House,” about the problems caused by land-use regulations in Washington, D.C. and other dense urban areas. Houston is highlighted as an example of a city that bucks this trend, but that isn’t quite accurate.
They rightfully point out that regulations prevent developers from expanding the supply of housing as much as a free market would, which results in very high prices.
The video focuses on the way some D.C. residents, such as Jay Austin, have responded to the high, local prices: by building very small, extremely inexpensive houses. His house, featured prominently in the video, was built for less than $30,000.
Jay built a great house, but he isn’t allowed to live in it because it doesn’t meet local regulators’ standards. In the video, he outlines why:
“They’re often built on wheels because they can then escape a lot of the coding requirements, which these homes would violate not because they’re unsafe places to live, but because the minimum size of a room, you know, must be 120 square feet but when these homes are 120 square feet altogether then you have some obvious issues.”
Reason then noted that D.C. has a complex zoning code, and host of regulatory agencies for designing, implementing, and enforcing these rules.
The video transitions away from statist D.C. to free-market Houston, a place where developers and homebuilders can “get away with almost anything.” A voiceover tells viewers “a few simple laws govern lot sizes and set backs from the street… but for the most part developments are regulated by private covenants and deed restrictions. And without city codes, committees, or planners to regulate land use, all sorts of creative expression are possible.”
That is, except for tiny houses like the one built by Jay Austin. Those are illegal in Houston, too.
When I called a Houston building inspector to inquire about the legal status of tiny houses this afternoon he responded first with a laugh, then explained that they aren’t allowed. In Austin’s case, his house would run afoul of minimum room size, plumbing, electrical, and other regulations. As in D.C., he might be able to get around these rules by putting the house on a trailer, or by calling it performance art.
While it’s true that Houston doesn’t have a formal zoning code, it has all kinds of other laws that accomplish similar functions. Planners in Houston have rules about setbacks, lot size, and parking that make many kinds of large buildings off-limits. Houston also has a very long municipal code and a construction code that regulate the minutia of homebuilding. Contractors in Houston still have to submit plans for approval and have their homes inspected. These rules regulate all sorts of creative expression out of existence, just as in other cities.
The problem with D.C. and most places in the United States isn’t just that there are too many bureaucracies controlling land-use and buildings, but that these governing bodies create bad rules. Houston’s rules are better in many ways, but still don’t rely on markets nearly enough to be held up as a shining example for others to follow.
Todd Krainin, the video’s creator, was kind enough to leave a comment. It’s not showing up for some reason, so I’ll paste it here:
As you noted in the above paragraph, the video clearly acknowledges that Houston isn’t an example of a pure laissez-faire housing policy. No such thing in the world exists, except, perhaps, in the Canadian tundra. Instead, the video makes a real-world comparison of DC’s excessive regulation against Houston’s relatively light touch.
He’s correct. But in respect to tiny houses, D.C. and Houston are identical in the sense that both jurisdictions ban them.