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Visions of Felony Flats: Wasilla says no to tiny houses, for now

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: August 28, 2016
  • Published August 28, 2016

WASILLA — The Valley's big-box bastion is closing the door on tiny houses for now.

The city with a Fred Meyer on its namesake lake is temporarily banning the increasingly popular mobile cottages that are part of a tiny-house movement just starting to emerge in Alaska.

There are currently few, if any, tiny homes in the city of more than 8,600 residents, though planners say there's no official tally of undersized dwellings.

But Stu Graham, the councilor who proposed the moratorium, says he wants to head off future problems like rental units falling into disrepair or unsightly little cabins plunked down next to traditional homes.

He invoked the spirit of the Valley's original — or at least most infamous — tiny-house community, one that now haunts the movement: "Felony Flats," a row of squalid cabins plopped down along the Parks Highway at Pittman Road, home to revolving-door tenants and trouble.

Graham said his concern centered on similar situations in other states where unscrupulous landlords put up clusters of little cabins for rent.

"They tended to deteriorate more quickly than owner-occupied housing because it was strictly a financial move," he said. "I certainly don't have anything on people getting a great return on their investments but it has to be balanced with what the community needs to see."

The Wasilla City Council last week unanimously approved a moratorium through February on single-family dwellings smaller than 700 square feet. Member Colleen Sullivan-Leonard was absent.

The council wants to let planning commissioners consider how the small shelters should fit into city code.

Fans of the unusually compact dwellings, whether homes or converted RVs or even shipping containers, say they can do away with mortgage payments, encourage downsizing and are easier on the environment.

They also provide a much-needed lower-cost housing option in Mat-Su, small-home supporters here say.

The Wasilla moratorium baffled Coley Foster, a military veteran who owns Tundra Tiny Houses, a renewable-energy and home-construction company based near Wasilla on Point MacKenzie.

"It's counter-productive as far as people owning land and having a place to live," said Foster, who lives in a 12-by-20 space with a half-loft to save money. "For military families, when you move every three years, it really doesn't make sense to go through the hassle to buy a house."

Homeless and domestic-violence groups in Mat-Su have asked Foster about developing bunkhouses or other forms of lodging, he said.

Asked about the Felony Flats comparison, he scoffed. "I would call those crack shacks. They're not even in the same realm. We use spray-foam insulation in ours. They're super efficient. They're well built. I don't think it's the city's business to tell people what they're going to live in."

It's hard to say how many tiny homes are cropping up in Alaska, though the ubiquitous one- or two-room cabin has been around for decades.

Different municipal zoning schemes originally intended to block people living in cars or RVs make it tricky to park tiny homes just anywhere. Land-strapped Anchorage is actually looking to expand housing options by reviewing municipal code that currently puts up obstacles to tiny-home residents.

Climate also matters: It's one thing to share 400 square feet and a hammock plus outdoor hot tub in California or New Mexico, and another thing altogether grilling on the deck in bunny boots at 20 below.

"A lot of the tiny-house movement that's taking place in the Lower 48 really is happening in places that allow you to live in a tiny house in an environment where you can be outdoors most of the year," said Sandra Garley, community development director in Palmer, Wasilla's neighbor to the east. "In Alaska that works OK mostly during the summer, not so much during the winter."

Palmer doesn't outright ban tiny homes, but the city's building codes require site-built structures to meet life-safety criteria with a certain amount of living space. Structures on wheels must be placed in an authorized mobile-home park and meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development manufacturing standards.

Garley said the city's planning and zoning commission is looking into potential changes to city regulations governing small living units.

Commissioners have taken to watching the HGTV program "Tiny House Hunters," she said.

The Wasilla moratorium proposal initially banned all single-family units smaller than 1,000 square feet, but the council agreed to drop the limit to 700 square feet to limit the effects on small-but-still-conventional homes.

"I have an issue with the government tacking on another regulation," council member Tim Burney said before the square footage changed. "We're talking about private property rights here … How far do we take this?"

Council member Gretchen O'Barr agreed with the property concerns but said a two-hour Google search revealed concerns with the tiny-home movement.

"We have had a lot of problems in the past across the borough where there's no zoning with this type of housing," she said during the meeting, making an apparent reference to Felony Flats.

A Google search for "tiny house problems" revealed 3.1 million hits, including one from Thrillist titled "The Tiny-House Dream is Actually a Nightmare" that described things like dumping composting toilets and cramped quarters.

"I can find a lot of bad stuff about everything doing a two-hour Google search," said Point MacKenzie builder Foster.

About a quarter of Tundra Tiny Houses' inquiries come from military members, he said. Another 25 percent are people from out of state who want to move here.

Their quandary is where it's legal to live off-grid in a tiny house, Foster said. "Up until now, I was like: from Anchorage through Eagle River is out. You're going to have to look further than that. Now I'm going to have to tell them Wasilla also is out."

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