The co-founders of an Albany company that manufactures tiny houses are hoping to create a full-sized neighborhood of compact homes in south Benton County, but they’ll have to overcome some legal and financial challenges to do it.
Tor Stuart-Barstad and Nathan Light Watson, who launched Tiny SMART House LLC in 2012 (Stuart-Barstad later transferred his share of the business to Watson, who is now the sole owner), have filed a land-use application with the city of Monroe to develop a tiny house community on the site of a former brick mill.
The proposed Brickmill Meadows would occupy 28 acres north of Mill Street on the east side of Highway 99W. It would have 200 lots for tiny houses — towable structures built on trailer chassis that generally have 400 square feet or less of living area.
Plans also call for some suburban-style amenities, including ponds, a swimming pool, walking paths, community gardens, a common area with laundry machines and other facilities, and even a brewpub. If all goes well, the partners plan to move the Tiny SMART House factory and sales lot to Brickmill Meadows from its current location off Highway 34 between Albany and Corvallis.
While the tiny house movement has drawn a lot of interest from people looking to downsize from a traditional stick-built home, many would-be buyers have been thwarted by local ordinances.
In most localities, tiny houses are too small to meet zoning requirements for residential construction built on a permanent foundation, while living in a wheeled vehicle on residential property can run afoul of anti-camping laws. And even though tiny houses are typically licensed as recreational vehicles, some RV parks won’t accept them and many tiny house owners don’t want to live in RV parks.
“Right now there’s no legal place to park these things without violating zoning laws,” said Stuart-Barstad, an architect by profession.
He and Watson are hoping to solve those issues with Brickmill Meadows and use it as the template for a string of similar developments all over the country.
“If I can do one, hopefully local, I know I can replicate it elsewhere,” Stuart-Barstad said.
But in order to get their first tiny house development built, they’ll need the cooperation of local officials in Monroe, a community of about 600 people in the southern part of Benton County.
“They’re asking for a number of waivers from city standards, and we’ll need to work that out,” City Manager Jim Minard said. “It depends on how flexible the Planning Commission wants to be.”
Specifically, the partners are asking the city for three things: a code amendment that would allow RV parks in any zoning district; a conditional use permit verifying their plan is compatible with surrounding land uses; and a variance allowing them to defer the installation of basic infrastructure such as water pipes, sewer lines and paved streets.
That last request reflects an even larger challenge facing the project: Money. The developers don’t have a lot of cash, and their project is too unusual to qualify for bank financing.
The partners say the landowner has agreed to sell them the property on contract, and they plan to use rental income from tiny house owners to make the monthly payments. Eventually, they hope to demonstrate enough cash flow to persuade a banker to lend them money to complete the project.
Their plan is to develop the site in phases, starting with 84 lots. Phase 1 would be “dry camping,” meaning that residents would have access to electrical hookups but no running water or sewer service.
“I really only need about 50 lots to show the bank this is feasible,” Watson said. “Then we go to the bank, borrow $3 million and build the rest.”
At an open house on the property last Thursday, a steady stream of people stopped by to tour a model home and learn more about the project.
The display model, a custom unit built by Tiny SMART House with a $72,000 sticker price, had 180 square feet of floor space plus a sleeping loft just big enough for a king-size bed. The main living area featured a sofa that converts to a bed; a galley-style kitchen with a two-burner gas range, granite countertops and a full-size refrigerator; a bathroom with shower; an array of storage cupboards; and nicely finished wood paneling throughout.
Visitors peppered Watson with questions about all aspects of the project.
Some were concerned that Brickmill Meadows would never fulfill the developers’ vision, that it would be nothing more than a glorified RV park with overnighters constantly coming and going and a transient, trashy look.
“That’s not what we’re promoting,” Watson said. “We just need a chance to show people.”
Others said they loved the idea of living in a tiny house community but weren’t sure they could afford the monthly space rent on top of the cost of buying the house itself.
“We’re trying to keep (space rent) between $350 and $450,” Watson said. “My goal is to keep (total costs) under $1,200, or $1,000 if we can, for the house payment, rent and utilities.”
Brian Greene, a longtime Monroe resident who stopped by for a look at the model home, said he’s on the fence about Brickmill Meadows.
On the one hand, he said, the community could use some new housing. On the other hand, he’s seen bad things happen when real estate developments fail to perform as advertised.
“Personally, I think it’s a good idea as long as it’s done right — and that means streets, utilities and all that,” Greene said.
“Because Monroe has been dumped on before. If a person’s not going to do it right and it’s going to be basically an eyesore, Monroe doesn’t need that.”
Watson and Stuart-Barstad still have to provide some additional information before their land use application is considered complete, Minard said. The earliest date that a Monroe Planning Commission hearing could be scheduled would be July 18.