TODAY |

Fair Go’s Gill Higgins looks into the complex issue of building a tiny house in New Zealand.

Caroline Smith is worried about being forced off her own land.

She sits on the top step of the colourful tiny house she owns, and says she gets anxious thinking about what might happen to her ponies, goats, ducks and dogs if she has to leave.

This was supposed to be her forever home, nestled among the rolling hills of the Manawatu.

It was affordable, simple living. Until now.

Caroline's had her section for 20 years. She originally lived in an old bus but has recently moved into a comfortable tiny house that she had towed on site.

The tiny house was made to order by a certified builder about two years ago.

She was assured it didn't need building consent, but her local Council decided otherwise.

Like many tiny house owners, she was recently issued with a Notice to Fix and she's worried the unexpected costs of compliance will be more than she can afford. 

Caroline thinks the fair approach would be for simple, tiny homes on wheels like hers to have an affordable consent process.

Keeping things low-cost has always been key to Caroline's existence. The land cost her just $2000 some 20 years ago and her tiny house cost less than $40,000 for the home, furnishings and decoration. She grows her own vegetables and hasn't eaten meat for years. She makes a modest income by scouring charity shops for treasures, cleaning them up, and reselling them on Trade Me.

It's enough for her to pay the rates and to feed herself and her animals. It's nowhere near enough to buy or build a traditional house. So the concept of a tiny house on wheels, a simple no-fuss construction, that could be driven on site, connected up to services like a caravan, and wouldn't require building consent, was a dream come true.

So what's it like? The 6m x 2.4m dwelling includes a sunny lounge/kitchen which also serves as an office. There's a mezzanine bedroom where she likes to read books, and a bathroom with a bath and toilet. The toilet consists of a built-in space for a removeable bucket with a lid. She has a water tank, and gas and electricity that are easily disconnected.

It's home, and she's happy. At least she was happy for two years until the Notice to Fix letter arrived in the post from Manawatu District Council.

It said if she didn't get a Certificate of Acceptance within three months, including the Christmas period, she'd face a fine of $200,000.

Caroline says she felt "picked on", believing that her opposition to a glass recycling centre put her on the wrong side of the council. She says they've refused to indicate what might need changing to give her an idea of costs.

It's a stalemate, with the Council arguing the tiny house came to their attention after receiving "complaints'. Once aware, they say they had to act as all buildings must have consent, even tiny houses on wheels.

But this is the sticking point. Caroline is adamant her tiny house on wheels isn't a building according to the Buliding Act 2008. It's all down to nuances in definitions and a consensus is yet to be reached.

The move by Councils towards a catch-all definition of what is a building has led to a multitude of complaints from tiny house owners all over the country.

It's causing a lot of confusion and heartache, especially as Councils' approaches to consent vary from one region to another. Some are calling on tiny house owners to spend thousands of dollars on fees to comply with district plans or secure Certificates of Acceptance.

This in turn has led to homeowners seeking determinations from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

In the past, several homeowners won their cases, but, more recently, MBIE has largely found in favour of Councils. 

This was true for the latest, high profile case.

Just last month, MBIE found in favour of Hurunui District Council who issued Alan Dall with a Notice To Fix saying that his tiny house on wheels is a building and needs consent.

He continued to argue that it was a vehicle rather than a building, and appealed his case in Christchurch District Court.

The judge ruled that the Council and MBIE were wrong to define his tiny house on wheels as a building, and ordered the Notice to Fix to be withdrawn.

The judge stipulated that Alan's tiny house on wheels is, indeed, a vehicle.

It's good news for Caroline, who has also sought a determination from MBIE regarding her Notice to Fix.

In fact, the tiny house community is claiming this victory as a game changer.

But the battle is far from won, and a survey of more than 200 members of the tiny house community shows just how much confusion remains when it comes to building compliance requirements.

In a country with a recognised housing crisis, the addition of inspection costs and red tape to an affordable housing solution seems to make no sense.

It doesn't sit well with Green MP Gareth Hughes who believes Councils should show compassion until a national approach that is fair and sensible is approved.

He's not against regulation. But he is opposed to putting tiny houses in a one-size-fits-all group for dwellings when current compliance codes were clearly designed for long-lasting solid structures with foundations.

However, instead of constructive discussion around the table, arguments look set to continue in the courts. The matter isn't just an issue for private owners, but for commercial tiny house manufacturers too.

The solution Hughes and others are seeking is a code of compliance specifically designed for simple dwellings. This would have simpler tests, and less need for costly engineers and inspectors.

He argues the difference this could make would be huge.

If we look to international experience, we see that changes are slowly starting to happen in places like the UK and the US, though the legalities around tiny homes remain complicated.

One example of a positive development in the US was a change to the International Residential Code (IRC) to establish, for the first time, specific guidelines for tiny houses.

The IRC is now used across the country as a model for local building departments. It doesn't change the requirements for electrical or plumbing systems but it does allow for more appropriate standards when it comes to building design.

In another example, the city of Spur in Texas has changed its relevant housing laws with the express intention of attracting tiny housers in response to a declining population. Spur is pitching itself as the first tiny house friendly town in America.

Over in the UK, there's been a change in southwest England to the requirement for all new dwellings to have more than one bed space. Bristol City Council made the change to allow several tiny homes to be built in the back garden of a terraced house in the suburbs. The rationale was that the change would help alleviate a local housing crisis.

So changes can happen, if the political will is there.

In New Zealand, tiny house owners would like to see that political will come from the very top, to reduce the variation between councils.

At present, there are no clear indications of any change afoot, but momentum within the tiny house community is growing, and they're adamant their voice will be heard.