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Duluth may open door for tiny houses

Proposed code changes head to Planning Commission

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Rick Klun, executive director of Center City Housing, shows off a micro-housing unit his organization built in Duluth as a demonstration unit in 2016. / News Tribune file photo

As the city of Duluth seeks to address a housing shortage, it’s considering a proposal that would allow homes to get smaller.

At present all dwellings built in Duluth must be at least 20 feet wide, but that requirement could be dropped. On Tuesday, Planning Commission members will consider a proposal that would loosen the code, potentially allowing “tiny houses” into Duluth’s mix of residential options.

The change could significantly expand local housing opportunities, said Adam Fulton, interim director of Duluth’s planning and development division.

He explained that the current minimum size rules make housing development on small lots quite challenging, if not impossible.

“We have lots of lots that could be developed that are 25 feet wide, and the required setbacks are 6 feet on both sides. So, that essentially prohibits development on a 25-foot lot, and that’s resulted in lots of vacant lots throughout the city of Duluth,” Fulton said.

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But he said the city still would require small houses to be fixed in place on a foundation and to be connected to conventional utilities.

“We do expect tiny houses, as we expect any house, to comply with the state building code, as adopted by the city of Duluth,” he said.

Self-propelled dwellings or trailers will not be allowed to be used as principal residences in residential neighborhoods under the proposed new rules. Fulton said those types of itinerant units would be confined to seasonal camp, cabin or recreational vehicle parks.

In the popular press, the “tiny house” label has generally been used to describe a dwelling that’s no more than 400 square feet in size, but the city of Duluth makes no use of the term in its proposed code changes.

“The intent here is to enable a greater level of creativity in housing,” Fulton said.

But he said the city also seeks to strike a balance.

“We’re trying to establish regulations that protect existing neighborhoods,” Fulton said, explaining that no matter how small a home is, it will be required to provide off-street parking for at least one vehicle.

The city also is considering a proposal allowing tiny homes to be built in clusters called “cottage home parks.” These types of developments would require a special use permit and would be subject to case-by-case review. Fulton said this cottage-type development would be designed to fit into the surrounding neighborhood, perhaps necessitating landscape elements that screen the view.

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While cottage home parks would allow for some shared common space, individual dwellings would still need to be independent, stand-alone structures each equipped with a bathroom, kitchen and adequate living space.

Fulton said smaller homes could make the dream of home ownership attainable for more people and help address the city’s need for affordable housing. He noted that Duluth will require more housing across the spectrum. A study the city commissioned Maxfield Research Inc. to conduct in 2014 indicated Duluth will need to add more than 3,000 units to its housing inventory by 2020 — above and beyond what’s already been constructed in recent years — to keep pace with anticipated demand.

Proposed new rules would leave the door open for shipping containers to be converted to housing, as well, but with certain caveats. The city notes that these containers must be cleared of any toxins that may be present from cargo spills, as well as wood flooring often treated with chemicals to deter the international spread of any pests.

“We support the use of shipping containers in Duluth for functional purposes. In industrial areas, shipping containers are really intuitive. But shipping containers have had a negative impact on neighborhoods, not just here in Duluth. So, we are looking carefully at what the code says about temporary structures like shipping containers,” Fulton said.

“We’re not saying: Don’t use these as tiny houses, because a shipping container can be a fairly innovative tiny house. But it has to be connected to utilities. It has to be constructed in such a way that it meets the building code. We would not anticipate someone living in a shipping container with no windows, for example,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we want a variety of housing types in our neighborhoods, and that’s part of why we’re bringing this ordinance forward with the Planning Commission. But we also want to recognize that it needs to be done in a quality manner and consistent with our expectations for neighborhood and community spaces,” Fulton said.

Fulton said the city planning and development division receives one to two calls a month from people interested in building tiny houses, and he expects that number of inquiries to grow considerably if the proposed new rules are adopted.

If the Planning Commission votes to recommend code changes, an ordinance would likely advance to the Duluth City Council for a first reading on Sept. 23. It could then be ready for a second reading and a vote by mid-October.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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