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Is America Ready for a Nation of Tiny Houses?

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Craftsman tiny house by Zyl Vardos. Abel Zyl / Shuttertstock

Late last year, the tiny house community celebrated a watershed moment—an official appendix in the 2018 version of the International Residential Code, the model building code used by most jurisdictions in the U.S.

"There are many things that are monumental in the adoption of tiny house construction codes by the IRC," cheered Thom Stanton, the CEO of small space developer, Timber Trails. "Among them, that architects, designers, builders, community developers and (maybe most importantly) zoning officials have a means of recognizing tiny houses as an official form of permissible dwelling."


Although it will take a few years for local governments to formally adopt the new code, the appendix gave the tiny house movement something it had long sought: Legitimacy.

What's a Tiny Home?

Tiny homes are generally between 100 to 400 square feet and can be built on wheels or a permanent foundation. Some might deride these micro-homes as glorified trailers, but there's a lot to admire about the lifestyle.

The architectural and cultural phenomenon emerged after the 2007-2008 housing market collapse, as recession-scarred folks abandoned the McMansion fantasy and chose to significantly downsize. Proponents of tiny houses tout their cheaper costs, freedom from unnecessary material possessions and a smaller environmental footprint (see infographic).

Frankly, some of these dwellings—like this 240-square-foot, completely off-grid tiny house nestled in a Hawaiian rainforest paradise—make me want to leave it all behind too.

Enthusiasts also suggest that tiny homes could address homelessness and add affordable housing options in cities experiencing extensive gentrification and rising costs of living.

Portland, Oregon, for instance, needs tiny houses "to keep its own identity in place," Michelle Boyle, who lives in a tiny house in nearby Sherwood and hosts the Tiny House Podcast, told Portland Tribune.

"In order to encourage diversity in your population, you have to encourage diversity in your housing stock," she added.

Indeed, Oregon's largest city has seen home prices outpace much of the nation. The median price of homes currently listed in Portland's metro area is $404,990, according to Zillow.

"There are people who Portland would love to have living in our city, but they can't afford it any more," local small-scale developer Eli Spevak told the Tribune.

Tiny homes are certainly cheaper than building or buying a "regular"-sized house because of their small size. Prices for tiny homes vary widely, but GOOD Money crunched the numbers and determined that a DIY tiny house costs between $20,000 to $30,000. Contracting a professional builder or buying a prefabricated unit ranges from $50,000 to $449,000 (like this luxurious 315-square-foot "mini mansion" in Maryland).

Why Go Tiny?

Despite the proliferation of HGTV reality shows and documentaries on the topic, tiny house living is far from the norm. New American homes are actually bigger than ever. The typical single-family home in the U.S. is roughly 2,500 square feet, about 50 percent larger than in the late 1970s.

Some might find tiny living too small and even abandon ship. The Atlantic examined the psychological toll of living in New York City's first micro-apartments, which range from 260 to 360 square feet, and warned about possible claustrophobia and crowding-related stress for some residents.

"Sure, these micro-apartments may be fantastic for young professionals in their 20s," Dak Kopec, the director of design for human health at Boston Architectural College, said in the article. "But they definitely can be unhealthy for older people, say in their 30s and 40s, who face different stress factors that can make tight living conditions a problem."

Then there's the whole legal issue. Although these rules are slowly evolving (i.e., the new tiny house appendix), the country's decades-old zoning regulations and patchwork of building codes just won't allow you to wheel or construct a tiny house onto whatever empty lot you like and call it home.

There are two types of tinys with specific rules for each. First, there's the tiny house on a foundation, which is legally considered an Accessory Dwelling Unit. ADUs—small or tiny homes built on the same property of an existing home—are subject to local laws such as minimum square footage requirements and will probably require a permit to build.

The second type is the portable tiny house, or a tiny house on wheels, which is typically classified as a recreational vehicle (RV), meaning it could require licensing and registration at a state transportation department. Legally parking a tiny house on wheels is also a frequent issue that also varies by jurisdiction.

Because of all these rules, tiny housers sometimes live under the radar and just cross their fingers that a nosy neighbor won't alert the authorities.

If that isn't enough of a headache, online you'll find a whole host of other complaints (it's just a fad; they're difficult to resell) as well as thoughtful arguments (the unavailability of open space and the high cost of land in urban centers) against tiny homeownership.

The New Minimalism

Tiny homes aren't for everyone, but it's clear that their popularity is far from waning. An expanding list of micro-communities are popping up around the country and in January 2016, Fresno, California became the first city in the nation to develop tiny house-specific codes. Fellow Californian city Ojai followed Fresno's footsteps not long after.

Back in Portland, the famously progressive city has become an epicenter of the tiny house movement (of course) and is even a national leader in ADU development. In 2016, the city granted about as many building permits for ADUs as for regular single-family homes.

And late last month, with very little fanfare, Idaho became the first state in the nation to adopt the tiny house appendix.

"This is a huge step forward for everyone who wants to live legally in their tiny home," declared Andrew Morrison of Tiny House Build a day after the vote. "There is still a lot of work to be done in Idaho, but this is absolutely the best outcome from yesterday's vote."

Morrison, a veteran tiny house builder, co-authored the tiny house appendix and spearheaded efforts to get it approved. He is now working on an appendix specifically for movable tiny houses.

As the Portland Tribune noted, "many obstacles remain before tiny houses on wheels get the same treatment as ADUs here and elsewhere, but many say it's inevitable, given spiking house and rent prices and the growing popularity of tiny houses."

At least for now, it looks like this movement is not-so-tiny after all.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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