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Tiny Homes In San Diego Face Big Hurdles

Ashley Mazanec's tiny home is shaded by a large palm tree, Sept. 13, 2017.

Photo by Alison St John

Above: Ashley Mazanec's tiny home is shaded by a large palm tree, Sept. 13, 2017.

A planned “tiny home” community in San Diego's North County has turned out to be a costly failure, and California is not making it easy for those who aspire to live in tiny houses.

Ashley Mazanec lives in a tiny home — described as a house 100 to 400 square feet in size — at an undisclosed location in San Diego’s North County. Mazanec will not talk about where her home is — because the location is a legal loophole.

“Welcome to our tiny home,” she said, giving a guided tour that didn't take long. “I work from home, so I’m usually sitting at this computer. And up here we have our beautiful loft with our king-sized bed, so there’s plenty of space for sleeping — and a pretty normal-sized kitchen for a small apartment — we have little miniature refrigerator.”

Video by Katie Schoolov

A planned “tiny homes” community in San Diego's North County has turned out to be a costly failure, and California is not making it easy for those who aspire to live in tiny houses.

Sitting on the steps of her front porch, Mazanec launches into a passionate defense of tiny homes.

“Tiny houses solve two problems: one is we have a low-income housing shortage all over San Diego, in fact, we are breaking California law,” Mazanec said. “And the second one is, we have a Climate Action Plan that we are not going to be able to meet without more options for eco-friendly housing.”

In a county like San Diego, where the price of vacant land can be well over $100,000 an acre, the idea of building communities of tiny homes makes sense. But it turns out that, while building a tiny home is fairly straightforward, finding a place to put it is much more difficult.

RELATED: San Diego’s Housing Crisis Squeezes The Middle Class

Ben Rawson built Mazanec’s tiny house and he wants to build more.

“Most people are looking to spend about $50,000 on a tiny house, like this one right here,” he said.

That leaves the cost of buying the land to put it on. Rawson is planning to develop a tiny house community where residents can share the costs; it is somewhere in unincorporated San Diego County, but he will not say exactly where yet, because he is still working on the permits.

“Tiny houses, right now, they are undefined,“ he said. “There is no definition in San Diego County code or California code for what tiny houses are, so finding places to put a structure that doesn’t have a legal definition becomes difficult.”

Habitats Tiny Homes business fails

Rawson is not the first to try developing a community of tiny homes. Last year, KPBS profiled Janet Ashworth, who started building tiny homes in Escondido.

She launched a company called Habitats Tiny Homes, built a couple of little homes and had no trouble attracting investors.

Tom Van der Bloemen was one of about 30 people who gave Ashforth a $1,000 deposit to be part of her tiny home community. He is a civil servant who currently owns a three-bedroom house in Carlsbad, but he was contemplating his retirement options.

“Actually, I’ve been interested in tiny homes for 10 years or more,“ he said. “Even before it was popular.”

It did not work out. Van der Bloemen lost his deposit, and others lost much more.

“I think the whole thing kind of collapsed,” he said, showing a sheaf of legal documents that he has collected in the last few months. “This is the fraud case where it’s all clearly stated what happened, where they wrote checks for that amount of money: $62,000." he said. "I think there’s a bankruptcy now and they’ll probably never get their money back.”

Photo by Alison St John

Janet Ashforth stands in the doorway of her tiny home at an undisclosed location in North County, Sept. 15, 2017.

Ashforth is now living in a tiny home in someone’s backyard, also in an undisclosed location in North County. She is facing several lawsuits, and in a number of them, a judge has already ruled in the plaintiffs' favor.

She said living in an individual tiny home like hers in San Diego is a precarious situation because it is classified as a recreational vehicle.

“It’s illegal to live in an RV full-time," she said. "So right now that is basically what they did: made it so you can’t live in a tiny home full-time.“

The other option is to classify it as a mobile home, but in some cases the minimum mobile home size is bigger than a tiny home.

Ashforth said she bought land in Poway, zoned for two houses, with the intention of getting it rezoned for a tiny home community. That is why, she said, she is not planning to refund any deposits.

“They were only entitled to a refund up until we opened escrow on the property,” she said. “So if they were going to backout, they needed to do it before that point, because their deposits were used to purchase the property. So no.”

The money to pay the mortgage on the property ran out before she could get it rezoned for a tiny homes community, she said, because the investors did not follow through on their promise to buy tiny homes from her. She said her tiny homes cost $60,000 or more to build.

Ashforth expects her company, Habitats Tiny Homes, will declare bankruptcy.

“I won’t lose anything,” she said, “because I don’t have anything to lose. I used every dime I had into this project, including credit cards. I am fully invested. When the company tanked, I tanked personally as well.”

Transition housing

Tiny home communities are developing in Oregon and Washington, mostly to help house the homeless. In San Diego, a nonprofit group called Amikas is lobbying to get ordinances changed so communities of tiny houses can be built as temporary transition housing for homeless families.

Photo credit: One Square Villages

A brochure from Opportunity Village touts the benefits of living in a community of tiny homes in Eugene, Oregon, Sept. 13, 2017.

“They’re much more successful in a tiny house village where they have their own space, where they can lock the door and sleep at night and feel like a housed person,” said Jeeni Criscenzo of Amikas. “I think we’ll have a much easier time convincing neighbors that these tiny house villages will be an asset to the neighborhood, versus putting up a tent that brings in 250 people every day.”

But the path still needs to be blazed to build tiny home communities in California, Mazanec said.

“We do need policy that is favorable to tiny houses," she said, "and currently, just the permitting and all of the requirements to be in a tiny house are stacked way against the homeowner.”

California, Fresno and Ojai have passed zoning laws that allow tiny homes. Tiny home communities in San Jose and Sacramento have run into roadblocks as neighbors balked.

Meanwhile, Rawson said he has found three-acres of land in unincorporated north San Diego County for a community of about a dozen tiny homes. He said he is collecting applications from would-be tiny homeowners.

“We’re looking for people who have values that are in line with the tiny house community,“ he said, “people who support organics, who want to go off the grid, who want to create less of a carbon footprint.”

Rawson said he is working with San Diego County staff on the zoning.

“We’re going to break ground this coming spring, 2018,“ he said.

Van der Bleomen has a word of warning.

“I would just say, do your homework. And it’s not nearly as easy as you think it would be.”

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that, in some of the lawsuits filed against Janet Ashforth, judges have already ruled in the plaintiff's favor.

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