Traverse City Record-Eagle

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February 17, 2013

Living small is getting bigger

TRAVERSE CITY-- A growing number of people are living small.

Take Jeff Anderson and Sandi McArthur, who live in an 800-square-foot home just north of Cedar in Leelanau County. They enjoy a cozy woodstove, a gorgeous view, and cross country skiing. Their utility bills are pretty nice, too, totaling less than $1,100 a year.

"I've gone so far left, I've turned right," Anderson joked. "It's a conservative, very practical choice."

Tiny homes take a lot of thought, first to design, and then owners must decide what to possess — as in two sweaters instead of 10, he said.

"Right now, a lot of people use the environment as a dumping ground for poor thinking," he said.

Ray Minervini, developer of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons on Traverse City's west side, reported huge demand for his 350-square-foot condos. Some rent for as low as $450 a month.

"There are no vacancies," he said of the 15 smallest units. "And if we had 50 more of those units, we could rent or sell them immediately."

For some, the condo is a second home. For others, it's their only home.

"You just scale down and get rid of things you don't need," he said.

Minervini might build another cottage of mostly small units. People like them because they're affordable and in town, he said.

Nationally, the average new home size peaked at 2,500-square feet in 2007 and has shrunk since. A 2,150-square-foot average is predicted by 2015, according to The Demand Institute May 2012 report.

Minervini said the new trend is a throwback to the post-World War II, when 800-square-foot homes were trendy. Over the decades, houses grew and grew, but so did the expense.

"You have to generate a hell of a lot of revenue to keep that lifestyle up," he said.

Ray Kendra, who teaches college classes on sustainable building design, said tiny homes don't sound too practical for year-round living. But other "out there" ideas have become mainstream. He points to water-less urinals installed at the BATA Bus station seven years ago.

"People asked us, 'How can you have toilets with no water? That makes no sense,'" he said. "Now you drive into a rest stop on I-75 and you have water-less urinals. They obviously work."

Rolf and Mari von Walthausen intended to live in a tiny home, but have to stay with family and friends until zoning issues are resolved.

About a year ago, the couple moved north of Cedar into a 240-square-foot home with no electricity or indoor plumbing. They also pulled another 240-square-foot structure onto the property, this one with electricity and indoor plumbing — a nod to the realities of work life. Rolf works as a piano tuner and Mari teaches yoga and nature classes.

Rolf said a tiny home isn't for everyone, but they sought a simpler life, free of debt and full-time jobs and gentler on the earth.

They believed they could avoid Centerville Township's 800-square-foot minimum because of its nomadic clause — they intended to move from one tiny home to another. They learned later they could only live up to 60 days on each taxable parcel. In late December they were told to move out.

Rolf said it would have been easy enough to live illegally under the radar, and said he knows "a boatload of people" who do.

"But we went into this trying not to hide," he said.

An existing mobile home on the property could have kept the two tiny homes in compliance in terms of minimum footage, yet the couple decided it had to go.

"It had asbestos, mice filled the walls. It held no heat. But the county said it was habitable," he said.

The issue recently prompted the Centerville Planning Commission to review its minimum square footage rules.

Leonard Kelenski, Centerville Township's supervisor who helped write the 800-square-foot minimum in 1979, believes the standard protected property values. No one questioned it before, in part because houses trended toward bigger, not smaller.

"We'll have to have public hearings and see what the public wants," he said.

Rolf faces several more months of meetings and a fine for a civil infraction — the couple didn't obtain the necessary permits for either structure. But Rolf said he's grateful for the township's openness.

"The more people who get out there and insist on change, the more it will be accepted," he said.

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