Tiny houses need a place to park

Gary Wissenden

Director – Urban Planning

Gary is a town planner with over 16 years’ professional experience in public and private sector roles. His career has taken him to the United Kingdom as well as the Cities of Stonnington, Yarra and Glen Eira in metropolitan Melbourne, in addition to more than eight years in the private sector working across metropolitan, peri-urban, coastal and rural projects. As a planner, Gary has managed a diverse range of statutory planning projects including mixed use and residential developments, commercial and retail projects, a range of liquor license and entertainment venues, education and institutional projects as well as telecommunications and infrastructure projects. Much of Gary’s expertise lies in advocacy work. He regularly represents the public and private sector at VCAT and public meetings, providing professional and balanced advice. In addition to his statutory planning work, Gary maintains a keen interest in strategic planning. He has worked on several land use strategies, with a focus on the coastal regions of Victoria. His strategic experience also extends to Hansen Partnership's work in Vietnam. Gary is an active member of Victoria’s planning industry bodies such as the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) and the Victoria Planning and Environmental Law Association (VPELA).
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Tiny houses are the ‘next big thing’. Or so we’ve been told for the past five years. For the sake of this article, given there is no exact definition on the specific size of a tiny house, I consider a tiny house to be an independent single bedroom/bathroom/kitchenette dwelling of less than 50 square metres.

Yet despite the attention these sleek, sustainable boxes continue to generate, few Victorians will actually live in one until the planning scheme changes.

Yes, tiny houses are being built and used – as holiday lets, and by a brave few who park them in friends’ backyards, hoping neighbours won’t tell local authorities. But changes to the planning scheme are needed to tip the tiny house movement into the mainstream.

There are currently three main options in Victoria for locating a tiny house:

1) In a backyard as a ‘dependent person’s unit’. More commonly known as a ‘granny flat’, the unit must be moveable and house a genuine dependent.

2) As an approved second dwelling on your lot. This option requires a planning permit as well as compliance with Rescode and the building code. This option is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve as current planning policies refer to dwellings of regular size rather than tiny houses and the creation of tiny house lots would be similarly onerous.

3) In a caravan park — caravan parks are rare in urban areas and often lack amenity.

In order for Victorians to reap the benefits of the tiny house movement including increased housing choice, sustainability and affordability, there are a number of changes required to planning policy.

First, planning provisions for dependent person’s units should be relaxed: you should not have to be a dependent to live in a granny flat or similar.

This would improve density in the ‘missing middle’ ring of Melbourne suburbs, create affordable housing with excellent amenity, deliver more options for people to ‘age in place’, and appease those concerned about towering developments affecting neighbourhood character.

Retirees could buy a safe, custom-built tiny house in a friend or relative’s garden (while meeting all the usual requirements to protect privacy and amenity). This would allow them to stay in the neighbourhood they know and love, while contributing a small lease.

Young people could buy their first (tiny) home in a great suburb and avoid having to decide between a crippling mortgage, a long commute or becoming a perpetual tenant.

Others could gain extra income by installing a tiny house as a rental. These new houses would be better constructed and more energy efficient than older rental stock and allow tenants to live close to work and amenities, all while saving for a place of their own.

‘Tiny house villages’ should also be defined in the planning scheme, distinguishing them from caravan parks, which can be sprawling and isolated with basic holiday-style dwellings. Tiny house villages could win approval on the grounds of providing thoughtfully designed, eco-friendly homes in areas with excellent amenity, including transport options (which would limit or remove the need for carparks).

Winning public support for these ideas will be challenging, but attitudes are changing. Hansen’s Planning Team helped secure planning approval for the Launch Housing project, designed by Sophie Dyring of Schored Projects — a village of small units (slightly larger than a typical tiny house) for the homeless, located on under-utilised government land in Footscray and Maidstone.

This approval should hearten fans of the tiny house movement and prompt interest in how under-utilised land in Melbourne can be put to better use. Off-grid tiny houses mean huge savings on utilities and are a particularly attractive option for this type of land.

Projects such as Launch also provide a strong, public example of how important it is for everyone to have a place of their own.

As a study by Griffith University discovered, the main driver for those interested in tiny houses is not fashion, but economics. Interest among recipients was in fact strongest among women over 50 — the fastest-growing demographic for homelessness in Australia.

One respondent to the study said: “I just want to own my home. I have been a renter for 30 years and long to own my own space and have more freedom to do things I love and work less.”

It’s a plain truth that highlights how planning provisions for tiny houses could make a big difference.