Tiny house owners across Florida are seeking peace with local governments

Krsna Balynas and her husband Govinda Carol completed construction of their first tiny house in Alachua in May 2020 and put it on the Airbnb listing a month later – usually just to see what would happen. Within two weeks it was fully booked for almost a month.

Nearly two years later, the couple’s company Simplify Further now rents out 12 tiny houses in Alachua County through vacation rental websites: 11 in Alachua City — including four on their own property — and one in La Crosse. They have hosted more than 7,500 guests.

However, this got them into big trouble. Balynas, 28, said an Alachua law enforcement official came to their home on Feb. 10 and said she and Carol, 35, had a month to comply with city regulations or get rid of about half of the homes.

“Knocking on our door and basically giving us 30 days to shut down our entire business and livelihood without any quid pro quo — I thought it was a bit daring,” Balynas said.

Watch below: Krsna Balynas and her husband have been running their small house business for almost two years. “It actually started when COVID started and we got our first stimulus check,” Balynas said. “We used the money to build our first tiny house.” (Veronica Nocera/WUFT News)

The couple is one of those in the region who have pursued the lifestyle of a tiny house or corporate hustle, and one of many in the state who have faced government pushback.

Tiny homes are usually less than 600 square feet, which allows them to live simplistic, eco-friendly lives, according to their owners. The houses can be built on foundations or on wheels, giving them more freedom to travel during the pandemic and boosting sales.

It is difficult to know how many people in the region and country live in tiny homes, as some choose to live under the radar to escape government and legal hurdles.

However, the Florida Tiny House Enthusiasts Facebook group has more than 15,000 members, and tiny houses have become popular vacation options nationally. Related Airbnb searches increased 791% from 2019 to 2021, and the properties accounted for 17 of the year’s 100 most wanted properties, according to an Airbnb report on travel and living.

But owning or renting a tiny house can be far from stress-free.

Dan Fitzpatrick, 72, is president of the Tiny Home Industry Association, a trade organization founded in 2016. Because tiny houses aren’t typical housing units or even technically RVs, their owners struggle to comply with municipal building and zoning codes, said Fitzpatrick, a former longtime city and county administrator.

Some states, he said, are gradually becoming more supportive.

In 2021, Maine passed a law granting tiny homes the same status as single-family homes. However, no such state law exists in Florida, meaning that current and prospective tiny homeowners are often at the mercy of where they want to live or where they want to move through.

“If you have a good working relationship with your municipal government, you can change some of the codes, rules and regulations to make them more pet-friendly,” Fitzpatrick said.

For Balynas and Carol, working with their local government was a struggle.

Their tiny homes do not meet the part of the International Residential Code that requires tiny homes less than 400 square feet to adhere to separate housing unit regulations. The appendix was incorporated into the seventh edition of the Florida Building Code in December 2020, but like all building code appendices, it is applied by jurisdiction.

On February 16, Balynas and Carol met with Alachua City Manager Mike DaRoza and officials from the Department of Planning and Community Development to plead their case. The couple insisted that the code in question only applies to tiny houses on foundations, and because theirs is on wheels, they must abide by the RV code, which Balynas says is outside the city’s jurisdiction.

A week later, DaRoza sent Balynas a letter asking her to clarify the use of her structures.

“As you know, numerous names have been mentioned at different times, which has made it extremely different for the city to evaluate any issues with them,” Balynas read from the letter in a video posted to Instagram on Feb. 24. names for the type of units built and the use of these units.”

Balynas replied that she and Carol would speak to a lawyer before proceeding.

“Looks like the battle is won but the war continues,” she wrote in the Instagram caption.

The city is still looking for a solution to the matter and would not comment further, DaRoza wrote in an email to WUFT News this week.

Other small home owners say they would like the related laws changed.

Robin “Shorty” Robbins, 64, lives in a small house in St. Johns County. She is on the national board of the Tiny Home Industry Association, which aims to introduce legislation to the Florida Legislature next year. The proposed measure would change the state Department of Motor Vehicles code so that small houses on wheels would not be considered campers, Robbins said.

“We want to live in our tiny homes full time, so not being registered as a camper is better for us,” she said. “It really is an industry that needs to be looked at and taken seriously.”

Robbins built her tiny house herself in 2014 and has been using it for travel for three years. She said she understands the rules for protecting tiny homes from problems such as natural disasters. But she also hopes governments can see them as a possible solution for affordable housing. In Los Angeles, the houses have been used to combat the problem of homelessness in the city.

Kurt Hunt, COO of Atlas Cottage Homes, based in Orlando, also said tiny houses can help with a lack of affordable housing, especially when people go to work. His company’s homes are built on foundations, some of them in Ocala and Inverness, Citrus County.

“Demand outstrips supply, so it raises all rents, it raises all house prices,” Hunt said, “so we started building cottages…particularly in urban areas that lack affordable work housing.”

Mike Cheatham, 46, of Melbourne, owns and operates Movable Roots, a family business that designs, builds and delivers tiny houses. The process can take up to 13 months for the custom-designed homes, and he’s sold more than 30 homes since early 2017, Cheatham said. Working with state, county and local governments to educate officials about how tiny homes differ from RVs has been painstaking, but necessary, he said.

“The county commissioners are the ones really making the change,” Cheatham said.

Some areas are more tiny home-friendly than others. For example, Brevard County changed building and zoning code sections that allowed for small home communities like Braveheart Properties. But with the legal battle related to tiny homes raging in many counties, others are helping portable home owners who need a parking space while traveling.

Maureen Murtha, 34, a communications specialist for Gainesville Regional Utilities, has cows, chickens, dogs and small homes on her 10 acres of land near Lake Butler in Union County.

While she doesn’t own a tiny house of her own, Murtha said she saw people needing a place to park their homes on wheels. At her peak, she has seven parked on her farm.

“I’ve had single people, I’ve had couples, I’ve had people who got engaged, people who broke up, got engaged — the whole spectrum,” Murtha said. “Many different layers of the population, many different economic backgrounds.”

Watch below: Maureen Murtha allows people to park their tiny houses on her 10-acre property near Lake Butler in Union County. At her peak, she said, Murtha had seven small houses on her property, which also housed cows, chickens and horses. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT news)

Jessica Tittl’s tiny house is on wheels on Murtha’s farm.

Tittl, 34, who learned the lifestyle from a documentary about minimalism, moved from her Ohio home to a tiny house in Lake Butler to quit “living a rat race,” she said. This allowed her to return to school and study coral reefs at the University of Florida.

“It was a scary thing to do,” Tittl said, “to go off of what everyone tells you to do in life and just say, ‘I’m going to build a little house and live on a stranger’s farm.'”

Where Murtha lives, there aren’t many code restrictions or neighbors, and she said there are loopholes for people who own farms, such as allowing multi-family housing on farms to help with work. She said she was lucky to be able to take advantage of that.

“If you’re cool, and you want to live in nature, minimalist, and you have a small house and you like me and you like the property, you’ll be fine,” Murtha said. “All the people who have lived here, for better or for worse, have become some of my best friends.”

Mark Cox, 32, used to live on the Murtha property before moving nearby to rent out his tiny home as an Airbnb. Before that, he traveled across the country in his portable home, spending time on a llama farm in Tennessee and in the mountains in North Carolina along the way.

Cox planned to stay on Murtha’s property for a month before moving on, but he stayed for four years.

“Now I see it as my duty to invite others to come and see it,” he said, “hoping that I can open their eyes to it or influence them if they have an idea to build a tiny home.” to build.”

Megan McGlone

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WUFT news

Tiny house owners have plenty of room to park and enjoy the cows, horses, dogs and chickens on Maureen Murtha’s estate near Lake Butler in Union County.

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