Orange County

Can Chapel Hill, Orange County fill the affordable housing gap with tiny homes?

Carrboro Alderwoman Bethany Chaney lives in a nearly 400-square-foot tiny home in a cul-de-sac of larger, more traditional homes off Hillsborough Road in Carrboro. Chaney said the small home fits her lifestyle without breaking the bank.
Carrboro Alderwoman Bethany Chaney lives in a nearly 400-square-foot tiny home in a cul-de-sac of larger, more traditional homes off Hillsborough Road in Carrboro. Chaney said the small home fits her lifestyle without breaking the bank.

Millennials are the fastest-growing tiny home population, experts say, in part because rising college debt has left them wary, but also because it reduces their environmental footprint and leaves them free to go where their passions take them.

That resonated with Nathan Huening and his wife, who have lived in their moveable, 250-square-foot, two-loft tiny home in Orange County since 2016. Their lot rent and utility fees are modest, he said, but their life is rich, allowing them to save money, volunteer and do other things that make them happy.

They are “relatively privileged in that we are college-educated and have pretty good jobs,” the Carrboro web designer said, but tiny homes also could benefit others who lack their options.

“From a personal standpoint, we thought it was important, but also from this larger standpoint of how we build our communities, how we live and our carbon impact, that we thought it was a worthy endeavor,” he said Monday at a Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town discussion.

Tiny homes are defined as less 400 square feet, but most are between 170 and 300 square feet, said April Kemper, with the Chapel Hill Tiny Home Initiative. They are built similarly to traditional homes and also meet residents’ daily needs, including areas for sleeping, cooking and sanitation. They cost $17,000 to $95,000 each to build, much less than Chapel Hill’s median home value of $362,000, she said.

Although tiny homes can be built on a permanent foundation, more traditional models are built on a trailer that can be moved with a pickup truck. That model is self-sustainable, eliminating the cost of buying land and hooking up to water and sewer utilities, Kemper said.

Tiny home, big hurdles

However, North Carolina building codes and local zoning, lot size, parking and setback rules make it hard to build tiny homes and even more difficult to build one that’s moveable, because it’s considered a recreational vehicle. Chapel Hill limits RV living to 180 consecutive days.

That also makes it impossible to get a bank loan to build a tiny home, Carrboro Alderwoman Bethany Chaney said.

But a recent International Residential Code change has opened the way for local and state governments to allow tiny homes built on foundations. The Chapel Hill Tiny Home Initiative asked the Town Council to adopt those tiny home standards with a petition Wednesday. The council will discuss the petition at a future meeting.

Other N.C. towns are forging ahead, including Flat Rock, which petitioned the N.C. Building Code Council for an exemption to create the Village of Wildflowers, a community of tiny homes on trailers that replaced an aging mobile home park. The village was sold last year and renamed The Village at Flat Rock, NC. The buyer, Simple Life Hendersonville, is planning another community across the street.

Greensboro and Asheville also have made changes to their local codes that support the tiny home movement, Kemper said.

The Village of Wildflowers in Flat Rock, N.C. – a community of tiny homes on trailers – replaced a former mobile home park after developers got an exemption from the N.C. Building Code Council. Kevin Meechan Submitted

In Chapel Hill, the Church of the Advocate on Homestead Road is working now with the town on plans for three Pee Wee Homes to serve formerly homeless men. Pee Wee Homes and its partners also have created a tiny home duplex – each studio apartment is 320 square feet – to serve formerly homeless individuals or couples in the Northside neighborhood.

Not ‘shack houses’

Despite the many advantages, tiny homes aren’t for every family and they have their critics, including homeowners concerned about how a tiny home next door might affect their property values. Research has found no evidence that tiny homes lower property values, said Kimberly Brewer, with the Chapel Hill Tiny Home Initiative, but those built as accessory homes to larger homes have been shown to increase the property value.

Others have argued the tiny home movement is an attempt to push low-income families into small homes, instead of providing apartments or larger, affordable homes. They’ve gotten a couple of emails about the “shack houses,” Kemper said, but the people most concerned are those who wouldn’t want to live in a tiny home themselves. They’re not thinking about what the person who needs a home wants, she said.

Tiny homes are just one solution to a local and national affordable housing crisis, said Susan Levy, Habitat for Humanity executive director. Orange County’s apartment rents have risen 16 percent in five years to well over $1,000 a month, she said, and there is no affordable housing for people earning minimum wage. The county needs to add at least 5,000 affordable homes for people earning less than $20,000, she noted.

“I believe that tiny homes is one piece of a very complicated puzzle, and that the more options that we have, the more tools that we have to approach the affordable housing crisis, the more chance we have to have an impact,” she said.

Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen also has been exploring how to allow tiny homes. Chaney spent about $90,000 to build her nearly 400-square-foot tiny home on half an acre. It fits her lifestyle and her income as a small business owner, she said.

“We need that kind of diversity, and we need the environment in which every person can feel like they belong in our communities and they can live affordably because they can and not because their only option is that park bench or those bridge trusses,” she said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What is a tiny home?

▪ 400 square feet and smaller

▪ Limited to 8.5 feet wide and 13.6 feet tall, so it can travel on the highway

▪ Affordable, sustainable and easy to locate and hook up to utilities

▪ Meets all daily needs, including sleeping, cooking and sanitation

▪ Built like a traditional house

▪ Typically costs $17,000 to $95,000 to build

▪ Tiny home dwellers are largely millennials and adults over age 50, especially women

What’s next

Tiny homes will be among the options discussed Friday, Feb. 23, at the Orange County Affordable Housing Summit, at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, 940 Carmichael St.

The summit also will be live-streamed on the Town of Chapel Hill’s Facebook page,, and program materials will be posted by the Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition at