By Amanda Kay Rhoades
While struggling to support herself and her daughter while attending Grossmont College, Danielle Drummond knew she had to do something drastic. A two-bedroom apartment on an $11-an-hour salary just wasn’t cutting it.
In San Diego’s expensive and competitive housing market, a full-size home was out of the question. So, she built her own 266-square-foot home for herself and her daughter.
“Ever since that documentary aired on Netflix, hundreds of people have joined my tiny home meetup group,” she said of the group she founded in 2014 and which now has over 900 members. “They don’t all live in tiny houses but they’re interested in tiny living or living sustainably in some way.”
Tiny homes have continued to rise in popularity in the last few years, but San Diego’s housing regulations can make it tough to live small.
“If your tiny home is hooked up to a pickup truck … essentially you’re operating a recreational vehicle. It’s no different from pulling an RV up to the curb and parking it and living there,” said Anthony Santacroce, a public information officer for the city of San Diego.
It’s illegal to park an RV in one place for more than 72 hours in San Diego.
Santacroce said that the city has not yet made codes for tiny homes specifically, but if they became popular enough in the region, that could change. For now, landowners who want to build tiny homes on their property will have to refer to the zoning laws.
“If you’re developing a tiny home that’s on a piece of land, your land, then the permitting, the inspection, the coding – it’s going to be the same as a home that’s 1,500 to 2,000 square feet,” Santacroce said.
Every city within San Diego county has different rules. What’s allowed in Lemon Grove, for example, isn’t necessarily the same as what’s allowed in La Mesa.
“No one bothered me the entire time I was building in Lemon Grove,” Drummond said. “People would come by and leave these notes that said like, ‘I’ve seen these on TV! This is so cool.’ ”
She said she even had to make a sign referring people to her meetup group because so many of them would knock on the door at strange hours.
After she was finished building the home, Drummond moved her home to La Mesa where her daughter goes to school. She had the home parked in a friend’s backyard, and that’s when she started to run into problems.
“We made it two days before the city shut us down. It wasn’t even necessarily a secondary dwelling law, and I wasn’t even hooked up to utilities yet. It was just that I got a nuisance ordinance,” she said. “They decided that it wasn’t in line with the other buildings in the community and that they wanted it gone.”
Drummond said she was given 72 hours to move her house or she’d be fined for every day that the home remained. With the help of her friend, she moved her home back to Lemon Grove until she met her current landlord.
She said she’s been there since December without any problems. But even though she plans to relocate soon to continue her education at San Jose State University, Drummond said she knows someone could force her to move her tiny home at any time.
“I really don’t have high hopes for tiny home living in San Diego. I think it would take a lot more people to create a change,” Drummond said.
Former real estate professional Janet Ashforth has been working on creating the region’s first tiny home community in Escondido. Her company, Habitats Tiny Homes, already has 25 reservations for space in the community.
She said they’re looking at two different sites but haven’t finalized the location yet. Although for this first community the homes will all be built on wheels, Ashforth said she’s hoping to create some on traditional foundations in the future.
“The county and the city of San Diego are finally recognizing that tiny homes are here to stay, and they’re acknowledging that people are going to live in them,” Ashforth said. “But instead of creating a tiny home category, what we have to do is build to RV code, manufactured home code, or factory built home code.”
Ashforth said that after she’s finished building the first community, she hopes to work with government officials to help establish better codes for tiny homes in the future.
For Drummond, the decision to live small was just as much financially driven as it was about sustainability. She said her meetup group are all just looking for alternatives.
“They don’t all have tiny homes,” Drummond said. “They’re just all interested in minimal living, or they’d like to build one some day, or they are building one.”