A proposed change to city code would mean tiny homes on wheels could be placed on residential mobile home lots. (KCAW/Rose)

An effort to make room for more affordable housing in Sitka was put on pause Tuesday (1-28-20) night, when the Sitka Assembly postponed voting on a proposal that would bring tiny houses under Sitka’s residential zoning code.

Tiny homes — cute, portable, micro-houses on wheels, arrived in Sitka a few years ago. But if they’re on wheels, they’re illegal to live in year-round. That could change under a new proposal to make the structures legal in some residential zones — specifically, in mobile home parks. If it passes, Sitka would be one of the first communities anywhere to do so.

The proposal was crafted by special projects manager Scott Brylinsky, and was approved by the Planning Commission in January. The code amendments would provide definitions for tiny houses on foundations and on wheels, set safety standards, and provide options for their placement. Brylinsky said houses 400 square feet and smaller would fall within the new guidelines. 

“Tiny houses on chassis as well as regular tiny houses on a permanent foundation would be built with a building permit, be inspected by the building department during construction, and then be inspected for safety before they were approved for occupancy,” he said.

Assembly Member Thor Christianson asked if they could define “chassis,” in the code to be sure RVs wouldn’t fall under the new “tiny house” definition. Sitka’s code states that RVs are not legal permanent dwellings in residential zones

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of tiny houses,” Christianson said. “But I think we need to define chassis a little bit, to something like in that picture, where it’s obviously not intended to be regularly taken out on the highway.” 

Other assembly members had questions about safety and standards, and wondered how houses that were built out of town and barged in would be inspected. Though several letters in the packet voiced support for the plan, assembly members referenced a letter written by a member of the public who was concerned about the risks the city would assume if it developed regulations around tiny homes on wheels. Member Richard Wein said the concerns led him to favor taking a pause.

“I thought it was thought provoking enough,” Wein said of the letter. “Things come back to the assembly for second readings. I would almost think this would not be a bad idea to go back to planning for a second reading to see if things need to be buffed.”

Brylinsky said that tiny houses on chassis currently have no legal standing in Sitka. And there isn’t much of a precedent elsewhere: tiny homes on wheels are legally considered RVs in most parts of the country. Brylinsky proposed aligning the city’s code with International Residential Code standards for tiny homes. 

“To my knowledge we haven’t had any tiny homes built on permanent foundations in Sitka. We’ve had a couple smaller homes but nothing 400 square feet or less,” he said. “If the idea is to provide affordable housing options but not to allow them on chassis, we’re kind of cutting them off at the knees as far as the ability to use these small homes as I think people want to use them.”  

But when it came time to vote, assembly members still had questions. Member Kevin Mosher said he was in favor of the proposal, but with the concerns presented, he worried that it wouldn’t pass. 

“This is just a token in a way, this is just the beginning to try to help people out,” he said. “So I’m willing to wait. I wish we could have voted to support it now, but I don’t want to take a vote if we’re not going to pass it.” 

Christianson said he would vote in favor of the changes to code if they could include a definition for chassis, but the city attorney said that would constitute a material change, meaning the item would need another full reading.

Ultimately the assembly voted unanimously to postpone the vote on tiny houses until its regular meeting on February 11. 

Read more coverage of the (1-28-20) Sitka Assembly meeting here

Listen to the full meeting here

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated that tiny homes on chassis are legal on industrial lots, but they are not. We have amended story to accurately reflect that, according to current city code, tiny homes on wheels have no legal standing.