TEXT BY JESSE ELLISON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CAIT BOURGAULT
Mobile tiny home advocates question whether a recent legislative victory goes far enough
In retrospect, Armella Brown’s timing could not have been better. Last June, after nearly a year of living with her parents while she saved for a down payment, the 29-year-old yoga instructor and dispensary manager closed on her first home. It’s a tiny home — specifically the 8-by-30-foot, wheeled Allagash model manufactured by Houlton’s Tiny Homes of Maine — and it was pretty much her only option.
Between her “staggering” student loan debt and the fact that the median price of a single-family house in Maine just hit $225,000, home ownership had seemed like it might be out of reach. Then she saw a TV show about mobile tiny homes and thought, “Wait a second, that would be perfect for me. Living on my own, I wouldn’t want to be in a huge house and tied down to a 20-year mortgage. And as someone who has always owned more than I need, I wanted to live more simply,” says Brown, who has nevertheless managed to squeeze two cats, an Australian cattle dog mix, myriad plants and artwork, and a disco ball into her bitty abode.
Brown couldn’t afford to buy land yet, so a tiny home on a foundation wasn’t an option, but between her parents in West Baldwin and brother in Windham, she could park a portable structure. On Craigslist, she found used tiny homes for sale for about half the cost of new ones (the Allagash starts at $76,000), but there was no way to finance them. After months of research, she learned that the only way to finance was to buy a new house through Tiny Homes of Maine, a company founded in 2016 by former engineer Corrine Watson.
With tiny homes — defined as dwellings less than 400 square feet — still largely uncharted territory in Maine, Watson says she spends most of her time trying to work out logistical kinks, such as financing and helping clients find places to park. After starting her business, she worked with the Secretary of State’s office (which oversees the Bureau of Motor Vehicles) to find a way to provide titles for her mobile tiny homes so that banks could finance them and buyers could move them. She thought they’d hit on a solution — registering and titling them as “camp trailers” — and enlisted Gorham Savings Bank to start issuing loans.
But in June of last year, a letter from the Secretary of State’s office went out to every BMV office stating that, due to safety concerns, it would no longer register and title tiny homes. Further, those wanting to move their dwellings would need to purchase a $15 one-time transit permit. Six of Watson’s buyers lost their financing and had to cancel their orders, voiding half of her sales for the year. Brown was her last customer. “I can’t get that time back,” Watson says. “This is my life, my livelihood, and I’m genuinely passionate about helping people live an affordable lifestyle.” She says 90 percent of her inquiries are from single women, like Brown, for whom “life would be so much better if they could not have this ginormous rent or mortgage payment.”
“I think this was a lapse in examination of a business model,” counters Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, who sent last summer’s letter after someone tried to register a trailer he planned to build a house on and maintains tiny house titles should never have been issued in the first place. “The problem is that this is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not a house and it’s not a camper.”
In an attempt to clarify their status, Senator Mike Carpenter, of Houlton, whose district is home to Watson’s manufacturing facility, introduced an emergency bill that would create a new category within the BMV system for tiny homes, clearing the way for titling and financing. “Ten years ago, we’d never heard of a tiny home, so we have to bring the statutes up to speed,” Carpenter says, adding that he considers the legislation a jobs bill, since getting Watson’s operation back on track would create 10 of them in Houlton alone. Days after this issue went to press, the House and Senate voted to pass Carpenter’s bill, which went into effect immediately.
Still, Watson sees a bumpy road ahead. Now, “we’re back to where we were before” — lobbying the state to establish uniform guidelines for mobile tiny homes and lobbying communities to become more accepting of the tiny trend. Currently, towns smaller than 4,000 residents typically do not have regulations prohibiting the buildings, but there are obstacles elsewhere. Last year, Portland became the first to ban mobile tiny structures outright, while in Brunswick, plans to allow them in a mobile home park were thwarted when state building codes deemed them too small.
Brown, meanwhile, who’s temporarily parked at the end of her parents’ driveway and doesn’t know where she’ll settle, is counting her blessings. “I love my house, even with the issues of where to park coming up,” she says. “It’s annoying to deal with, but I wouldn’t go back or change anything. I got really, really lucky.”