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Photograph by Benjamin Williamson

Welcome to Smallville

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Can tiny-house communities help solve Maine’s affordable-housing shortage?

On Old County Road in Rockport, there’s a tiny house that has a glimpse of the ocean from its front porch. It’s just 192 square feet, and it sits between a red barn and a field that bursts with goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace in summer. The inside is pine-paneled, with a white eyelet curtain in the bathroom, and windows that face the meadow. It’s lovely, like something you would find on Airbnb.

But this dollhouse-like abode is across the driveway from Hospitality House, a homeless shelter and services provider supporting families in Knox County. The structure, built in just one week by the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, is the first of what the organizations hope will be 8 to 12 small dwellings for needy residents on the property.

For the folks at Hospitality House, Habitat for Humanity, and the Maine State Housing Authority (MaineHousing), tiny houses are not just a cute trend on Instagram and cable TV. The buildings — generally described as smaller than 400 square feet — are a possible solution to a statewide lack of affordable housing that officials say has reached crisis levels. In fact, after seeing a prototype for the Hospitality House project, MaineHousing pledged half a million dollars in discretionary funds for a similar “small footprint” project nearby.

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Rockport’s Hospitality House plans to build as many as a dozen tiny dwellings like this one to shelter needy families. The homes will nestle around a common building that will be used for meals and support programming.

Hospitality House currently shelters up to 23 people each night, and there’s always a waiting list. “In real time, it is a desperate situation,” says executive director Stephanie Primm. “The bulk of the people we are serving, moderate-income people, can barely afford to find a small apartment.” The situation has been exacerbated by factors like Airbnb and the area’s intense seasonality — if a property is used as a summer rental, it becomes ineligible for housing vouchers. In places like Knox County, there simply isn’t enough housing stock, no matter how many vouchers the state gives out. People are often forced to leave the area.

Traditionally, the most economical means of creating affordable housing has been to build multi-unit apartment buildings. But the cost of labor and materials is increasing daily, says Mark Wiesendanger, director of development at MaineHousing. And the big-box approach has never worked that well in rural areas. “The per-unit cost is much higher for a few than for many,” he says, “and a small town might not need 30 or 40 units.” The tiny-house village model, already used in places like Detroit and Pickens County, South Carolina, is almost infinitely scalable — you can build two or 20. And they don’t need to be built all at once. Plus, advocates argue, little houses just look better here. “The aesthetic beauty of our communities is really near and dear to people’s hearts,” Primm says. “You can’t just put in a high rise.”

But you can’t just put in a tiny house either. Last spring, a landlord in Portland installed two mini-dwellings on his lot and was almost immediately shut down by the city for violating its ordinances. Other proposed developments have been slow to materialize, like the one proposed by a York developer in 2015 — town officials haven’t heard from him in two years. A Swanville developer said he and a partner hoped to have a tiny-house subdivision in place by summer, but as of September, there was only a road leading to the site.

Projects can get delayed or stymied for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that Maine’s building and zoning codes vary from town to town and are relatively antiquated. “Most of the subdivision laws in the state are the result of a massive in-migration in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” says Denise Lord, MaineHousing’s senior director of communications and planning. “People felt they were being overwhelmed by new residents. Lot and dwelling sizes came about during that time. Now, we’re in a place where population is stabilized, maybe even declining. We’re in a period of adjustment, and it’s hard to change things that have been ingrained for 30 years.”

Last April, the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code (MUBEC) adopted a new set of tiny-house specific standards, allowing for steeper stairways and ladders to lofts, and for the use of skylights as fire escapes. The standards apply to homes on fixed foundations; those on wheels qualify as RVs and are governed by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The new code also only impacts towns of more than 4,000 people — smaller municipalities can make their own rules. Some places, such as Belfast, have taken steps to rewrite their town codes to allow for more infilling, opening the door to possible tiny-house communities in the future.

In Rockport, meanwhile, Hospitality House’s bantam abode stands as a billboard — or, perhaps, a beacon. The organization is waiting until the town finishes a comprehensive review of its ordinances so that the proposed development can fall within any changed rules, instead of requiring an exemption. They have big plans to begin digging tiny foundations sometime in 2020.