Can I Put a Tiny House in My Backyard in Oregon?

How land-use laws apply to tiny houses in Oregon.

Question

I own a house in Oregon. My backyard is large enough to put a tiny house on wheels in, and I've been looking at some adorable ones online. I would like to make some income by renting it, but I also might use it as a home office. Do zoning regulations in Oregon allow tiny houses on wheels in residential areas?

Answer

How land-use laws apply to tiny houses in Oregon can be confusing. Whether a tiny house on wheels ("THOW") is legal in your backyard will depend on several factors, including your intended primary use (for example, for residential or office use), local land use regulations, and the building and safety standards applied to the construction of THOWs.

This answer provides basic information to help you jumpstart your research. To fully understand how zoning regulations will impact your intended use (a tiny house as an accessory dwelling or home office), you will need to carefully review the applicable zoning ordinance, talk to staff at your local planning department, and maybe even talk to an Oregon land use attorney.

Knowing How You Will Use the Tiny House Is Important

In a case like you describe, where you are not sure exactly how you want to use the tiny house, you will need to make a decision as to how you want to use the THOW (at least for now.)

Despite being called tiny "houses," these structures can be put to a myriad of different uses, not just as dwellings. Knowing how you will use your THOW is important because in Oregon, different codes and standards apply to different uses.

For example, an Oregon THOW utilized for an office or art studio may be an allowable use in a residential zone as an accessory use, whereas a THOW used as a second or accessory dwelling (such as a rental unit) may not.

Safety and building standards will also vary between land uses, because Oregon's local governments want to ensure that any building put to use as a dwelling is safe for human occupation.

Local Zoning Regulations Determine What Uses Are Allowed in Your Oregon Backyard

Through land use regulations, usually codified in a "development code" or "zoning ordinance," Oregon's local governments adopt zoning maps and development standards that control the use of land. See Building on Vacant Land: Zoning Issues You Might Face for a general explanation of zoning regulations.

To determine the applicable zoning, as well as what your local laws allow on your property, review the appropriate zoning map and ordinance. Your local jurisdiction may even have a website that allows you to print a property report giving you information about your zoning. If it remains unclear how your property is zoned or what uses are allowed, talk to your local planning department.

If you were planning to build your own THOW, this would also a good opportunity to learn what building and safety standards will apply to the construction. Even when planning to buy a prebuilt one, however, you will want to confirm that it meets the safety standards imposed by your local government.

Using Portland, Oregon, as an example, what you will find in the zoning ordinance is that accessory dwelling units are lawful in all residential zones. The term "accessory dwelling unit" includes tiny houses that meet the development standards. Relevant development standards require the tiny house to:

• be an accessory to a single family residence, row house, or manufactured home

• be built in compliance with the Oregon Structural Specialty Code (so, built on a foundation)

• comply with location (40 feet from front property line) requirements, height restrictions, and building coverage requirements.

It is important to note, though, that a strict reading of the Portland Zoning Code precludes tiny houses on wheels, since you cannot build one in compliance with the Oregon Structural Specialty Code (which does not allow trailers or wheels as a foundation).

Full-Time Residential Use of Tiny Houses on Wheels Largely Illegal in Oregon

When used as a dwelling in a residential zone as an accessory dwelling, tiny houses on wheels are typically illegal in Oregon. You may encounter exceptions that allow camping or like use, but even then, the overnight use of a THOW is usually limited. Using a THOW as a home office or art studio is more likely to be legal because those types of uses do not invoke the same construction standards as a residential dwelling. Such uses also do not invoke concerns about overcrowding and unwanted traffic.

Many view THOW as a means to address affordable housing problems. However, because they are still relatively new and novel, THOW have not gained widespread acceptance in Oregon. No Oregon community has adopted any ordinance that expressly permits tiny houses on wheels as accessory dwellings (though such ordinances can be found in some other states).

If your local government does not allow tiny houses on wheels for residential use, and you want to change that, inquire about the process for amending the comprehensive plan and zoning code to allow THOW. The process may be costly and time-consuming, but if there is enough political pressure, your local leaders may be willing to change your community's land use regulations to allow tiny houses.

Importance of Complying With Local Oregon Zoning Codes (And Other Applicable Laws)

Given the challenges tiny houses pose to local governments and the lack of clear policies, it may be tempting to forgo the permitting process and just put your THOW in your backyard.

This is risky. If a cranky neighbor files a complaint or a noise code enforcer initiates a proceeding against you, you may end up having to remove your THOW and pay a fine. It is a good idea to talk to a land use attorney to fully understand your legal obligations and the risks before making such a decision.

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