Living in My Tiny House Not Allowed: Can I Use It as an Art Studio or Office?

Dealing with the issue of when tiny houses are too small to qualify as a legal dwelling.

Question

After we placed a tiny house in our backyard to use as a mother-in-law suite, we learned that such use is not legal on our property because there is a minimum 300 square feet requirement. Our tiny house is not quite that big. We do not want to move or sell the tiny house. Can we use our tiny house as an art studio, home office, or other similar use instead?

Answer

To answer questions like this, a good place to start is with the applicable zoning ordinance (also sometimes referred to as a “development code”.) The ordinance consists of two parts: a zoning map and land use regulations. The zoning map identifies how property is zoned throughout the city or county, while the the land use regulations control the allowable uses in each zone. The map and regulations can usually be found online.

Property is often zoned as residential, commercial, or industrial. However, it is common for property to be more specifically classified into zones like “high density residential” and “low density residential.” If you are unsure how your property is zoned, you will want to identify the zoning district that your property is located in by looking at the zoning map. In most cases each zone will be color coded, so that the zones can easily be identified when looking at the map. You can also contact the local planning department to inquire how your property is zoned.

After confirming how your property is zoned, you can determine what uses are allowed in that zone by looking at the land use regulations. For example, in a high density residential zone, you might find that single-family dwellings, accessory dwellings (which is the technical name for mother-in-law suites), multi-family dwellings, and home occupations are allowable uses.

Some uses may not be permitted “outright,” but may be permitted as a “conditional” or “special” use. So, in a low density residential zone, single family residences may be permitted outright, while accessory buildings and home occupations may be permitted only as conditional uses. Special uses and and conditional uses will normally require a more burdensome application process and, if approved, certain conditions may be imposed. For example, additional on-site parking may be required with a new accessory dwelling.

In many locations, the problem with tiny houses is that they do not meet the minimum requirements for a structure to qualify as a dwelling. For example, to qualify as a dwelling, in most jurisdictions, a structure must be minimum size (such as 300 square feet). Those same requirements are not always imposed on non-residential uses.

In cases like this, since you are not considering using the tiny house as a dwelling, one option is to consider whether a home office or art studio may qualify as an “accessory use” (or similarly defined use). The definition of “accessory use” varies from place to place, but it is usually defined as something like: “Accessory uses and structures are those of a nature customarily incidental and subordinate to the principal use or structure on the same lot. Typical accessory structures include detached garages, sheds, workshops, green houses and similar structures not intended for habitation by people.”

Even if it looks like your desired use may be allowable, the process is not over; you may still need to get a land use permit for the specific use. Through the permitting process the local jurisdiction may impose setback and other physical restrictions on the placement of structures. For example, the tiny house may need to be located ten feet from property lines and be no taller than 20 feet.

Land use regulations are rarely crystal clear. If you cannot discern whether an office or art studio is lawful on your property, do not hesitate to ask the local planning department. If it is not, ask what uses are permitted. Perhaps something similar is allowed. A land use attorney can also help you sift through what uses are permitted, and help address any questions or concerns you have about your tiny house.

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