Are Tiny Homes The Answer To Reno's Housing Problem?

May 30, 2018

With housing costs reaching record highs throughout northern Nevada, potential buyers and builders are looking at alternative options.

One big idea that’s gaining traction nationwide is small: tiny homes.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick explores some of these small-scale projects.

If you drive along Interstate 80 through Battle Mountain, you’ll see a for sale sign on a small structure outside of the high school. And on this day, I decided to check it out.

Six Battle Mountain High Schoolers and Principal Russ Klein lead a tour of the tiny house that the students built, as part of the construction trades program.
Credit Jeremy Glick

“My name is Russ Klein. I’m the principle at Battle Mountain High School, and this is our tiny house that was built as part of our construction trades program last year.”

This bare-bones 16x8 feet tiny house was built primarily by six Battle Mountain high schoolers, to help teach skills in the construction and electrical trades. And it’s being sold at cost to help fund the program, for $4,500.

“For those students who were able to participate in this, they’re able to see a very real application of what affordable living could be,” Klein says.

Those lessons rang true for senior Tanner Long, who now sees tiny houses as a viable option.

“They’re not going to put you in debt at all,” he says. “They’re not expensive to build, but if you learned like how we did to build it yourself, you can build yourself a house.”

The interior of the tiny home. Students left it bare but did finish the electrical and insulation. The tiny home is being sold at cost, $4,500 to help fund the school's trades program.
Credit Noah Glick

The idea of tiny homes is gaining momentum nationwide, with television shows and websites dedicated to the lifestyle. But there’s still a lot to be worked out from a practical side.

“You can live in a tiny home, but not for very long, when you can only bring one fork and one plate and maybe a pair of shoes and that’s it.” says Pamela Haberman, a small housing developer in Reno. "You’re crawling on your hands and knees to go to bed.”

Haberman is one-half of the small-housing developer HabeRae Homes, which built the Tiny Ten project, a half-acre housing development in Reno with ten homes ranging from 650-700 square feet.

“We’ve called this the Tiny Ten, but we really feel that it’s more of a small home, not a tiny home,” she says. “We classified them as like a ‘glove home.’ It fits like a glove, it’s not too small, it’s not too little. And we feel that this scale of a home is more livable in the long term.”

Haberman’s business partner Kelly Rae says these types of projects are important to address the housing issue. But the costs of land and fees in Reno are currently too high to support small-scale housing projects.

"I don't think anything can be done 'affordably in Reno right now,'" she says. "I just don't, because of the pricing of dirt, because of the pricing of existing buildings."

The shared courtyard area of the Tiny Ten development includes a piece of art with flower petals that shine a light on each house, as well as another two that represent Pamela Haberman and Kelly Rae, the project's builders.
Credit Noah Glick

Rae says those costs ultimately get passed down to consumers. The Tiny Ten did net an $80,000 profit after all ten homes were sold. But those came at a price tag in the low-to-mid $200,000s per unit, which drew criticism from residents and local leaders alike.

Reno City Councilman Paul McKenzie says, “Just because the price on that home is below $600,000 doesn’t mean it’s affordable housing.”

McKenzie says the city is also working on alternative housing options, including modular units that could be manufactured offsite and transported, as well as something called accessory dwelling units.

“'Granny Housing’ they call it sometimes,” he says. “It gives a person the ability that has a big lot to put a smaller home in the backyard there and rent that out. So, number one, you’ve got rental income and the other part is that we create more housing.”

He admits that most residents probably wouldn’t sign on to the idea, though.

“I think that one of the big concerns that a lot of people would have with that idea is, ‘I’ve got to put up with somebody building a house in my backyard.’”

Aaron West is the CEO of the Nevada Builders Alliance. He says the current system of regulations isn’t built for some of these newer options.

“We have very strict codes and standards to conform to and it’s based on safety right? In the U.S. we take safety very seriously,” West says. “The last thing we need is to 3-D print a beautiful house and we have a minor earthquake and the thing falls on itself.”

That doesn’t mean we should ignore potential innovation.

“We need to explore these,” he says. “We need to vet them and then get everybody to the table to say, ‘OK now what’s the appropriate way to do it? How can we work within the system that we have to get these types of things permitted and moving forward?’ I think there’s some tremendous opportunity.”

West says housing will continue to be a challenge, which means communities must keep thinking outside the box.