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Tiny House Villages Seek Tiny Plots of Land Near San Francisco

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Jay Shafer has been designing and building tiny houses since the late 90s. Through his company, Four Lights Houses, he sells tiny-house plans, from a 98-square-foot miniature Craftsman called the Zinn to the 288-square-foot Marie Colvin, whose pint-sized columns are embellished with stonework. Shafer, who also leads workshops and offers his services as a builder, has been written up in the New Yorker and even once welcomed Oprah into his 96-square-foot home for a video tour, in which he brushes his teeth over a tiny sink and cheerfully holds up his composting toilet for the camera. After nearly two decades as a self-taught tiny house architect, Shafer is poised to make the leap into community planning. For the past two years, he's been working on a village of his designs. Currently he's considering four potential sites, all within a five-minute walk of downtown Sebastopol, and is in talks with local officials about his plans. Shafer says he hopes to break ground on the village this year.

Around the country, tiny house villages have grown into something of a movement. Washington, DC, has one called Boneyard Studios, though it's a demonstration village only, because no one can legally live there. There's even second Bay Area village in the works, organized by Chelsea Rustrum, a sharing-economy consultant and author of the Kickstarter-funded book It's a Shareable Life. Rustrum is still seeking a location for her community.

Because tiny houses tend to be built on trailers—to avoid running afoul of minimum square footage regulations governing buildings—Shafer says his village would likely be zoned as an RV park. But the automotive similarities end there. "I'm into making it very much about the composition of the houses together—very different from your typical trailer park, where all the cars are parked out front," says Shafer, who now resides in a 119-square-foot house in Graton. "Here we'd do pedestrian walkways connecting everything, and cars in the back."

Shafer's concept drawings show idyllic rows of petite cottages in bright colors, with cheering red roofs and tiny clerestories. As with most forms of micro-living, shrinking personal space tends to shift many functions of living into the communal realm.

On Shafer's preliminary site plan, the homes are clustered around a main house of between 800 and 1,600 square feet, like cabins surrounding a lodge. The central house would come equipped with a kitchen and dining area, and could host workshops and serve as a flexible multipurpose space. "If somebody wants to have a huge party, they could use the common house for that purpose," he says.

The proposal outlined on the Four Lights Houses website calls for a community of between 40 and 70 houses, but Shafer says he plans to start small. At this point, he says, "four or five friends are definitely in."

Shafer's proposal would operate a bit like a co-op: Residents would likely own their own tiny houses and the plots of land they sit on, and would pay a monthly fee to maintain the common facilities.

Rustrum, meanwhile, wants to start with a community of between 10 and 20 houses, though she is still looking for both land and funding. Her preference is for a less car-focused village, located on land that's close to transit. "The problem now is tiny houses are either in the backyard of rich people's houses or in middle of nowhere on their own in the countryside," says Rustrum, who currently lives in a 650-square-foot studio in Lower Pacific Heights. "A lot of people are excited about the prospect of being able to live in a tiny house and not having to give up living near a city."

Though neither village has begun to take shape just yet, the two ideas are already following different paths. Rather than join the Sonoma community, Rustrum is sticking with her plan to start her own; she's organizing a meetup April 1 to rally support. "I'm looking to create a community for the creative class, whereas the Sonoma community always struck me as something more akin to long-term cohousing (with plot ownership) than coliving (rental model), which is where I see best serving the needs of the community I envision," she told us by email. "Either way, we should all work together to create more of this in the world!"

· Four Lights Houses [Official Site]
· Let's Get Small [The New Yorker]
· Inside a 96-Square-Foot Home [Oprah.com]
· 11 Tiny House Villages Redefining Home [Shareable]
· Boneyard Studios [Official Site]
· It's a Shareable Life [Official Site]
· Tiny House Village Vision & Social [Meetup.com]
· Coliving Gains Momentum in SoMa with 1532 Harrison Proposal [Curbed SF]
· All Micro Week Coverage [Curbed SF]