Woman dreams of tiny home community

— At the height of the recession in 2008, Janet Ashforth lost just about everything, including her job, her home and her marriage. But when she also nearly lost her daughter to a brain hemorrhage on the very night her house went into foreclosure, she got a reality check.

The experience reinforced the 51-year-old San Diego native’s belief that material possessions have little value compared to the people you love and that life can be short, so don’t wait on your dreams. That’s why she’s pressing forward with her dream project, Habitats Tiny Homes, an ecologically minded community for up to 20 tiny homes in North County.

If built, Habitats would be the county’s first tiny home community — but that’s a big “if,” according to building industry executives. The concept — a lushly landscaped solar-powered neighborhood of 100- to 300-square-foot wooden houses built on wheeled trailers — has drawn curiosity and praise, as well as scorn and skepticism.

“I would welcome this type of development but it’s one of those ‘good luck lady, you’re never going to get it approved’ situations,” said Borre Winckel, president and CEO of the Building Industry Association of San Diego.

He said tiny homes priced at $35,000 to $60,000, without the land, would satisfy an unfilled niche for middle-income homebuyers now priced out of the market. But Winckel said Ashforth will face a brutal uphill battle getting the project — essentially an upscale trailer park — approved in a region where environmental hurdles and stiff opposition from neighbors are the norm.

Ashforth has heard the same fierce criticism but she’s not deterred. Neither are the 17 residents who’ve already put down $1,000 deposits for spaces in the proposed community.

“It’s challenging but exciting because we’re forging new ground,” said Ashforth, who has 20 years of marketing and sales experience with cars, homes and timeshare properties.

Ashforth discovered the tiny home movement after she briefly lived in a trailer in Elfin Forest three years ago. She’s now building her own tiny home on a lot near the home she rents in Hidden Meadows. The 300-square-foot French country house will have bay windows, French doors and a claw-footed bathtub. It will serve as a model at the Habitats community.

“I grew up impoverished and was taught that money and things were not the magic answer,” she said. “After recuperating from everything, I found it very peaceful and I realized I wanted to live forever in a small space.”

Tiny homes captured the public’s imagination in 2002, when Iowa art professor Jay Shafer built himself a 96-square-foot house on wheels. Amused at the interest it received, Shafer and several friends created the Small House Society and it became a media magnet.

Gary Johnson, co-founder and president of the Small House Society, said the movement has been fueled by several factors: Global media attention from the likes of Oprah and NPR, people who don’t want to tie up all their savings in real estate and a resurgence in the popularity of RV living.

No statistics exist on how many Americans live in tiny homes, but Johnson estimates it’s in the low thousands. He said interest in the movement ebbs and flows with media coverage. On peak days, theSmall House Society website gets up to 70,000 visitors a day.

Ashforth said there are only about a half-dozen tiny homes in San Diego County because — while they cost far less to build than traditional single-family homes — the cost of land to park them on is prohibitive. That’s why Ashforth created Habitats, where tiny homeowners can rent or buy home sites for less than the cost of a one-bedroom apartment.

It’s an idea that has been catching fire all over the country. According to the online forum TinyHouseCommunity.com, there are more than a dozen similar communities now open or planned around the country. Only two are in California, both in the Sierra foothills.

At the end of this month, Ashforth said she may cap reservations and look for a roughly 2-acre lot to accommodate as many as 20 tiny homes, including her own. She’s meeting with county officials on Tuesday to discuss parcels, land use and zoning issues.

Alex Bell, group communications officer for the county’s Land Use Development Group, said Habitats would be the first of its kind in San Diego, so there’s no precedent for its land use in the county’s code books.

California doesn’t have any tiny home regulations, either. But due to growing interest, the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development last month issued guidelines that city and county building officials can use to classify tiny homes — either as RVs, park trailers, manufactured homes or other — for use, design and construction purposes.

Winckel and county and city land use officials said the approval pipeline for such a project could take years and it’s certain to face stiff public opposition.

“People come out of the woodwork over trailer parks because they falsely assume ‘there goes the neighborhood, these will be trashy people,’” Winckel said. “It’s a sad story.”

Although Ashforth’s company will offer tiny home-building services, she expects some of her tenants will roll on to the property with homes they purchased elsewhere, as long as they meet community design standards. She said the standards will ensure the community looks nothing like an RV park to please residents, as well as neighbors who might oppose the project.

Wherever Ashforth buys land, it will need improvements like solar arrays to power the tiny homes, water and sewer hookups, landscaping, an access road and common buildings.

Finding parcels with the proper zoning for high-density has been a challenge, she admits. She tried looking in Vista, but found that there’s no land available there for the project, which by city standards would be designated for mobile home park zoning.

John Conley, director of community development for the city of Vista, said projects like this in residential communities require intensive review to alleviate city and community concerns.

“It’s like putting an apartment building in the middle of a neighborhood where traffic, parking and crime have to be considered. It would take more than just a public meeting to get it approved,” he said.

Wherever Ashforth buys land, it will need improvements like solar arrays to power the tiny homes, water and sewer hookups, landscaping, an access road and common buildings.

Finding parcels with the proper zoning for high-density has been a challenge, she admits. She tried looking in Vista, but found that there’s no land available there for the project, which by city standards would be designated for mobile home park zoning.

John Conley, director of community development for the city of Vista, said projects like this in residential communities require intensive review to alleviate city and community concerns.

“It’s like putting an apartment building in the middle of a neighborhood where traffic, parking and crime have to be considered. It would take more than just a public meeting to get it approved,” he said.