SEBRING — Do a quick search online for tiny homes or miniature homes, and you don’t have to look far from Highlands County to find them.
Developments of homes designed as compact living quarters have sprung up or been proposed in the Orlando area, Debary, Jacksonville and even in Arcadia. Some have been proposed as an alternative to high-cost traditional homes or apartments. Others have been planned as transitional housing for homeless who want to have a permanent place to stay and are ready to rent.
That’s what’s planned in Arcadia, according to literature from DeSoto Cares, a non-profit working to build a community of tiny homes for the homeless.
It’s unknown how far along that project has progressed. Officials with the non-profit were not available for comment on Friday, and office hours are restricted to 9 a.m. to noon three days a week.
However, one doesn’t have to drive U.S. 17 to find such an effort. One exists on U.S. 27 in Sebring.
Hope Haven, operating out of the former Safari Inn, has plans for such a community.
Officials with with the non-profit transitional housing organization currently have an eye on two parcels along E.O. Douglas Avenue as a possible sites for a new development of the small footprint homes.
There are still financing and zoning variance hurdles to overcome, since local building codes don’t allow houses that small.
Code complianceIt was just two years ago that supervisors in the Sun ‘N Lake Special Improvement District, located on the other side of Sebring from the proposed sites, raised concerns about tiny houses.
Curtis McCullough, a member of the Board of Supervisors in February 2017, had concerns about the district not yet having a minimum home size requirement.
Some homeowners’ associations did have deed restrictions for their portions of the district, but county code at that time allowed houses as small as 1,000 square feet in estate-zoned areas and as little as 750 square feet in other residential zones.
McCullough found that a bit too small for a golf course community, and worried how that would affect adjacent property values.
“Tiny homes,” as a rule, are smaller than that.
How small are they?Typically, such homes are defined as less than 400 square feet, according to TheTinyLife.com, a website dedicated to people who chose to live in such houses.
Often, the homes are constructed on a small trailer frame, for ease of mobility should the owner take a new job and need to relocate.
Also, the homes are usually self-contained with water cisterns, with electrical hookup or solar arrays and with complete cooking, dining, bathing and sleeping facilities within a small living space.
TheTinyLife.com describes the trend toward tiny houses as a social movement, with people choosing to downsize, simplify and live with less.
Homeless ‘shelter’For the homeless, it’s having more than they have now, at a price they can afford within a typical part-time, minimum-wage or disabilities benefits budget.
One such project is underway in the Jacksonville area. The Jacksonville Daily Record reported in October 2018 on a move by The Clara White Mission to build a village of tiny houses in LaVilla Downtown for homeless veterans and to transform the local historic Genovar’s Hall into a community center.
Unlike most tiny homes, but similar to the plans by both DeSoto Cares and Hope Haven, those tiny homes would be site-built on slabs instead of on wheels.
Hope Haven plans to provide homes as rentals, significantly lower than market rents, so someone earning or receiving $700 per month could pay rent and utilities and still have money left over for groceries, clothes and the occasional amenities.
By being site-built, residents would also have a vested interest in getting and staying connected to the community, versus those ready to pull up stakes, hitch up the “house” and roll to a new town.
Not all small home communities have a connection to homelessness, however. Some are being created as budget-priced housing for anyone who wants a lower mortgage payment.
On the waterFor example, Floating Bungalows, a company owned by Warren and Cynthia Billings, is building what are, essentially, house boats at the marina in Sanford.
Marketed at www.floatingbungalows.com, they are presented as a possible option for people looking to downsize or have a vacation home on the water.
The Billings moved to Florida six and a half years ago from New Hampshire. At that time, in their early 50s, the couple had a 5,400-square-foot, “empty-nest” home and wanted a simpler life.
They built themselves a floating house, according to their website, because they wanted to spend time on the water; live in a warmer climate; enjoy a community with concerts, restaurants, and good friends, and not compromise style, luxury or and beauty.
A small floating home fit the bill. They built one and then got requests for more.
A new lifestyleThe advantages of such homes, which make them options for empty-nesters and good shelter for homeless in transition, also make them good options for people still working in careers, according to TheTinyLife.com.
Eschewing the adage that “bigger is better,” TheTinyLife.com states that proponents of tiny homes usually are concerned with the environment, their finances or a need for time and freedom.
Most Americans, TheTinyLife.com states, spend a third to half of their income on housing. Financial advice sites, such as www.quicken.com, say housing should be no more than one fourth of monthly income.
TheTinyLife.com states that it can take 15 years or more to pay for a house, and suggests that the high cost of owning a “typical-sized” home, the associated expenses and the culture of “buy now, pay later” for items to fill the house, leaves up to 76 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck to have a home and running hard to keep up with bills and jobs to pay them.
One solution, for those who are willing, is to live smaller and cheaper, TheTinyLife.com states.
PreventionAt a recent round table discussion on local homelessness, Brenda Gray of the Heartland Coalition for the Homeless, said her organization provides homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing and supportive housing.
There’s a challenge, she said, finding housing cheap enough for clients to afford it long-term.
Prevention works to help a financially strapped person or family who can pay monthly bills, except the rent or mortgage.
Often, that happens when people have an emergency cost, like a car repair, and get behind on payments, Gray said.
Prevention grants help with that, she said. Residents can apply if they stand to lose their residence in 14 days, don’t have another place to go and don’t have the first/last month rent and damage deposit to secure permanent housing.
She can only do this on annual lease property, she said, not short-term transitional housing.
However, if someone had small homes available for annual lease, those might qualify.
As of right now, however, no one in Highlands County has that yet.