Pittsburgh’s Tiny House Project Encounters Issues

By Phillip Poupore

The first tiny house built on a vacant lot in Garfield at 223 N. Atlantic Avenue.
The first tiny house built on a vacant lot in Garfield at 223 N. Atlantic Avenue. Photograph courtesy of Allegheny County.

With all of the problems facing the poor in Pittsburgh, housing is usually at the top of the list.

That’s why a coalition of groups is bent on turning vacant property into housing, focused with the building of low cost tiny houses throughout underprivileged neighborhoods.

The result: The first tiny house, built on a vacant lot in Garfield, has exposed problems that range from foundation issues to sewer line connections. This has led the project to cost more than double what was anticipated, which has led those involved in the burgeoning project to reexamine their options for bringing affordable housing to Pittsburgh.

“The costs spiraled out of control,” said Ben Schulman, communications director for Small Change. “The costs were larger than anticipated because environmental regulations were unanticipated.”

According to The Tiny Life, the tiny house movement is a social effort by people looking to downsize the space they live in. The site added that the average American home is around 2,600 square feet while the average tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.

The movement has been around for decades, but according to Tiny House Talk, the most recent charge came from Jay Shafer in 1997. The site explained that he built his own tiny house on wheels, and within two years, he introduced the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. This company offered building plans and detailed information on tiny houses.

There are many reasons tiny houses have increased in popularity over the years, but the most common are due to environmental or financial concerns.

For many, a tiny house can be a way to avoid high housing costs. In the bigger picture, however, some view this movement as a way to provide affordable housing to the masses. That is why organizations like Neighborhood Allies and cityLAB have put their efforts into the Garfield tiny house project.

There were a variety of reasons why Garfield was chosen as the location of Pittsburgh’s first tiny house. Over the next five years, Garfield is expected to demolish several unsalvageable vacant homes, which will increase the amount of vacant land in the area. Project coordinators believed tiny houses would be the best solution to fill the void because they would not only be cheaper to build, but they would also be more affordable to purchase and maintain.

This project was the vision of Eve Picker, the CEO of cityLAB and architect of the project.  She has redeveloped several properties in Pittsburgh. The project itself first got off the ground in December of 2013 with a simple tiny house questionnaire. The goal of the questionnaire was to gauge how the people of Garfield felt about a tiny house entering the area.

“Overall, we had a very favorable view of the project,” said Rick Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. “It was a small development in terms of impact to the neighborhood, but it did manage to draw attention to a neighborhood that lives in obscurity.”

Swartz added that one of the goals of the project was to put Garfield on the map as a potential housing destination, and he believes the tiny house did just that.

For Neighborhood Allies, undertakings like this are just what the city needs to draw attention to the issues many people overlook in Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh is the most livable city, but over 18,000 people are living in neighborhoods that are left behind,” said Talia Piazza, program manager at Neighborhood Allies.

Once the questionnaire was completed, it was a matter of finding the perfect piece of land to build on. It was actually Swartz who suggested a parcel of land at 223 N. Atlantic Avenue, Garfield. After reviewing the location, it was decided that it met all of the criteria for the project: it was available, the project could demonstrate how a left-over piece of land can be used to its best advantage, and it’s tiny enough for a tiny house and big enough for a tiny garden.

Though the location seemed perfect at first, a lot of issues rose along the way.

First, the original design had the tiny house built on wheels. This is a common theme for tiny houses, as people like the option to move them from location to location. However, according to section 906.02 of the Pittsburgh Zoning Code, any structure built on a chassis is considered portable as a mobile home, and mobile homes are not permitted in residential districts in the city.

Unfortunately for project coordinators, this was the just the beginning of a number of crippling issues.

The rising costs took all parties by surprise. According to Schulman, cityLAB is a first resource, nonprofit developer. Small Change’s role in the project was as an equity crowd-funding site that sets up loans to cover projects.

Neighborhood Allies had a similar role, despite undergoing changes of its own in the process. According to Piazza, it was the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development (PPND) that first made an investment in the project. However, in 2013, Neighborhood Allies was created to support neighborhoods that were falling behind. It was during the change from the PPND to Neighborhood Allies that a grant was given to cityLAB to do research and test out the feasibility of a tiny house.

Another major stumbling block came when developers realized that a former house on the property was collapsed into the basement. That meant the construction crew had to dig all of it out before they could build a new basement with a foundation under it.

The biggest costs came in having to connect the sewer and water lines. The home that once stood on the site was tied into a sewer pipe behind the location. Since Pittsburgh is under a federal court order to separate storm and sewer drains, however, the developers had to tap into the lines across the street. That required digging a 12-foot deep trench to the other side of the street, connecting the lines, rebuilding the street and pouring a new sidewalk. According to Piazza, it cost more than $20,000.

The final problem came in regards to the size of the home. Since the site was less than 1,500 square feet, the developers needed to apply for zoning variances. These three issues alone accrued more than $50,000 in development costs for project coordinators.

According to the Tiny House Journal, which Picker used to document every step of the process, the total cost of the project came to $191, 231.

Project coordinators realized that a house like this would not have a market value of $191,000 in Garfield, which is why they set the asking price at $109,500 in order to recover some of the construction costs. The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and IKEA Pittsburgh covered the remainder of the cost.

While there were my issues at hand, developers still believe it can be a positive model moving forward.

“We learned a lot,” Piazza said. “One that we were trying to test a new approach to an old problem. We were trying to attract young, creative people to the area. It could be a new, creative solution for areas experiencing population loss to attract a new demographic.”

Though developers believe this could be a viable solution, the issues faced by this project are something other potential homebuyers will face.

“There are huge issues with the lots in Garfield and the area we contend with,” Schulman said. “It will make costs for developers increase significantly, but hopefully it calls attention to the Garfield area and that there’s at least an awareness of what it takes to remediate vacant lots.”

Piazza added that for future projects to succeed there needs to be a plan in place to pass these roadblocks, but those in the neighborhood must also be on board for a project like this.

“We did have some criticisms,” Piazza said. “Some consider Garfield to be gentrified, and some think a tiny house wouldn’t be attractive to a young black male. [Eve Picker] is respected in the community, but without going to residents and asking if they’re on board, it will be hard to appeal.”

There were many goals for the tiny house project. Though providing affordable housing may not have worked out as planned, the project succeeded in bringing attention to Garfield. The February open house hosted 567 visitors, with hundreds more watching a video trailer online.

And on April 8, 2016, cityLAB announced that the house sold for $109,500. Despite losing money on the project, those involved believe it was a success.

“It’s a very special type of tiny home that has never existed before, especially in Pennsylvania and in the city of Pittsburgh,” Schulman said.

Now that the house has officially sold, cityLAB is focused on the future, which they hope will involve more economical tiny house projects.

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Phillip Poupore is a senior journalism major at Point Park University. He aspires to one day work as a PGA Tour reporter.