By Rachel Christian
A Central Florida-based construction company is now offering tiny home “backyard villas” in Osceola County. The pre-made, micro-housing units arrive amidst an affordable housing crisis in the county that has local officials searching for solutions.
A tiny solution to a big problem
Cornerstone Tiny Homes announced plans earlier this month to offer
their 350 square-foot backyard dwellings to the Osceola County market. Brett Hiltbrand, the company’s owner, said the tiny structures make ideal guest homes, in-law suites, or most importantly, year-round rentals.
“Last year, the Orlando-area created a need for 225 homes to be built at a value of $150,000 or less. Fourteen were built at that price,” Hiltbrand said. “There’s a growing need that just isn’t being met.”
The concept is simple. A standard homeowner can purchase a pre-constructed tiny home from Cornerstone for about $50,000 and up. The company delivers the structure, which is Florida Building Code compliant, to the resident’s backyard after the property has passed inspection and met county parking and setback requirements. Residents can then work through Cornerstone contracting partners to get utilities hooked up to the tiny home, or do the work themselves.
Once those steps are complete, owners can begin renting out the structures.
Removing obstacles in county code
The popularity of tiny homes has grown in recent years, but their unusual size and location can often conflict with existing county building codes.
In February, the Osceola County Community Development Department made two significant zoning and permitting changes to what is known as auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs).
Under the old code, ADUs such as garage apartments and guest homes could not be rented out to non-family members as a secondary source of income for homeowners. The new code changed that, while also abolishing minimum size requirements for ADUs.
“The thinking is, ADUs could be a source of affordable housing, and we want to encourage that,” said Susan Caswell, Osceola County assistant community development administrator.
Caswell has spoken with companies over the last year, including Cornerstone Tiny Homes, about alternative forms of affordable housing. Shipping container homes and simple concrete block dwellings are some of the other ideas Caswell has heard about in recent months.
The county administrator said officials are taking an open-minded approach to improve housing options for residents.
“To us, a building is a building,” she said. “If it meets Florida building code, we’re good.”
Finding land for tiny homes
Finding available plots of land to construct their products is the biggest challenge facing tiny home companies, Caswell said.
The rise of massive housing subdivisions that are owned by residential developers like Lenar and AV Homes have made it difficult for small contractors like Cornerstone to break into the housing market.
Cornerstone’s backyard villa concept circumvents this issue by building structures on small, privately owned parcels.
But Caswell said Cornerstone and other tiny home companies would either need to partner with a residential developer, purchase lots that have already been sub-divided by that company or search for affordable vacant lots.
“We’re building fast, there’s a number of developers out there who are sub-dividing and building housing, but I think that’s the challenge for these tiny home builders,” Caswell said. “It’s about getting to the buildable lots.”
A growing need for a growing county
A lack of affordable housing continues to be an issue both at the state and local level.
According to the Shinberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida, 69 percent of Florida’s low-income renters are cost burdened by housing costs.
Of the top 50 metro areas nationally, only Las Vegas and Los Angeles had a greater affordable housing shortage than the Orlando Metro Area, according to a March study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Recent amendments to the county’s comprehensive plan are meant to tackle issues created by sprawling single-family subdivisions. The amendments include requirements for a greater variety of housing products within a subdivision (apartments and studios alongside traditional homes), as well as higher density housing to cut down on urban sprawl.
Caswell said a recent county analysis found the greatest housing need is for residents who earn $35,000 a year or less.
“The issue there is someone earning $35,000 a year cannot afford a $200,000 for sale house. They just can’t,” she said. “The needs are not being met for the households that are here.”
Local leaders, including County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, have long supported efforts to bring tiny homes and other affordable housing to Osceola County.
“I would love for a company to bring a product to the area that can really help resolve this issue, or at least begin to help solve it,” Choudhry said. “Our housing crisis could potentially not be a crisis, and then we could be an example instead.”
Choudhry has been a major proponent of a one-stop crisis center in Osceola County that would assist the community’s working poor and chronically homeless.
But, the commissioner said, the only true way to break the poverty cycle is to create more affordable housing in Osceola County.
“We need to start thinking outside the box and be open to new ideas,” she said. “That’s the only way things will begin