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Nonprofits and Businesses Struggle to Get Tiny Home Movement Off the Ground in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Tiny homes may be popular on TV, social media and in scenic states but here in iowa contractors and nonprofits are having trouble getting the tiny home movement off the ground or rather into the ground.

“There’s no really good permanent spots due to city regulations and also it’s just tough to find people that actually want to live in a tiny house and commit to living in a smaller footprint in Des Moines, Iowa,” Zenith Design and Build owner Nick Donlin said.

Donlin tried to make a business building tiny homes and after he and his team built one they found out just how tough the tiny home market is in Iowa.

“Another challenge is that code requirements with these small spaces, we don’t actually meet like size of stairs tread, clearance between next to a toilet. We don’t meet a lot of clearances because it’s so small so then that’s the challenge with putting it on a foundation is you can’t actually meet those clearances,” Donlin said.

The International Building Code now includes a section on tiny homes, but Des Moines hasn’t fully adopted it yet.

To have a tiny home in Des Moines it has to be on a trailer or what some people call a granny flat.

“So if you have an existing house on an existing lot and you wanted to add an additional dwelling unit, a tiny home would be supported under our proposed zoning ordinance once it’s adopted. As long as you can meet all of the building code requirements for the sanitation, and connection and permanent foundation and those sorts of things,” City of Des Moines Assistant City Manager Phillip Delafield said.

Nonprofit Joppa wants to push those particular boundaries a little further to create a tiny home village for the homeless that’s within a mile of a bus stop and a grocery or convenience store.

“It’s a place you go like summer camp for 6-24 months to gain a source of income and overcome your other barriers to housing and then you move on to permanent housing,” Joppa Co-Founder and CEO Joe Stevens said.

They are hoping to have 50 homes in the village and each one is 96 square feet.

“You’ve got a television, you’ve got a microwave, you’ve got of course your bed and your refrigerator. You’ve got really storage and everything that you could need inside your tiny home. And the rest of the things you need, a private shower, bathroom and laundry facilities and meals and all of those community gardens are all within the gated community,” Stevens said.

Joppa staff said homeless people of Des Moines love the idea of this community.

“The receptivity to these homes has been one of literally grown men coming to tears thinking that they could actually move from a tent into something like this and that someone would care enough to provide them that hand up, if you will, out of their situation,” Stevens said.

But in its current state, Delafield said it doesn’t meet what they currently envision for Des Moines.

“Every dwelling unit must meet minimum standards and those are sanitation facilities, kitchen facilities and a connection to permanent sewers. So anything less than that is not deemed to be the minimum health and safety standards that this community envisions. So asking someone that is going to stay in this facility to use some facility elsewhere from the house is a challenge,” Delafield said.

With the help of more planning and the right location, Joppa is still hopeful this village can come to life in the next two years.

“When you go through these processes it can be frustrating, it can be depressing at times. You know, when you work so hard on something and then you’re not able to get it done, but it’s just a matter of staying with it. And as we’ve seen in other cities, that’s exactly what it’s taken,” Stevens said.

Stevens said if they can't make this tiny home village work in Des Moines, they hope it might come to life in a neighboring town.

They are still searching for the right location to make it happen.

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