Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


Dawn Withers


Humans have long shared small homes and small communal spaces. In the Middle Ages, it was common for many people to share a bed and for many people to share a room. Pilgrims lived in homes of about 165 square feet, and German farmers in nineteenth-century Texas built 200-square-foot homes for use on the weekends when they came to town. After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco built 140-square-foot homes to shelter survivors.

Continuing the tradition of living in small quarters is no simple task in the modern era. How and where we live is not determined by us alone but by zoning rules and building codes, which require that certain standards for habitability and safety be met. These rules ensure that people live in safe conditions removed from industrial and commercial areas. But these same rules also present challenges for those who want to live in small houses that do not fall directly within the parameters set by California’s Building Code and zoning laws.

With the advent of micro-housing—dwellings generally smaller than 300 square feet—California’s Building Code, and to some extent zoning laws, create a range problems for those who want compact, environmentally conscious living because, although dwellings smaller than 300 square feet are not explicitly prohibited, they do not meet minimum size requirements. Micro-housing built as second units could be a primary source of new housing in California, but the Building Code stands in the way. This new housing would not produce more sprawl because it could be built within existing communities close to job and urban centers served by public transportation. Micro-housing reduces sprawl because the distances people travel between work and home in their cars is shorter, and cars are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. In 2012, nearly one-third of energy-related emissions in the United States came from transportation. But before California can benefit socially and environmentally from micro-housing, these small homes must become less difficult to build.