Leila Ali lives in a tiny house. It's 13 feet tall and sits on wheels in a Ballard backyard. A garden hose running from the backyard's main house pumps water to the sink, and an extension cord from the same house provides electricity. The 130-square-foot structure leaves almost no footprint otherwise, much of that thanks to a composting toilet stuffed with cacao husks.
"I have a vanilla air freshener, so the bathroom kind of smells like Willie Wonka's chocolate factory," Ali says.
Followers of the tiny house movement see living the way Ali does as a minimalist's answer to modern wastefulness. For Ali, it’s also a pragmatic answer to Seattle’s housing crisis. For $400 a month in rent, most of which goes to the inhabitants of the main house, Ali can live reasonably in Seattle while trying to launch a new business selling purikura, stylized photo booth experiences that are all the rage in Japanese arcades.
Or she could live reasonably, at least for a while. Last week, after 19 months in the tiny house, Ali learned that the city was evicting her tiny house from the main house's backyard.
"My guess is that someone called the Department of Planning and Development because they believed there was an illegal structure," explains Adam Kardos, the owner and builder of Ali's tiny house. The people in the main house were fine with the tiny house in their backyard, he says, but evidently their neighbors were not.
When a city inspector came to visit the property, he told Kardos that he'd either have to build a foundation for the tiny house or face a $5,000 fine. Building a foundation for the house would cost at least a couple thousand bucks, Kardos says.
"It feels a little frustrating in that I basically created a structure that can be rented out for way below market value, and I can be helping my friends out," Kardos says. "I can be providing housing and I'm getting bound up in red tape."
The problem is that the city lacks a definition for what a tiny house even is. "Tiny houses on wheels would most likely be treated like camper trailers," Wendy Shark, DPD spokesperson, explained in an e-mail. "People are not allowed to live in trailers, considered camping (or similar equipment such as RVs), while parked at a single-family house in a single-family zone. In fact, there is no camping allowed in Seattle city limits. Camper trailers can only be legally lived in if they are parked at a mobile home park, and there are only two of those in the city."
According to the city, all Kardos would need to do to make things kosher for his tiny house is give it a stationary base. "I would like to point out that we actually encourage people to build small backyard cottages on their single-family properties—as long as they obtain a permit and build it within the rules," Shark said. "Tiny houses, with foundations, are considered Detached Accessory Dwelling Units (DADU) and allowed city-wide since 2009."
But Kardos built the house to be mobile. That was sort of the point. And, according to Ali, the city turns a blind eye to tiny houses if it doesn't receive complaints. When an inspector saw the tiny house at its first location at a corner lot near the freeway, he couldn't classify what it was. "[He] basically left us with the idea that if nobody complains about us there's nothing that can be done," Ali said. "If no one talks about it, then you're fine."
The idea that no one would mention an abnormality in a Ballard single-family zone in 2015—while melodramatic density debates shake up city hall—seems somewhat insane. It's probably about as likely as the city forgetting about the broken $80 million tunnel-boring machine in downtown Seattle.
But Ali's not giving up hope on finding a new backyard for her tiny house rental. "The reason why a tiny house is so important for my business specifically is because I came here with nothing," Ali says. "Everything I earn is self-produced. No outside investors, just myself. So a place like a tiny house allows me to live very cheaply and fund my business off the ground. But to lose it I lose my livelihood as well."
If you have a backyard and don't think your neighbors would make a stink about a tiny house, you can e-mail Ali at email@example.com.