A tale of two cities: How two Florida towns are handling the tiny home movement

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Want to live in a tiny house? Barb Diaz suggests marking off an 8-by-20-foot area in your garage – or some space similar – and living in it for 24 hours.

Put a TV in it. Put a dresser in it. Set aside an even smaller space for a “bathroom.” Don’t leave it. If you can deal with all that, the tiny home life is for you, Diaz said.

“A lot of people, they couldn’t ever live in this size place,” she said. “Living tiny is a mindset.”

Diaz, who lives with her four papillon dogs in Gracious Tiny House Park in Okeechobee, about an hour northwest of West Palm Beach, is one of thousands of Floridians who live in tiny homes.

A tiny house is defined as under 600 square feet, but most of its kind in the U.S. average around 225 square feet, according to Porch.com, a home services platform. The price tag ranges from $8,000 to $150,000, according to Rocket Mortgage, depending on if it’s prebuilt or not.

It’s hard to know how many tiny home owners just want to live off the grid, that is, they don’t want to be limited by government regulations – and yet the lifestyle is rapidly growing in popularity. The Florida Tiny House Enthusiasts Facebook page boasts over 17,500 members.

Tampa is even using tiny homes as affordable housing for veterans. Still others say they want to spend money less so on rent and mortgages and more so on vacations and bucket lists. And others say it helps them live environmentally friendly and/or forces them to spend more time appreciating nature rather than focusing on amassing a lot of material things.

No state laws regulate tiny homes in Florida, which leads to ambiguity and frustration for those who live in them. Some municipalities seem OK with them, while others are more hostile.

Brevard County has an online application to register a tiny home on wheels as a primary residence, and a tiny home community in Cocoa has easily thrived.

Conversely, Alachua City in Alachua County has no regulations on tiny homes, but it’s forcing successful Airbnb businesses to shut down – leading to lost jobs, irked residents and a lawsuit.

These two Florida cities in particular reflect this varied experience. Here’s how Alachua and Cocoa, on the coastline 170 miles southeast, are dealing with the tiny house movement.

Cocoa’s tiny home haven

Apryl Ocampo started living the tiny home life off-grid in St. Augustine.

She had moved to Florida from California with her husband and two small children, downsizing from 2,000 square feet of space to 200, about the size of five king sized beds. They assumed they’d plop onto any piece of land in the state but ran into local housing regulations.

Then she found Peacewind, a tiny home community in Cocoa.

Below: Apryl Ocampo’s gothic themed tiny house has décor from popular books and movies like “Interview with the Vampire” and “Twilight.” The two lofts are intended to be bedrooms which are still works in progress, she said. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

“When we moved, there were so many beautiful values that we discovered after actually doing it,” said Ocampo, 30, a former cosmetologist who’s now a homemaker. “We had to let go of so many material things that we thought were so important, and they absolutely were not.”

Peacewind has over 140 lots, each with about 5,000 square feet of yard area. Its residents have their tiny houses on wheels or on foundations, but either way they want enough space outdoors for gardens, sheds, chickens, sitting spaces and/or places for their children to play.

Ocampo has chickens that will drop eggs for her when they’re old enough. Her children, ages 3 and 4, have a swing and trampoline. Her husband Ivan Ocampo, 31, a truck driver, built the inside from scratch, and she meticulously designed it in gothic black and white fashion.

“We feel like nomads almost in a way,” she said. “Our home, we can take it or leave it. Our items, take it or leave it. What’s important is our family.”

Apryl Ocampo is one of two couples who have children at Peacewind in Cocoa. “I actually know each and every one of my neighbors, and I’ve never done that before. I went years without meeting any of my neighbors in the city,” Ocampo said. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

The homes in Peacewind come from many builders, including Miniopolis, a company founded and owned by Brian Sodre. As the market price for housing skyrockets, Sodre said tiny homes attract people who believe that spending less for a place to live allows for a richer life.

“It’s just a smaller space that’s used more effectively, to keep your expenses lower, to enjoy life more and to have less clutter in your life,” Sodre said.

Living in a tiny home carries a stigma, he said. People may equate one with a mobile home or trailer, but most tiny home owners are educated professionals making a lifestyle decision.

“They’ve come to realize that the less they have, the less they own, the more they can fill their life with experiences and impactful things,” Sodre said.

Brian Sodre’s company Miniopolis built its first model home in Cocoa. When he first began the company, he called every county in Florida to get a sense of building codes. “The complications for zoning don’t allow this community, this movement to take off. I don’t know what’s stopping them,” Sodre said. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

He doesn’t live in a tiny home – but said he plans to live in one with his family one day.

As state governments like Colorado’s allow for legal tiny house living, Sodre said if Florida did the same, it would better allow more of its residents to buy their own home and build wealth.

“So you’re telling me as an average and ordinary person that I can’t buy a piece of land and just put my house on it?” Sodre asked. “What happened to the American dream?”

With tiny houses accepted in some places and rejected in others, their communities provide a safe haven for those adopting the lifestyle.

Tamara Leonard’s house was the first on a foundation in Peacewind. She found it easier to manage and more affordable than her old house in Stuart, about 90 miles southeast of Cocoa.

Although she had to downsize, Leonard, 54, said it felt cleansing to get rid of things and donate to Goodwill. She kept four plates, four cups and four coffee mugs.

“What do I need 60 coffee cups for?” she asked.

Tamara Leonard’s house is always decorated for upcoming holidays, and she has an outdoor shed for holiday décor storage. Next to her house is an empty lot, which will soon have a new tiny house and neighbor. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

When Leonard moved to Peacewind in May, she brought her business with her: a hot dog cart. She sets up outside of Lowe’s, where she greets her neighbors and other community members.

“We’ve got a lot of really, really cool people,” she said. “I’m just really impressed.”

It’s important to have an outdoor space because a tiny home is so small, Leonard said. Many people in the community have gardens or outdoor animals.

Brandon Honeycutt’s family has both. Honeycutt, 36, has lived with his partner Hailey Emmett and their daughter Tegan Honeycutt in Peacewind for about a year. They’re debt free and own a 400 square foot home – the size of a double car garage. They have chickens that Tegan, 4, visits every morning. Herbs and tomatoes grow in their yard.

Below: Brandon Honeycutt’s house features an upstairs loft for his bedroom and office that he shares with his partner Hailey Emmett. The ladder by the door leads to another loft with Tegan’s bedroom. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

“We’re slowly trying to build a life that gives us some more freedom to kind of enjoy life instead of being tied down to the rat race,” Honeycutt said.

As a Realtor who sells properties at Peacewind, Honeycutt talks to anyone who wants to see the properties or move there, and often ends up talking at his neighbors’ houses during the day.

“We’re really busy with the attention this property is getting,” he said. “I’m constantly just getting phone calls and walking out front, meeting people outside.”

Tegan Honeycutt (left) loves playing with the chickens on her property. “If it was up to her, she’d live outside,” her dad Brandon Honeycutt (right) said. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

Tiny homes rose in popularity during the pandemic, as more people wanted more personal space when traveling. With rent and expenses higher from inflation, Honeycutt said, he’s seeing people who have to go tiny for affordability. The tiny house market is expected to grow by nearly $4.2 million by 2027, according to Technavio, an online information service.

TV shows like “Tiny House Nation” and “Tiny House Hunting” have also made it cool to live in smaller spaces. Scott and Hannah Norwood each watched “Tiny House Nation” before they met. They married in February and own a 160 square foot home in Peacewind. The main living area is the size of six full-size beds; they built a deck and a shed for extra space: an office for Scott, 30, a financial coach, and a closet for Hannah, 25, the apprenticeship director at their church.

“We try to keep it as organized as possible,” she said. “By no means do we have any ability to hoard stuff.”

Scott Norwood said they also appreciate the mix of people from all walks of life – retirees, lawyers, single parents, business owners, etc. – in the community.

“Everyone has such a unique and different story,” he said.

While the U.S. has recently discovered tiny homes, they are the norm in other countries.

Going tiny is like returning to her roots for Bettina Kuske, 54, who grew up in a 700 square foot home in Stuttgart, Germany, and recently moved to Peacewind. A bedroom, a living room and a kitchen is all Kuske needs for her and her four disabled cats. Having worked for many years with animals, her passion project is writing children’s books about disabled animals.

“I was the one that taught them to live a life being disabled and being perfect and happy,” Kuske said.

Peacewind’s community garden and laid-back lifestyle excites Kuske, who grew up in an area where she spent lots of time outside.

“It really brings back childhood memories,” she said. “I want to slow down a little bit – and do the things that I really enjoy.”

Alachua City’s Airbnb discourse

Krsna Balynas created a booming business right in her own backyard: Building, decorating and renting tiny houses on Airbnb.

The 28-year-old entrepreneur started two years ago with her husband Govinda Carol and just one house. They were immediately successful, so they built nearly a dozen more, and employed cleaners and an office manager to run the business, Balynas said.

“A lot of people have Airbnbs, and it’s just like that little side income,” she said. “But for us, it’s our full-time business that literally pays our bills.”

However, Alachua City halted her income in October, when its building official deemed her tiny homes unsafe or dangerous according to sections of the state building code. It’s a fight of legal definitions and logistics for Balynas, as tiny homes aren’t defined in local municipal codes.

Listen below: Krsna Balynas talks about the day Alachua City officials came to her front door to shut down her tiny home business, threatening arrest if she didn’t comply.

The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles recently certified all of Balynas’ tiny homes as recreational vehicles; she contends the city should do the same. Instead, she said, the city argues that the tiny homes are legally structures because they’re on the foundation of a wheeled trailer.

If they’re RVs, then the city wouldn’t have any jurisdiction over them, Balynas said.

The city gave her and Carol 14 days to get rid of their 12 tiny houses, even though they had guests in them and were booked for months out. If the couple didn’t comply, the city threatened to arrest them. The task was impossible, Balynas said, and would’ve ruined their Airbnb ratings.

“To just come and literally demand that we shut down our entire business the same day was just mind blowing, honestly,” she said. “We can’t do that.”

Eventually, the city extended Balynas’ timeline to get rid of the houses to 30 days. However, it never responded to her contention that her tiny houses were legally certified as RVs, she said.

Balynas filed a lawsuit against the city on Nov. 15 with help from an attorney in Melrose. She’s hoping a judge will allow her to keep tiny homes on her property until a final ruling is made.

The damage has already been done though, she said. She and her husband had to lay off workers, because it was unclear if they could have more guests. Their financial situation is dire.

“We’ve just moved into a new house,” she said. “We have more bills now. We have a new baby coming. This is not OK for us.”

A nonprofit organization, the Institute for Justice, of Virginia, has also come to their aid.

Ari Bargil, a senior attorney with the organization, said Balynas’ situation is a mix of economic liberty and property rights. People deserve the right to use their property freely, and they have the right to earn a living of their choice without government interference, Bargil said.

The institute sent a letter to Alachua City in October saying it believes the government’s actions illegally violated Balynas’ and Carol’s rights.

Two years ago, when Balynas and Carol first began their business, the city’s previous building official told them that the tiny homes would be considered RVs and outside of the city’s jurisdiction, Balynas said. “And then out of nowhere, the city pulled the rug out from under them, and that is not how the rule of law works,” Bargil said.

The tiny houses did not change over the two years that they existed, only the enforcement personnel in the city, according to the institute’s letter. “But the meaning of a law cannot be said to shift depending on the person enforcing it,” the letter read. “That is tyranny.”

Bargil also said the city’s interpretation of the state building code is arbitrary and wrong. While the matter is complicated, he said: “In America, there’s no such thing as a presumption of illegality. And that’s effectively how the city is approaching this situation.”

The city hasn’t responded to the Institute for Justice’s letter.

A different Alachua City couple on Airbnb was told to get rid of their tiny house because it was an RV – the opposite battle that Balynas is fighting.

Sioban Hanes and Lee Hanes host three rooms on Main Street: two in their house, and one in their teal RV named Dolly. The RV is categorized as a tiny house on Airbnb, Sioban said.

Siobhan Hanes’ teal RV is named Dolly because her father used to take her and her three siblings to Florida in a teal RV also named Dolly. Everything is teal in Dolly, even down to the homemade soap. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

Originally, the couple considered buying a tiny house, but was nervous about them not abiding the city’s codes, Sioban said. Instead, they bought an RV in April. It was popular on Airbnb among people who wanted to visit the University of Florida or north central Florida’s springs.

“I love hosting, and we’ve met fabulous guests,” said Sioban, 60, a retired accountant. “And they come back, which is kind of nice when you get people back. It says a lot that – if you read the reviews – they had such a great time.”

However, the city made them take Dolly off Airbnb in August, and won’t let them rent it out due to a prohibition against using RVs as a temporary residence past two weeks, she said.

The city hasn’t clarified whether that’s two weeks of a month or just consecutively, Sioban said.

Siobhan (right) began home hosting on Airbnb when she moved to Alachua in 2017. The couple moved from Weeki Wachee, FL to retire in Alachua, and Siobhan knew she wanted to have Airbnbs. “That was the first thing we did before we even moved into the house,” she said. (Meghan McGlone/WUFT News)

She’s losing $90 a night, and the RV is now for sale: “Everyone was so thrilled with it, and it’s heart-wrenching that I have to get rid of it and not have it.”

Having Airbnbs on Alachua’s Main Street is a community service, Sioban said. People go to local businesses, and the couple pays a bed tax per night that they have guests. They now have a code violation attached to their property for renting the RV on Airbnb – they’re the only ones in the city with such a violation even though there are other tiny homes in the city.

“Compare apples to apples,” Sioban said. “It is unequal enforcement.”

Florida is still a battleground for tiny homes

Alachua City officials did not respond to questions from WUFT News regarding Balynas and Hanes, or why it prohibits tiny homes. “It is your job and your profession to regulate the structures in your city,” Balynas said. “But you have to give us something to work with.”

However, Alachua County does allow tiny homes in some circumstances. The county commission voted in 2018 to allow them in cottage neighborhoods, which have certain requirements like needing a common green space and a larger clubhouse.

Tiny home advocates nationally are fighting to make statewide laws.

Robin “Shorty” Robbins, of St. Johns County, is on the national board of the Tiny Home Industry Association, which is based in Colorado and works to normalize tiny homes across America and the world. The association has over 800 members from five different countries.

It wants legislation that would categorize tiny homes as something different than RVs through the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, Robbins said. A recent partnership with statewide campground associations could make it easier for them to be accepted in those spaces, she said.

The association hopes to see such a bill introduced in the next legislative session.

“It’s looking a little more promising for this year,” Robbins said.

In the meantime, tiny home owners are creatively finding places to put their homes despite zoning and square footage regulations, Robbins said. For instance, certain RV parks can provide loopholes for tiny houses because of old zoning laws, she said.

On the other hand, many Florida Panhandle counties don’t have square footage rules, but homeowners associations can trump those rules and say none can be in their communities.

Nine known tiny house communities in Florida, including in Melrose, are considered safe havens for the owners. Some are RV parks, and others are in tiny-friendly areas.

“There’s ways around stuff, but it shouldn’t have to be this hard,” Robbins said.

Gracious Tiny House Park, a commercial RV park in Okeechobee, is accepting new residents, said Barb Diaz, who lives in and manages the area. She’s one of the few who don’t want tiny homes to be regulated. To her, tiny living is about financial and creative freedom.

“I just want to live and be left alone,” Diaz said. “And that’s so much of what the tiny house world is.”

About Meghan McGlone

Meghan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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