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Richmond Event Shows the Virtues of Small-House Living

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    Scott Chapman of San Ramon poses in front of the handmade "gingerbread hut" built out of pallets, straw and earth on display at the Tiny Living Festival in Richmond Saturday, Oct. 5. Miguel Elliott of Sebastopol built the hut out of pallets, straw and earth as part of his business, Living Earth Structures.

    Joseph Rivera of Vallejo surveyed the wooden cabinets, shining polished metal backsplash, couch and queen-sized bed in the 120-square-foot home on display Saturday at the Tiny Living Festival in Richmond.

    "I'm going to buy some land out of town and I might buy a tiny home and put it there," Rivera said. "It's a practical lifestyle. It saves energy and it saves money."

    Rivera was one of hundreds who came to the event held across from the Richmond Art Center. More than 30 tiny houses (generally defined as 100 to 400 square feet), converted school buses and other minuscule dwellings were on display. The event continues all day Sunday.

    "I lived in a travel trailer before this (tiny homes) movement started. I bought the trailer in 2011," Rivera said. "I worked for PG&E and traveled up and down the coast. It saved me from having to go in and out of hotel rooms."

    The home Rivera was touring Saturday -- if one can be said to "tour" a space that small -- was hand-built by Jennifer Brandenburg and her boyfriend Rhett Fulbright, who normally live in the house in Georgia. The couple are launching a business building such homes, "Cozyrollers." With its aesthetic appeal and ingenious use of space, it's a typical tiny house.

    The tiny-house movement is an architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes.

    Needless to say, it's well-represented in the Bay Area; for example, tiny home company New Avenue Homes was founded in Berkeley in 2009 and has managed more than 60 projects in that city in the past seven years.

    "My husband has been looking at tiny house life for years. I said, 'I am not doing it until I see one,'" said Nora Chapman of San Ramon, who was checking out a handmade "gingerbread hut" built out of pallets, straw and earth with her husband Scott.

    Like many others at the event, Chapman said this was her first time actually visiting a tiny house.

    "I am pleasantly surprised. They are much more spacious than I anticipated. It looks very doable for the long run," she said. "I'm happy and he's psyched."

    The gingerbread hut is normally used as a guest cottage on the grounds of Miguel Elliott's Sebastopol farm. Elliott hand-built the home, which has 50 square feet downstairs and a 70-square-foot sleeping loft accessible via a ladder.

    Elliott's company, Living Earth Structures, has created about 10 stationary such homes and four mobile ones since 1996, he said.

    Folks at the event visited food trucks including Banh Mi Zon, a Vietnamese gourmet food truck, listened to music and stood 30-50 deep in lines to tour the various tiny homes. More than 100 people gathered to hear a talk by John Kernohan, head of the Georgia-based 34,000-member United Tiny House Association and sponsor of the event.

    "You are going to face many obstacles in your tiny home journey," Kernohan told the audience. Indeed, despite laws passed by the California legislature to make building backyard tiny homes easier, there is still a prolonged process fraught with pitfalls in many Bay Area cities to create accessory dwelling units, another name for the homes.

    "You are going to have to learn your zoning laws," Kernohan told the group, also advising that they work with a real estate attorney to understand those laws.

    "I learned more from his half-hour talk than in five hours interacting with the various contractors I interviewed," said Ruth Dale of Redwood City.

    She said she intends to build a tiny home in her back yard. "The idea is to ease the chronic shortage of affordable housing in Redwood City and provide an income for me," especially because she has a dream of starting her own business, an outdoor classroom.

    No one at the event had a better reason for living in a tiny home than Sandra Wilsoncook.

    Her place of residence tells the story: Paradise, California. The town was virtually destroyed on Nov. 8, 2018, in the Camp wildfire.

    Wilsoncook intends to rebuild, but in the meantime, "We're living in a tiny house now," an International Super Class C recreational vehicle, Wilsoncook said.

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