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Tiny home companies sprout in southwest Montana amid housing crisis

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Right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Beth O’Neill, a Livingston resident, was pushed out of her rented home.

The owner of her property had decided to convert the home into a vacation rental. So, she moved in with roommates in Bozeman. Then the pandemic hit. After a rent increase, she couldn't afford her Bozeman place. She moved into a van.

“I’m a victim of the crazy housing crisis we’re in,” she said.

She lives in a Mercedes Benz van that she converted to function off-grid. It's parked in a field on a friend's property near Bozeman Pass.

With a background in carpentry, O’Neill decided to start building herself a tiny home as a more stable housing option than her van. Some friends expressed interest in the home and that’s how Lotus Pads: Micro Cabins was born.

While still an initial startup — she's waiting to be an incorporated business — O’Neill builds tiny homes in Livingston that operate “off-grid” as a way to help combat a shortage of housing in the area.

“This tiny house thing is a reflection of the walls I kept running into,” she said. “There aren’t enough affordable rentals.”

Fueled by a pandemic-exacerbated housing shortage, O’Neill wasn’t the only one with the same idea.

Several startups in Livingston and the Bozeman-area are working to bring smaller homes — with a smaller price tag — to the area, in part to combat a shortage of available housing.

Just outside of Livingston, Cody Wood and Rick Gilliland are building tiny homes out of Wood’s barn. In Butte, a new company is working to bring prefabricated homes to Montana towns.

"I’ve always felt like tiny houses are pretty cool, and we’re all tied into the housing market and it’s insane,” Wood said. “I’ve got three kids and when my oldest graduates the reality is that she won’t be able to make it on her own in this community.”

The pair debuted Woodland Ridge Tiny Homes at the end of June during an open house in Livingston.

tiny house

The first tiny house produced by Woodland Ridge Tiny Homes is parked at its workshop in Livingston on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Both Wood and Gilliland have backgrounds in contracting and construction. But building a tiny homes came with a learning curve, Gilliland said.

“It took hours and hours of doing research and scratching our heads,” he said Thursday in Livingston.

They build customizable tiny homes set on trailers that are tailored to survive harsh Montana winters.

They range in price, depending on size. A home they recently finished for Chico Hot Springs cost about $78,000, he said.

tiny house

The interior of the first tiny house produced by Woodland Ridge Tiny Homes is pictured at its workshop in Livingston on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Initially, Wood wanted to help give a path to homeownership for younger people, students and families. While that’s still his primary goal, Wood was surprised to get more interest from area businesses.

A tiny home Wood and Gilliland recently completed was sold to Chico Hot Springs for employee housing. He’s had other businesses reach out to inquire about tiny homes for employees, he said.

“There are businesses that can’t operate efficiently because they don’t have the workforce,” Wood said.

It’s a small startup for now, with Wood and Gilliland building the homes themselves out of Wood's barn, complete with wandering chickens and a few horses, about 10 minutes outside of Livingston. Wood thinks the tiny homes can be a way for first time homeownership, and dignified living for employees.

tiny house

A horse named Gunner peeks into the Woodland Ridge Tiny Homes workshop in Livingston on Thursday.

In Bozeman, a company founded in March is also aiming to help people buy more affordable homes. Foothold will manufacture prefabricated homes out of Butte that can be delivered to various towns around southwest Montana, said Hannah Van Wetter, CEO and co-founder of the company.

The homes, which range in size from 380 square feet to 1,100 square feet, are built in the Butte factory and then delivered and installed.

The smaller homes, while similar in size to tiny homes, are built out on regular foundations. Many tiny homes are built on trailers to aid in mobility.

Building offsite isn't dependent on Montana winters and it’s more environmentally friendly while less invasive than onsite construction, Van Wetter said.

“You don’t have to pay for architectures, don’t have to pay for engineering costs associated with building a house and the prefab method allows us to move smaller, more affordable homes,” she said.

Keeping the factory in Butte will also help cut the cost of shipping the homes. The small business only has a handful of employees but can build the homes in six to eight weeks.

“Prefab, manufactured, modular homes, whatever name you pick — it's not a new idea,” Van Wetter said. “In the 1940s, Sears was making these homes and shipping them on railcars and assembling them onsite.”

The company is aiming to target first time homeowners who own their own land and people looking to put in an accessory dwelling unit on their property. Accessory dwelling units are second, smaller buildings on a lot, like a guest or mother-in-law house.

“By building more supply at more entry level numbers and helping with infill and the rental situation, we’re building a solution that is keyed in to the problems we’re seeing in Bozeman and other areas,” she said.

Accessory dwelling units are one way that municipalities can increase density. But many towns in Montana have yet to embrace the secondary homes.

“That’s changing,” Wood said. “I think that as this housing crisis continues it’s really going to force local municipalities to really think outside the box.”

tiny house

Rick Gilliland, left, and Cody Wood, co-owners of Woodland Ridge Tiny Homes, are photographed at their workshop in Livingston on Thursday, July 15, 2021.

Butte, where Foothold is located, doesn’t allow accessory dwelling units, but its working on zoning laws to allow them, the Montana Standard reported. Bozeman does allow accessory dwelling units, and some of Van Wetters’ first clients are from Bozeman.

And in Livingston, talks of passing accessory dwelling unit laws are underway. O’Neill is set to speak in favor of accessory dwelling units during a Livingston City Commission meeting to be held next week.

Opponents of accessory dwelling units have said it compromises the character of neighborhoods and promotes overcrowding. In Livingston, opponents were concerned accessory dwelling units would just be converted into more commercial rentals, the Livingston Enterprise reported.

"ADUs are awesome. They don't create new sprawl and they maintain the town's character," Van Wetter said. "In Bozeman, one- to two-bedroom places are really hard to find. It's helps people find rentals, or homeowners stay in their homes and find a way to supplement income."

Among many accessibility barriers, tiny homes might not be a great fit for large families, and there's typically extra cost associated with renting the land where the tiny home is parked.

“This is by no means a solution for everyone,” O'Neill said.

The tiny homes will also have a trickle down effect, Wood said. For those who can afford or choose to live in a tiny home, that will free up other homes and rentals.

"It's not a silver bullet," Van Wetter said. "It won't solve every problem, but it's one small piece of the problem."

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