Oregon House lawmakers passed building codes for so-called tiny houses on Tuesday, despite concern from officials that the codes may provide for substandard safety conditions.
House Bill 2737 passed 43-16 and now heads to the Senate for consideration. The bill would require the state Department of Consumer and Business Services to adopt specialty building codes for prefabricated and site-built homes that are less than 400 square feet.
Bill author Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, said the bill is intended to streamline building requirements for tiny homes. Those homes could have a "real impact" on Oregon's housing shortage, she said, if used to give shelter to homeless or low-income people.
Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, who co-authored the bill with Bynum, said he supports the tiny house building requirements because they may benefit businesses that construct the small dwellings.
Tom Bowerman, a proponent of the bill representing Eugene-based tiny house community SquareOne Villages, told lawmakers during committee hearings that standardizing tiny home building codes could cut down on "illegal bootleg construction projects."
But the plan was not without its detractors.
Mark Long, Oregon's building codes administrator, opposed the bill, saying in committee testimony that it "eliminates certain fire safety requirements." Long said officials have concerns about how fires may ignite or spread within a tiny house, which has not been widely studied, and fire hazards presented by loft-style sleeping spaces.
"Occupants may be incapacitated in a small house loft space before fire alarms sound," he said.
Long said he also has concerns over whether the proposed codes had been vetted enough, were based on solid reasoning and if they would withstand a legal challenge.
With his testimony, Long included an email from Katharine Lozano, a senior assistant attorney general with the Oregon Department of Justice, who said the state faces "significant tort risk" over the building codes.Because state officials dispute whether the proposed codes are safe, there could already exist a "case for negligence" if someone is injured while living in a tiny house constructed under codes approved through HB 2737, Lozano wrote.
She said that because residents of tiny homes are often low-income and tiny homes may have "lower safety standards" than other dwellings under HB 2737, there could be a case that the law violates the Oregon Constitution's equal protection clause.
Oregon has a statewide building code enforced by local governments. The building codes establish minimum building requirements that contractors can exceed, but cities and counties cannot require stricter codes on their own.