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Boston Wants People To Build Tiny Houses In Their Yards

The city is showing off a prototype for “pop-up” affordable housing—and easing rules on accessory dwelling units.
One small step toward easing Boston's pricey housing problem?
One small step toward easing Boston's pricey housing problem? City of Boston

Last week, a prototype of a simple, 360-square-foot dwelling called the Plugin House appeared outside Boston City Hall. The crisp white box, unfurnished but with portals for plumbing and electricity ready to go, took about 5 hours for a five-person team to assemble. It’s the brainchild of James Shen, who is in Boston this year from China as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, and it represents something significant: In a city where everything from roof decks to chicken coops is strictly regulated, Boston is encouraging residents to build little houses in their backyards.

Chalk it up to the severe lack of affordable housing in Boston, which has forced city leaders to get a little creative. “This is the start of the conversation,” said Marcy Ostberg, director of the Mayor's Housing Innovation Lab. “It’s a question we’re asking residents—what do you think about building in your backyard?”

So far, Bostonians checking out the tiny house—sleek and minimalist, and cozy in the shadow of the urban-renewal-era Brutalist structure that serves as local government headquarters—seem open to the idea. All kinds of people could use such housing in Boston, from kids out of college to seniors who would like to age in place.

Indeed, tiny houses, micro-apartments, and right-sized studios have been gaining in popularity in cities across the country. The Plugin House, like the “Katrina Cottage” that helped kick off the tiny house movement in the last decade, keeps things simple: easy and inexpensive to build, for as little as $50,000.