[StBernard] 'Like streetcars with the wheels taken off them': Chalmette residents protest the proliferation of 'tiny houses'

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Feb 6 09:28:08 EST 2017

'Like streetcars with the wheels taken off them': Chalmette residents
protest the proliferation of 'tiny houses'
Della Hasselle
It may be a craze in some places, but some residents of Chalmette are less
than crazy over a row of so-called "tiny houses" that have been erected in
an area known as Tiger Town.

After more than an hour of impassioned testimony from neighbors who oppose
the diminutive dwellings, the St. Bernard Parish Board of Zoning Adjustments
on Thursday blocked a developer from finishing what critics referred to as a
"tiny town" of miniature houses.

"We love this neighborhood. I hate to see it go down like this," resident
Joe Medina said. He said the houses look like "little shacks lined up ...
like streetcars with the wheels taken off them."

The slender buildings are in the 400 block of Chalmette Avenue, a street
neighbors described as narrow but busy due to traffic from a nearby school.

Developer Ralph Menesses started construction in November on the row of
three 480-square-foot houses, which are sandwiched next to each other on
20-foot-wide lots, after receiving permits for them from the parish.

He needed special permission from the Board of Zoning Adjustments because
the minimum lot width required to build a home in the parish normally is 60
feet. He also requested variances to reduce the required number of
off-street parking spaces and to park a car in the front yard.

During Thursday's meeting, at which the board considered his requests for
the middle 20-foot lot, Menesses said that while his buildings are unusual
for the area, he had gone through all the appropriate channels and secured
permission exactly the way he was supposed to.

"People say I found loopholes. I say I did the opposite," Menesses told the
board. "I say I did good business and found every single thing I had to do
to twist and turn to build these buildings on 20-foot lots in Tiger Town."

One board member, however, said Menesses had "misled" the board. According
to member Louis Schneider, the board granted Menesses permission to build
two of the houses because it thought he was forced to deal with two tiny
lots that were not adjacent to each other.

Had the board known that Menesses actually owned three lots in a row, each
20 feet wide, it would have required him to combine the lots into a single
60-foot property and build a double house on it, rather than three tiny
houses on the three lots, Schneider said.

"We thought he was tied up with two tiny lots and we were going to let him
build on those. The middle lot never did come up," he said. The parish, he
said, had made a mistake in issuing the variances.

The rest of the board agreed that the development never should have gone as
far as it did, and instead of granting Menesses the same variances he got
for the other two houses, it stymied the three-house development altogether
by voting down the petition for the middle lot.

"It is our opinion that this structure alters the essential character of the
neighborhood," the parish planning staff wrote in recommending denial of the

The issue of tiny houses may be new to Tiger Town residents in Chalmette,
but it's not the first time the issue has come up in the New Orleans area.

In fact, the tiny home movement, which last year gained popularity in areas
of northern California and North Carolina, has reached several pockets of
Louisiana. A search on Tiny House Listings shows homes ranging from 130
square feet in Gonzales to 525 square feet in Prairieville.

And at least five houses under 500 square feet were on the local rental
market as recently as September, according to the website Curbed New
Orleans. The oldest "tiny house," measuring 580 square feet, to go on the
market in New Orleans was built about 1914 in Algiers, the website found.

One speaker who supported Menesses said that tiny houses are one way
displaced St. Bernard residents could afford to return to the parish amid
rising housing and rent markets.

"These are opportunities for people to buy smaller dwellings," said Michael
Vincent, a real estate agent who said investors want to build as many as 500
small homes on lots throughout St. Bernard Parish.

The phenomenon of tiny houses "is all over the country, and eventually times
are going to change and that's where it's going to go toward, regardless of
whether it's now or 10 years from now," Vincent said. "There's people who
have been displaced all over this country and would love to come back home;
they just can't afford it."

But Chalmette residents who spoke at Thursday's meeting were vehemently
against the notion of small houses anywhere in the parish.

"It's ridiculous," neighbor Jay Sacks said. "These three houses, they
decrease the value of everything in the neighborhood."

Deborah Rosenberger, who has lived in Chalmette since 1954, agreed.

"I'm extremely shocked. That's the only word I can use," she said,
describing the moment she first saw the tiny houses on Chalmette Avenue. "I
drove down the street and I saw pods."

Parish Councilman Gillis McCloskey urged the board to follow the St. Bernard
Parish Comprehensive Plan, which was released in 2014 and serves as a road
map for attracting middle- and upper-income residents to the parish.

"Follow our master use plan," McCloskey said. "It's there for a reason. Our
call in the master use plan is to decrease density, not increase density."

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