When affordable housing came up at a recent neighborhood meeting for wards 3 and 4, Grand Forks City Council member Jeannie Mock said she wasn't surprised.
It's a regular topic for residents, she said, who are generally concerned about the high cost of buying a home.
But residents took the discussion in a new direction during a February meeting with constituents, when one attendee mentioned micro-homes.
"It was something I hadn't heard come up in these meetings before, so it was kind of a different topic," Mock said.
Micro-homes can vary in dimensions and name, as they're also commonly called "tiny homes" and "tiny houses," but they're generally smaller, sometimes mobile structures that residents across the country are turning to while the cost of traditional housing continues to rise.
The city of Grand Forks currently has no city codes in place addressing micro-homes, according to City Planner Brad Gengler.
"There are some code provisions that could allow us to work toward this," he said. "But I think the most important thing first is to kind of look at other communities that have implemented micro-home development and whatnot, to really get a good idea of what they're all about."
Grand Forks could conduct a study to gauge whether there's enough local demand for tiny houses, Gengler said. The city would also study what other communities have done in terms of where they allow tiny homes and what specifications they require.
"When we talk about micro-homes, are we talking about for in-fill purposes? Where there might be a vacant lot? Or are we talking about a subdivision, multiple homes?" Gengler said. "I think we would look at how much land is needed, off-street parking, infrastructure. ... I mean it's all attainable because obviously they're doing it elsewhere. It's just a matter of gauging the interest and demand."
Emily Contreras is executive director of the Grand Forks Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable options for home ownership by subsidizing home purchases.
Contreras said her group has looked into the topic of micro-homes somewhat, but not heavily because of a lack of recognition in city codes.
"It is a model that seems like it would be more of a fit for those who want to be living independently, with home ownership," Contreras said.
"If there's a huge market where people would love to buy a $40,000, very small home on a very small lot. I would think that private developers would be interested in that," Mock said. "You know, because that's kind of the idea behind it: You do a very small home, on a really small lot, and that can drive down the price."
Although there's no city ordinance regarding tiny houses, Gengler said the city in March 2018 removed a limitation previously requiring apartment units be no smaller than 400 square feet.
"It had just been an ordinance provision for many years, and nobody really had ever proposed to do any apartment units smaller than that," Gengler said. "Then we discussed allowing it, and we made the determination that as long as an individual apartment unit meets all health and safety codes, it really wouldn't put anybody in harm's way if we allowed something that was less than 400 square feet."
Mock made it clear the city is not interested in building in micro-homes for residents.
"We just want to make sure we're not in the way, and if there is an interest for them, can we help capture that?" she said.