Tiny homes that also come with community

Fewer square feet than an average new house is one feature of tiny homes. For some tiny homes, they also come with built-in community:

With the tiny home lifestyle comes a certain determination to do more with less. Of course, this explains why tiny home owners are choosing to flock to dedicated subdivisions with like-minded individuals opting for a simpler life. According to Randy Hanson, the longtime developer behind Lake Walk Tiny Home Community in Greer, this shared philosophy has forged a strong connection between residents.

“Tiny houses create more of a close society and close community than anything else. I’ve been developing subdivisions all my life, and I’ve never seen this before. The people have formed almost like a family and they do things together,” says Hanson. “The houses are close enough together and they all have front porches. They sit on their front porches and holler back and forth like the old days.”

Sitting along the shore of Lake Cunningham, Lake Walk’s amenities include a dog park, community garden and picnic area, as well as a newly opened coffee shop. Of the community’s more than 60 lots, only three sites remain available…

After a year and a half of navigating the permitting process, Creek Walk Tiny Home Community in Travelers Rest is perhaps South Carolina’s newest tiny home village. Located along the Swamp Rabbit Trail and in prime distance of Greenville proper, Creek Walk offers access to downtown locales while also providing the peace and seclusion of nature. Whereas traditional, full-scale developments would require leveling a wooded area before construction could even begin, tiny homes are small enough to position among the trees. This means that rather than waiting a lifetime for the tiny sapling you planted in your yard to reach full size, you can enjoy the shade of a hearty forest on move-in day. In this way, tiny home communities can be about preservation as much as they are about destination.

Many homes are part of subdivisions. What makes these communities much different? Four possible answers:

1. The houses are still separate but are smaller and closer together. Unlikely townhomes and condos that allow residents to own their unit but are connected to other units, tiny houses have both the closeness and separation.

2. These tiny house communities may face unique zoning and regulatory challenges. As the article notes, not all municipalities are prepared for this.

3. More so than typical subdivisions, these communities might really bring people together for lifestyle reasons. Those who want a tiny house may be more alike each other than the typical homeowner.

4. Speculation on my part: because the homes are relatively small,residents spend less time inside or in private spaces and thus interact with each other more than typical homeowners.

Making something out of hundreds of unfinished subdivisions

The economic crisis of recent years had broad effects including stalling the construction of hundreds of suburban subdivisions across the United States:

There are hundreds of zombie subdivisions like this one scattered across the country. They’re one of the most visible reminders of the housing boom and bust, planned and paved in the heady days where it seemed that everybody wanted a home in the suburbs, and could afford it, too. But when the economy tanked, many of the developers behind these subdivisions went belly-up, and construction stopped. In some cases, a few people have moved into homes in these half-built subdivisions, requiring services to be delivered there. In others, the land is empty, except for roads, sidewalks, and the few street signs that haven’t been stolen yet. In some counties in the West, anywhere from 15 to 33 percent of all subdivision lots are vacant, according to the Sonoran Institute…

But if roads have been paved or a developer has installed infrastructure improvements, it’s very hard to just revert the space back to farmland. Local governments who try to stop building—even if there is little demand—can be sued for preventing development where it had once been approved…Still, some developers  have come up with creative ways to turn zombie subdivisions into something other than rows upon rows of empty McMansions.

Maricopa, Arizona, for instance, had issued about 600 residential building permits a month during the boom, and then saw many of these developments stall. Rather than just wait to see if demand would ever return, the city hooked up a Catholic church with the owners of an empty development. The church had been looking to erect a new building, and was searching for a site with existing water and infrastructure services. The developer had been looking for someone willing to build. With a little bit of rezoning help from the city, the church could start building on the land…

And in Teton County, Idaho, population around 11,000, where the Sonoran Institute estimates that 68 percent of land parceled into subdivisions was undeveloped, local officials passed ordinances that would allow subdivisions to be rezoned. One development, called Canyon Creek Ranch, changed its plans from a resort with 350 lots to a community project with only 21 lots, shrinking the infrastructure price tag by 97 percent and reducing the environmental impacts.

From zombie pedestrians to zombie subdivisions. It sounds like communities have to hope that someone wants the land – whether a residential developers or some other user – so they can do something with it. As noted, communities might be able to speed that up by rezoning the land for other uses. Perhaps this might lead to some ultra-flexible zoning where these spaces could be residential, commercial, industrial, or other as long as somebody has a plan.

I do wonder how many of these subdivisions would have legitimately filled up. Where were all the people going to come from? If they moved to the new homes, they opened up other units. Are there so many people rooming together or living with family to create the demand for all these new houses?

My suggestion for what these settings can be used for: sets for all of the post-apocalyptic or dystopian TV shows and movies. Studios could likely get cheap long-term deals on these properties and use them however they wish.

You don’t see many engagement photos set in suburban streets

One photographer looked to the suburbs for inspiration in an engagement photoshoot but didn’t find much to work with:

Engagement photos are either urban or rural. They are either a former factory or a leafy meadow, the brick wall of a forgotten factory or an empty beach. Never the subdivision. Never the cul-de-sac.

We wanted to capture the ambiance of the American subdivision.

The pictures are what you might expect: a couple standing in the middle of wide roads or cul-de-sacs amidst a bunch of cookie-cutter single-family homes. The locations are somewhat unfair; you don’t often see engagement pictures in the middle of urban or rural roads either. And, you can find lots of pleasant settings in the suburbs, perhaps even in gardens or flower beds in the very same tract homes in the backgrounds of these pictures. But, if you want to find the stereotypical image of suburbs, especially among critics, this looks correct.

Building suburban subdivisions around farms, CSAs, and food production

Over 200 new subdivisions feature a new amenity that the neighborhood is built around: a farm or food production operation.

It’s called development-supported agriculture, a more intimate version of community-supported agriculture — a farm-share program commonly known as CSA. In planning a new neighborhood, a developer includes some form of food production — a farm, community garden, orchard, livestock operation, edible park — that is meant to draw in new buyers, increase values and stitch neighbors together.

“These projects are becoming more and more mainstream,” says , a fellow with the Urban Land Institute. He estimates that more than 200 developments with an agricultural twist already exist nationwide…

After World War II, Americans escaping crowded cities flocked to the suburbs. Most suburbanites didn’t want to be right next to a farm, and so restrictive zoning pushed livestock and tractors out of new residential areas. Now, says Lindsay Ex, an environmental planner with the city of Fort Collins, municipalities are being forced to change their codes…

The marketing of these new neighborhoods appears to be working — at least at Bucking Horse, where the developer says 200 single-family lots were snatched up within days of going on the market. Values of existing homes have jumped 25 percent since construction began on the agricultural amenities.

My question: does supporting a local food source within your suburban subdivision offset the evils of sprawl and suburbanization? A farm might help mitigate the results of sprawl including needing to drive for food (now it is closer by, maybe walkable), there is open space (though it is used for food production – so a different version of “fake”/human-influenced nature), and farms can help provide a center for community life. On the other hand, such developments take up more land, it is unclear how productive or effective the CSAs are (they may not have to be that productive – as long as the neighbors like it), and this still skews toward wealthier residents who can afford the land and the setting (price premiums to live near a farm, just like living near a golf course?). In other words, is this just another suburban trend that is primarily available to certain middle- and upper-class Americans so that they feel better about their food sources and being green (neither of which are necessarily bad things)?

Combine these farm ideas with New Urbanism or retrofitting existing developments that didn’t work out and there could be some interesting outcomes here.

New Halal subdivision planned for Sydney suburb

A new 145-lot development in the western suburbs of Sydney, Australia is drawing reactions from residents:

Qartaba Homes is promoting its 145-lot subdivision at Riverstone, near Rouse Hill, as Australia’s “very first project of its kind for the Muslim community”, The Daily Telegraph revealed yesterday…

Many residents expressed their concerns that non-Muslims would be excluded from the site, while others said the developers were welcome to the land, which they said was flood prone.

Qartaba director Wajahat Rana said the company was happy to sell blocks of land to anyone…

University of Technology Sydney sociology professor Andrew Jakubowicz said the creation of religious enclaves was not a new concept: “The phenomenon of creating an environment where people of a particular religious faith feel comfortable is a very old Christian tradition, associated particularly with the Anglican church.

More on this from the Daily Telegraph:

While the company has insisted people from all religious backgrounds are free to take up the offer, it advises that the loans are “100 per cent Halal” and a “chance to escape Riba (interest)” because interest is a sin under Islamic law.

Qartaba Homes director Khurram Jawaid said it was the real estate deal of a lifetime, open to Australians of all faiths and backgrounds, but the state MP for Hawkesbury Ray Williams said the project was divisive.

“I can only imagine the repercussions if a developer were to advertise a new Judeo-Christian housing estate; they would be hung, drawn and quartered,” Mr Williams said…

Land parcels range from 400sq m to 800sq m and are being offered at $85,000 plus charges, including a booking deposit of 30-35 per cent and a 24-30 month interest-free payment plan.

Sounds like an interesting project. I wonder how a similar proposal might fare in the American suburbs. America has a history of ethnic neighborhoods, particularly in immigrant gateway cities, though the percent of the ethnic group living in that neighborhood may not have been anywhere near 80-100%. In the last few years, I have tracked some of the opposition to mosque proposals in DuPage County (see here and here for examples) but the controversy seems to have died out for the time being. I imagine a proposal for a Halal neighborhood would really raise NIMBY concerns from certain local and national groups.

Just curious: could a process of obtaining homeownership without having to pay interest be appealing to a lot of potential homeowners, particularly in tougher economic times?

Sprawling suburbanites are out of touch with nature

The author of a new book about sprawl and wildlife describes the connection suburbanites have to nature:

Sprawl in my book consists of suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas where people reside but don’t farm for a living. They live in all kinds of houses, in or out of developments, in small dwellings or McMansions on five acre lots, in second homes, weekend places and recreational farms. I call the latter group “toy farmers.” They dabble at growing things, raising chickens or a few sheep. They keep a horse. They shop at Agway and Tractor Supply. They hire Hispanics to mow and trim and weed. Most sprawl dwellers are on the landscape but not of it.

Q: What do you mean by “on the landscape but not of it”?

A: From baby boomers forward, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the natural landscape, even the adulterated one where we live. Unlike our grandparents, most of us no longer have the stewardship skills needed to manage the ecosystems around us. Many of us don’t want them managed at all. These people want nature to take its course — even though they are managing the landscape around them like crazy by living in it. And we don’t have the time to deal with it. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors — in houses, offices or cars. We get our nature from movies and TV, now piped into digital screens. We see films that have been edited to make wild creatures behave like pets or people.

Q: What’s the connection between sprawl and wildlife?

A: The 19th century conservationists didn’t conceive of sprawl. How could they? No one had lived like this before. Some people say that in sprawling out, we encroached on wildlife habitat and, therefore, the problems are the fault of us not wild creatures. It’s true, we encroached, mainly into old farm land. But that’s only half the story. In fact, wildlife encroached right back. Lots of species adapted with surprising ease to life in the sprawl, to living around people.

Sounds about right: nature via televisions, iPads, and looking out the window.

There is a complicated history behind the suburbs and nature. In the 1800s, the suburbs were seen as a place where residents could return to nature. Cities were seen as anti-nature with their dense collections of people, factories, and infrastructure. In contrast, the suburbs offered lawns around single-family homes set back from the streets, nearby parks, and winding streets that minimized the visual impact of development. A classic example of this is Llewellyn Park, New Jersey. Yet, the nature in the suburbs was carefully controlled. Lawns were manicured and landscaped as were many parks.

In the mass suburb era after World War II, nature took a backseat to development. You can find many pictures of subdivisions being prepared for construction where the ground has been flattened and trees flattened. Starting around the early 1970s, new planning techniques tried to reclaim more land in subdivisions by clustering development. New planning paradigms like New Urbanism have incorporated talk about sustainability and responsible development. However, having more suburban open space also means this space still tended to be highly controlled. For a good read on connections between suburbanization and the environment, check out Adam Rome’s The Bulldozer in the Countryside.

Sunsets can beautify the suburbs and McMansions

I was amused to run into this Flickr/Instagram photograph of a beautiful sunset over a subdivision of suburban McMansions. The tag on the photo: “Suburbia has awesome sunsets too | #shareyoursunset #sky #McMansions.”

This short commentary can be tied to how suburbs are often portrayed. The suburbs are often caricatured as bland or ordered in a mass-produced way or messy places but rarely as beautiful. Even though the suburbs were originally intended to be a way to combine nature and residences (particularly compared to the dirty cities of the Industrial Revolution), this idea has been lost today. The newest subdivisions tend to be flat places where the existing trees and topography have been leveled for human residences. (However, it is interesting to look at older subdivisions, say those built in the two decades after World War II, and see their more mature trees. Are these neighborhoods now more beautiful simply due to the passage of time?)

This also goes beyond nature. Think of popular culture depictions of suburbs that tend to have a similar storyline: “this suburban family/street/community looks put together but once you dig below the surface, you find all sorts of flaws.” (This is not just limited to suburban stories.) Outside of home interiors (often the focus of magazines and television shows), where is there beauty in suburbs?

Yet, the sky is not completely obscured by suburban subdivisions so perhaps for just a few moments, the suburbs too can be a place where natural beauty is revealed.

What’s in a name? Certain subdivision names lead to higher housing values

A study suggests homebuyers are willing to pay extra in subdivisions with certain words in their name:

According to a study by two researchers at the University of Georgia, homebuyers pay an average of 4.2 percent more when the development has the word “country” in the name. And if it has the term “country club” as part of its name, buyers will pay 5.2 percent on top of that.

That’s a total of almost 10 percent more that people are willing to pay for the prestige associated with the term “country club.”

A joke? Hardly. The study, the results of which were published last year in the Journal of Real Estate Research, is a serious investigation of sales in the Baton Rouge, La., area over 15 years. It carefully controlled for such variables as location, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and days on the market, among others.

“This is the first study to find through empirical research that buyers are willing to pay more for certain property names, with all other attributes of a house being equal,” the paper said. “In fact, buyers of more expensive houses may be willing to pay more for a name that conveys prestige than they are willing to pay for a good school for their children.”

No wonder, then, that the naming process is often a psychodrama, with builders and their marketing teams becoming more hung up over what they will call their communities than they are over the copy for a $10,000, full-page ad in the local newspaper.

There is no tried-and-true naming method. Some builders resort to the old standards — station, park, commons, woods, village, farms, hunt, square and gardens. Some look to history for a name, while others use location or a characteristic of the property. A few pick a name that immortalizes themselves or their loved ones.

It sounds to me like this is all about status. Living in a subdivision with a certain word in its title conveys status and wealth, important considerations for homeowners, particularly when selling a home.

Several thoughts come to mind:

1. I assume that this effect only works at certain income levels. For example, could you build a run-of-the-mill townhouse development, slap the “country club” label on it, and expect a price premium? I would guess not. To some degree, I would guess there is a relationship between the price of the properties (which then limits who can live there in the first place) and the names. Additionally, builders don’t want to dilute their products by suggesting that “normal” homes are upscale in name alone. (It is unclear to me whether the researchers were able to control for all the factors that would separate an upscale suburban subdivision from a typical subdivision.)

2. Beyond “country” or “country club,” do other words or names not matter? If not, then you simply get a muddled mess of subdivision names that don’t really signal much of anything except general references to tranquility, pastoralism, and perhaps some local landmarks or figures.

2a. Are there names that have a negative effect on price?

3. I wonder how much the generally bland subdivision names feed into the critique that suburbia is a homogeneous place. With many subdivision names not anchored to any particular place, you could be in a “Thousand Oaks” in Ohio just as well as Texas. Is this simply another piece that suggests that Americans aren’t anchored to any particular places?

What suburban residents notice about their neighbors

Reading through some of the coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the child he had with his mistress, I found a common explanation of what suburban neighbors know about each other in one account:

As TV satellite trucks gridlocked the block and spilled over to an adjacent street, residents sat in their homes, stunned. Some worried about the effect the news would have on the polite 13-year-old boy who they say often walked a white poodle named Sugar through the neighborhood when he wasn’t swimming in his backyard pool or playing basketball…

Residents said the family was friendly and, like other homeowners on the block of fashionable houses with red-tiled roofs and two- and three-car garages, they kept up their house and its neatly trimmed lawn and palm trees.

While the boy was a fixture in the neighborhood, residents say, they rarely saw his mother until she retired 2 1/2 months ago. Until then, she told them, she had been working for Schwarzenegger’s family and had kept an apartment near Schwarzenegger’s Los Angeles home, 100 miles away.

I realize that this is simply one news report so perhaps the information is condensed in order to tell other important parts of the story but several things stuck out to me:

1. The boy was seen walking the dog, swimming, and playing basketball in the neighborhood. If a suburban resident doesn’t do these things outside of the home, they may not be noticed at all.

2. This family maintained their home to the same standards as everyone else. This is a key marker of suburban civility: do you help insure the property values of everyone else by keeping your yard neat and your home maintained? If not, I don’t think most suburban neighbors would have a favorable impression.

3. The mother was rarely seen. Again an emphasis on what neighbors saw rather than what they experienced in interaction with the family.

4. “The family was friendly.” What exactly does this mean? They didn’t yell at kids in the neighborhood to stay off their lawn? They frequently talked to neighbors? They had backyard barbeques with other families?

On the whole, since most of the descriptors are based on what people saw rather than what they experienced in interaction, I would guess these impressions from the neighbors are based more on appearances and perceived status than anything else. Based on what we are presented, it sounds like the family kept up suburban appearances: they walked the dog, kept their home and yard neat, and were friendly. This is more than enough to get a favorable review from suburban neighbors. If some of the information was changed, such as the family let their grass grow long or no one in the family ever walked a pet, I imagine we might hear some different thoughts along the lines of “the family kept to themselves.”

A cynical take on this would be that this is typical suburban living: it is all about appearances, most neighbors don’t really know each other, and suburban neighborhoods are superficial and lack true community. Some of this may be true though I doubt any of the neighbors are replicas of Gladys Kravitz. But how many suburban residents would or could share more specifics about their neighbors if approached by an outsider?

Proclaiming the end of the “McMansion era”

CNBC reports that the real estate site Trulia.com says “the McMansion era is over.” This is based on evidence that more people want smaller homes:

Just 9 percent of the people surveyed by Trulia said their ideal home size was over 3,200 square feet. Meanwhile, more than one-third said their ideal size was under 2,000 feet.

“That’s something that would’ve been unbelievable just a few years back,” said Pete Flint, CEO and co-founder of Trulia. “Americans are moving away from McMansions.”

The comments echoed those made in June by Kermit Baker, the chief economist at the American Institute of Architects.

“We continue to move away from the McMansion chapter of residential design, with more demand for practicality throughout the home,” Baker said. “There has been a drop off in the popularity of upscale property enhancements such as formal landscaping, decorative water features, tennis courts, and gazebos.”

“McMansions just look and feel out of place today, given the more cautious environment everyone’s living in,” said Paul Bishop, vice president of research for the National Association of Realtors.

And homebuilders are heeding the call: In a survey of builders last year, nine out of 10 said they planned to build smaller or lower-priced homes.

This is interesting information – the McMansion was and is commonly cited as part of the excess of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But I have a few questions and thoughts:

1. We are in the middle of a housing crisis, one that is virtually unprecedented in recent history. Could these results simply be the result of this period? Look at the data over time: Americans since 1950 have progressively wanted larger homes. Might this change as soon as the economy or housing market picks up again?

1a. We would have to wait and see whether this shift might be a longer-term move to an emphasis on quality and appointments rather than sheer space. Since family size has dropped over the years, it makes sense that homes might not get so large. Or perhaps more people subscribe to some green ideas about having a small footprint.

2. There is still some demand for homes over 3,200 square feet. If you look at the Trulia infographics, most people seem to want homes around the 2,000-2,600 square foot range. These are not small homes – they would be slightly smaller than the average size of new homes built in most years of the 2000s and are larger than most American homes built after World War II.

3. This is survey data which gives us some measure of what people want to buy. However, people still have to make choices on the open market – will they turn down larger houses for smaller houses for an extended amount of time?

4. Will home prices go down or stay low in the long run – or will builders make up for having smaller homes with more features that will cost more?

5. There are some questions about whether a downturn in McMansions is part of a larger, more radical shift toward a new kind of suburbia. Perhaps. But even if this were the case, it would take a while for these new developments to be large enough in number to counter the typical views of suburbia and it would also require Americans to develop a new sense of community.