Housing for the unhoused with church-provided tiny houses

The idea of tiny homes to address homelessness has been around for a little while and some churches are making it a reality:

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On vacant plots near their parking lots and steepled sanctuaries, congregations are building everything from fixed and fully contained micro homes to petite, moveable cabins, and several other styles of small-footprint dwellings in between.

Church leaders are not just trying to be more neighborly. The drive to provide shelter is rooted in their beliefs — they must care for the vulnerable, especially those without homes…

Some churches’ projects are already up and running, while others are still working toward move-in day, like the Church of the Nazarene congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is assembling a tiny house community for chronically homeless people with local nonprofit Settled…

Houses of worship not only have land to spare, Medcalf said, but are positioned to “provide community in a way that really is humanizing and is a part of anybody’s basic healing and recovery.”

I like this idea for the reasons cited above: congregations have a mission to serve, have land, and are often established and respected organizations in communities.

As noted elsewhere in the article, churches might not feel equipped to tackle all of the issues involved with housing – so they can work with organizations in this sector – and neighbors can register complaints – as they often do about any new housing in an area.

Thinking more broadly, given all of the housing needs in the United States, does this hint at a growing willingness of religious congregations to consider addressing this issue?

Still a limited tiny house movement

What happened to tiny houses in recent years? Here is some discussion of the issues tiny houses face:

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“We’re still here,” says Kent Griswold, 63, who lives in Bend, Ore., and is the founder of the Tiny House Blog, which is believed to be one of the first blogs about tiny houses. “The movement hasn’t stopped growing, it’s just not in the public eye as much anymore.”…

Laubach says due to the pandemic, which has made people re-evaluate what is important, retirees, mature widows and single women are driving much of the demand today…

Griswold agrees, but says instead of just the novelty of people looking for tiny homes on wheels, which really drove the movement during the 2007-09 recession, people are looking at other ways to live small…

“Tiny homes on wheels or park models are thought of as RVs, but many jurisdictions are starting to think of them as Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Still, the code problems can get frustrating for people,” says Laubach.

Arguably, the tiny house movement was not big to start with and the homes often appealed to particular people with resources.

COVID-19 and the housing affordability issues in many metropolitan regions would seem to be the conditions under which tiny houses would thrive. People want to get away from typical locations and they need cheaper spaces.

At the same time, more uncertain economic conditions might mean that people are less likely than ever to be lenient about zoning and codes. This limits where tiny houses are possible. This is, of course, a much broader issue: many communities want to protect single-family homes at all costs.

Does this mean something has to give in the future? Can people have really high property values, complain about the lack of affordable housing or housing options, and continue to restrict other housing options like tiny houses?

The tiny house movement might be small and it might work steadily but its ongoing presence is at least a reminder that other housing options are possible.

Tiny homes for vacations – but for full-time living?

Tiny houses are popular for vacations and getting away from daily life:

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Along with housing a growing number of thrifty millennials and ever-wise minimalists, tiny homes are becoming go-to lodging for travelers looking to embrace that simple-living mindset or get up close and personal with their destination.

They are used as getaways or guesthouses from the Catskills in New York to Vail ski trails in Colorado. Some companies, like Tiny Home Vacations in northern Texas, feature clusters of tiny homes that cater directly to tourists. Airbnb dedicates a section of its website exclusively to its finest tiny home listings.

In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, ESCAPE Homes founder Dan Dobrowolski and his wife, Lisa, have constructed a finely outfitted fleet of petite dwellings near Rice Lake as part of their burgeoning tiny home empire. What began as a lodge built on the site of an abandoned church camp near Chetek, Wisconsin, in 1993 has morphed into high-end Canoe Bay Resort, with accommodations designed by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé John Rattenbury. Most expensive is the 2,000-square-foot Edgewood Villa, $999 per night, but smaller rentable homes start at $348.

How’s business? “It’s exploding — like a bonfire,” says Dobrowolski, who fished on the 280 acres of northern Wisconsin land as a boy (and worked long ago as a weatherman for WFLD-TV in Chicago). The pandemic “was gas on the fire” of the trend, because “people want to feel safe” yet have a vacation spot or accommodate visitors, he says.

I have argued before that tiny homes often appear to appeal to wealthier Americans who want mobility, minimalism, or a chance to get away. Some escape McMansions for tiny houses and others do not want tiny houses to be associated with lower classes.

Of course, one of the big possibilities of tiny houses is that they offer cheaper housing. Whether they provide housing for the homeless or affordable housing, they can provide options for those who would struggle otherwise to find housing.

If tiny houses become associated with tourism, does this mean they are for those who have the income to spend on getaways? This would make tiny houses a luxury item, not one that could help people.

While the tiny house movement is still small, there is still time to find builders and others who can make tiny homes affordable and common and not just tourist destinations.

Communities of 64 square foot tiny houses to combat homelessness

Several tiny house communities have sprung up in Los Angeles to provide housing. One observer suggests they have been successful thus far:

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Each tiny house is 64 square feet and comes with heat, air conditioning and built-in beds. Each resident is someone who was once a member of the unhoused community. Each village — and there are six in Los Angeles neighborhoods — is designed to help residents take a first step out of homelessness by giving them a home to live in for three to six months…

Over two months, I documented the scene at the Chandler village and at the Alexandria Park site in North Hollywood, with its palette of prefabricated homes painted in vivid colors to keep the location from having a sterile, institutionalized feeling. I observed a calming sense of order, an atmosphere of support and trust between the staff and residents…

All six villages are operated by the nonprofit Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission, which helps clients get back on their feet as they seek permanent housing. Village support includes a staff on call 24/7 and caseworkers to help with such basics as job applications or securing benefits. Hot meals are provided and residents have access to a communal laundry, showers and restrooms…

Yet every day, I saw the immeasurable worth of these tiny villages in helping to create something that’s often missing from stories about the unhoused: a narrative of positive progress.

This is the first report I have seen of tiny house communities for the unhoused in action. At least a few cities have considered this (see earlier posts here, here, and here). Such arrangements offer flexibility or opportunities that other kinds of housing could not. And, tiny houses still have a cool factor.

That said, how far can this go? As the piece notes, the costs were higher than anticipated. More communities needed. Presumably, the upfront money of tiny house communities would pay off down the road in improved lives and fewer services. Or, where exactly can such communities be located to avoid the NIMBYism of nearby residents yet still be decent places to live? Finally, what comes after tiny house community living, both for the current residents and the community?

One additional thought: will there eventually more tiny house communities like these for people who need housing or cheaper housing or will there be more tiny house communities for those with plenty of resources who want to live different kinds of lives? Both might be desirable and they would not necessarily be treated the same by those around them.

Solving the shipping logistics of tiny houses

This particular tiny house might be notable because Elon Musk was an early recipient but it has another claim to fame: better ways to ship the tiny house.

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Well, he reportedly lives in the Casita, a $49,500 375-square-foot unit created by Las Vegas-based Boxabl…

According to Tiramani, other prefab home makers struggle with one glaring issue: shipping logistics.

But unlike other prefab homes, the Casitas can be folded down from 20 feet to about 8.5 feet while it’s being transported on a truck or towed by a pickup truck…

So when the Casita arrives at its final destination, the home just needs to be unfolded (which takes a few hours) and then attached to its foundation and utilities, before it’s totally move-in ready.

This sounds like an Ikea like solution to furniture: get the house down to a smaller package so that it can be easily transported. Then, at the location, you assemble the product. All of this cuts down on costs. Do not underestimate the importance of shipping and logistics; for example, companies like Sears, Walmart, and Amazon mastered shipping and logistics in ways that helped them sell a lot of goods.

More broadly, the mass production, easier shipping, and modular capabilities of such homes offers lots of opportunities. Mass produced housing as we know it – think Levittowns and large builders constructing subdivisions of suburban homes over months – has endured much criticism. At the same time, this mass produced tiny house comes in a more reasonable price point, could be available to more people, and could be customized. There is still an issue of having people to put these homes together and having land; this might tie this mass production to tiny house subdivisions or clusters.

Steps for growing the tiny house movement in 2021

If more Americans are interested in tiny houses, what steps might be needed for them to become viable options for more people?

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Experts say the movement’s main goal this year should be to convince more states and municipalities to legalize tiny houses across the country…

Some leaders in the movement hope to end the narrative that tiny houses are for families…

Tiny houses also need to be seen as viable affordable housing in the future, experts say…

Some of the leaders of the tiny-house movement said they hope to distance themselves from the rise in RVs and camper vans this year

It is interesting to see these four strategies together. Based on this article and previous articles I have seen claiming tiny houses are trending up, I have not seen enough evidence that there is a sizable shift toward tiny houses.

But, perhaps those who claim these four strategies are necessary would say that each point addresses something that holds the tiny house movement back. I would put these four into two broader categories that are worth exploring more.

The first category has to do with important local zoning regulations. Communities are prepared to handle single-family homes and many would be prepared to address multi-family housing. But, tiny houses are out of the ordinary and present unique challenges and opportunities. Should they be allowed on the same lot as an existing home? Do they go with micro-lots? Do they threaten the character of single-family homes? How many could be put on a regular residential plot of land? What are their water and services needs? Are these going to be cheaper or more luxury tiny homes? It would take some time to figure this out in many communities.

The second category involves the next three points. These are marketing and perception issues. Who are tiny houses for? What are they about? What social needs do they serve? The three points above try to answer these questions: tiny houses are for smaller households, they could be affordable housing, but they are not like RVs and camper vans. This puts them into an in-between category: not as permanent as a single-family house but not as mobile as an RV or camper van; cheaper than a typical house but there is still a cost (plus possible land costs); for some people but not others. Perhaps growing more quickly within a particular niche is what would help tiny houses as a whole become more popular.

There could be additional issues to address. If many more Americans wanted to order a tiny house in the next few weeks, could the orders be fulfilled relatively quickly? Do we have sufficient public and private spaces around tiny homes so that people can enjoy living in such a small space?

This is a lot to do. That can be okay; not all products have explosive growth and slow positive change could work out in the long run.

Live the American Dream in a $180k, 375 square foot tiny home

Tiny houses could provide needed cheap housing and upgraded models might also appeal to people. Here is an example of a higher-end model:

https://www.yahoo.com/news/180-000-tiny-home-outfitted-173504352.html

David Latimer of New Frontier Design is creating tiny homes that are more luxurious and more expensive than most you’d find on the market today. His most recent model, the Escher, starts at $180,000 and is designed to fit a family of six full time. Latimer calls this “the future family home.”…

The Escher is unlike most tiny homes, nearing $200,000 and including high-end features. But Latimer said that doesn’t make this model any less of a tiny house.

“Minimalism means different things for different people,” Latimer said. “The bottom line is that downsizing is a tremendous life adjustment and sacrifice for anybody. This tiny house is still a minimalistic lifestyle. It’s still a tiny home.”…

“I believe micro-housing is going to be a substantial part of the future of residential housing,” Latimer said. “Millenials and Gen Z are going to live this way. I would bet my life on this. Micro housing will allow people to live out the American dream.”

I am not surprised there is a perceived market for more expensive tiny houses. At a basic level, perhaps this is just selling the same products to different parts of the market: some people want to pay less for a tiny house, others will pay more. Indeed, from what I can gather about who moves into or at least talks publicly about moving into tiny houses, it looks like there are some educated people with some resources who want tiny houses with upgrades.

More broadly, I am not sure how a more expensive house fits into “the tiny house movement.” Downsizing and having a cheaper home are often connected to anti-consumerist motives and behavior. Some people make the choice to acquire a tiny house in order to move away from having too many items or fixating on a large home or being so financially committed. Does a luxury tiny house try to have it both ways?

If this kind of tiny house – small but still nearly $200,000 – is going to become part of the American Dream, the definition of the American Dream may need to change. For decades now, the American Dream involves owning a single-family home, probably in the suburbs. The Escher could indeed technically fulfill this – provide a single-family home in the suburbs – but it is very different in substance. If anything motivates people to make this the embodiment of the American Dream, it may be financial realities rather than aspirations for a simpler, downsized American Dream. In other words, expensive housing markets and debt may push people toward more luxurious tiny homes rather than a true desire to ditch the big showy house for a high-status small house.

Ascertaining the popularity of the tiny house movement via Twitter

HomeAdvisor looked at tweets about tiny houses and examined geographic patterns:

Top 10 States for Tiny Living

The best states for #tinyliving living – https://www.homeadvisor.com/r/off-the-grid-capitals/

The methodology:

To create these visualizations, we collected data by “scraping” it. Scraping is a technique that gathers large amounts of data from websites. In this case, we wrote a custom script in Python to get the data for each hashtag. The script collected information including the number of likes, number of comments, location, etc. for posts with each of the three lifestyle hashtags. The python script also collects data that human users can‘t see, like specific location information about where the post was published from.

We didn’t include posts without location information. We also didn’t include posts outside of the United States. We then standardized the city and state data. Then, we grouped the posts by city and by state, tallying the number of posts for each hashtag. This gave us our top locations.

And more details on the state and city level data:

TinyLivingHomeAdvisorJun20

On one hand, this is interesting data. California, in particular, stands out though this may not be that surprising given its size, good weather, and high housing prices. The rest of the top ten seem to match similar characteristics including scenic areas and good weather (New York and possibly Colorado winters excluded). The city level data compared to the state numbers provides some insights – major cities can account for a large percentage of tweets for a whole state –  but there are not many cases in any particular city.

On the other hand, it is hard to know what exactly this Twitter data means. There are multiple issues: how many Americans are on Twitter or are active on Twitter and does this overlap with those who like and have tiny houses? Some of the tweets about tiny houses did not have location data – is the data missing at random or does it intersect with the patterns above? Does the #tinyliving hashtag capture the tiny house movement or a part of it?

Because of these issues, I still do not have a better idea of whether the tiny house movement is sizable or not. Having some denominator would help; of the California tweets, how does this compare to the number of single-family homes or apartments in the state? Portland, Oregon leads the way with 695 cases but over 650,000 people live in the city. How do these tweet numbers compare to people tweeting about HGTV shows or single-family homes?

There is a lot that can be done here and making use of data publicly available on websites and social media is smart. Figuring out which questions can be asked and answered with such data and then collecting good data is a challenging and possibly rewarding task.

Trying to figure out whether tiny houses are actually affordable

I ran across a story of a self-sustaining time home made in Australia and retailing for roughly $61,000:

In total, this Urban Tiny home on wheels is 8.2 feet wide, 14.1 feet tall, and 24.3 feet long, including its drawbar. The drawbar, which is 4.6 feet long, allows the 7,363-pound tiny home to be towed by several vehicle types, including pickup trucks and SUVs…

The home’s self sufficiency title comes from its power systems, which includes solar panels, a battery system, and a 240-volt inverter…

The inside of the home looks no different than a typical loft apartment…

The bathroom and kitchen source its water from the drinking and grey water tanks. But for those who want a more consistent stream of water and power, there are water and generator power connection points in the tiny home.

The home looks appealing and the built-in electricity and water units provide more flexibility and sustainability. But, here is why I wonder if such houses could truly be affordable housing:

1. The price on one unit is cheaper than most single-family homes in the United States. This does not necessarily mean it is affordable. It is almost double the cost of the average new car in the United States. Would lenders be willing to extend longer mortgages for these small housing units?

2. The owner of the tiny house still needs land. This would require buying a lot, renting a lot, or finding a free lot. The first two options could add significant costs while the third requires a personal connection.

3. It is unclear what the operating costs are for tiny houses: what does maintenance cost? How much are utilities? How long do these units last? What is their resale value after five or ten years?

4. Moving the unit is an attractive option (particularly given #2). But, this requires renting or owning a large enough vehicle to tow the unit.

5. This is not a large unit at roughly 200-250 square feet (including the loft space). In terms of price per square foot, this is not necessarily cheap (particularly if the costs for #2 are added in). If people have a lot of stuff, would they need to rent a storage unit or have a storage building/garage on their property? There is not a lot of private space in these units; would this require living near a community that provides pleasant public and private spaces (think coffeeshops, libraries, parks, etc.) and would this drive up the price of parking the unit?

Putting this all together, I’m not sure this is within the reach of many people (perhaps it is more in the ballpark for a retreat or second home for people with more resources).

Trying to kick the consumption habit while living in a tiny house

One scholar studying people who lived in tiny houses found that a smaller space did not necessarily mean to having less stuff:

Tiny houses are often put forward as a more sustainable housing option. They are certainly a potential check on the continued pursuit of bigger houses and greater consumption of energy, building materials and so forth. Yet reducing your environmental impact by going tiny is not as simple as some have claimed.

I came across several tiny households that were using external storage spaces for items that wouldn’t fit in the home, for example. Referred to as a “dirty secret” by one interviewee, another explained her desire to keep items from her previous home in case she changed her mind about tiny living.

Over half of my interviewees had a “one in, one out” mentality, where they would throw away or donate one item to make space for something new. As one dweller in her late 30s, who lives in a state-of-the-art home in a caravan park in rural New Hampshire, said, “I have a TJ Maxx addiction. I still go out every couple months and buy a bunch of stuff then come home and decide which things to get rid of.”

Regardless of how tiny living is marketed by the enthusiasts, sustainability was not a major driver for most of the participants in my study. Instead it was almost an afterthought. It seemingly takes more than changing the size of a home to change the mentality of the people who live inside.

One reason (among many) that Americans live in large houses is in order to store all their stuff. Having a smaller dwelling does not necessarily mean that the resident will get rid of all their stuff or reduce their consumption. Because there are so many options for storing stuff, it can be easy to keep all that stuff. (Side note: I could imagine future communities of tiny houses or tiny house living quarters surrounding larger community facilities like kitchens and entertaining spaces that include storage facilities or warehouses on site.)

Furthermore, the American economy needs people to buy things and American culture celebrates buying more (and buying bigger things). There are occasional calls to curb consumption – or at least pare down the number of things one has – yet they put limited dents in the overall patterns

Perhaps the bigger change will come over time. Imagine someone who has lived in a tiny house for a decade or more. Will they still keep their stuff in a storage unit wondering if they will move to a larger dwelling? Will they learn to live without all that stuff and get rid of it? Or, imagine a kid who grows up in a tiny house. Maybe they will be less inclined to have a lot of items around given their familiarity with smaller spaces and the reduced availability of items.