Three major challenges facing tiny homes and their owners

Given that tiny houses have not exactly taken off, here are three possible reasons why:

The concept is appealing, but in truth, people have found it challenging to locate places where they can permanently park their home on wheels. It has become an issue in many communities, as homeowners worry that the character of the mobile homes will diminish their property value. Locating the perfect site can be easier in rural areas.

Another dose of reality has come in the form of human behavior. It turns out that for some of the people appearing on the various HGTV programs devoted to tiny-house living, the strain of living in such tiny quarters has surfaced. As we see with follow-ups, some couples cannot manage to live in 300 square feet together, and one moves out.

Additionally, when compared with the lifestyle of an urban micro-unit, rural or suburban settings are more restrictive. In the city, for example, people can get to a pub, cafe or coffee house in minutes simply by walking out the building’s front entrance and down the block.

These are three important challenges. The first and third discussed above seem related to me: it may take a significant amount of time before communities develop zoning and planning that allows for tiny houses. Current residents might view them as threats not only because are they mobile but also because the homes are also significantly cheaper than many other kinds of housing units. In the best case for tiny homes, communities would allow them to fill in spaces between existing buildings and units. This would increase density and possibly provide more tax revenue. In the worst case, tiny houses will be excluded from many desirable locations, contributing to the third issue above where the advantages of a tiny home and budget may be combined with needing to drive everywhere.

As for the second issue above, Americans like their (1) personal space and (2) space for lots of stuff. Tiny houses do not have much square footage for either. In a perfect world, the tiny house might be located in a vibrant urban or suburban area where the owner(s) could spend a lot of time outside the unit (taking advantage of third and public spaces like coffee shops, parks, and libraries). Without those nearby amenities, a tiny house might simply not offer enough separation from others. Additionally, a tiny house likely requires an owner to do without many things. This could be overcome through a variety of methods – living near family and friends with whom one could share, storage units, or a barter or sharing economy – but this requires more work and resources.

All of these problems might be solved eventually but it will take time.

“[P]eople with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams”

The title of this post is part of a larger quote – “On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams” – as a writer reflects on HGTV’s portrayal of tiny houses:

They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.

As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”…

Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…

A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.

This leads me to two thoughts:

  1. As the piece notes, there is an important connection here to social class. People on this show want to have a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle in a small package. They are often unwilling to give up on certain items just because they are pursuing a smaller house. Additionally, I would argue that this quest to downsize is a largely middle- to upper-class phenomenon. The people on the show are not ones driven to tiny houses solely because of economic necessity. The cost savings may be nice but they also talk about reinforcing familial bonds, being able to move a home around more easily, consuming less, and helping save the environment. As the writer notes, they are not seeking after mobile homes and the class implications associated with them. Instead, they often want customized tiny houses that continue to display their higher than lower-class lifestyle.
  2. Some might applaud these people for realizing they don’t need such a large house. Instead of purchasing a McMansion or even the average size new home (around 2,500 square feet), these people are consuming fewer resources and resisting the strong pull of consumerism. At the same time, they still find something valuable in owning their own home. Why does this interest in home ownership continue? if people truly wanted a more environmentally friendly option, shouldn’t they go move into a small apartment in a dense urban area where they don’t need to drive much? (Many of the tiny houses on HGTV are frequently in more rural settings and still require a lot of driving.) In other words, even having a tiny house still allows these homeowners to participate in the middle-class American Dream which largely revolves around owning your own detached home.

And just as a reminder, there is little evidence that many Americans desire a tiny house. As of now, they largely appeal to a small subset of the population that does not necessarily need them.

San Jose residents don’t want tiny houses for the homeless nearby

Several cities have looked into tiny houses for the homeless (examples here and here) but residents in San Jose don’t like the idea:

But finding sites for the tiny home villages — which could house up to 25 people — proved to be a major challenge. The city looked for publicly owned sites that were a half-acre in size, near transit and with access to utilities. But after an outpouring of complaints, San Jose officials added even more restrictions — 100 feet away from homes and creeks and 150 feet from schools and parks, leaving just a handful of potential sites.

“It’s a shame that we didn’t have more viable opportunities from this list,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s acting deputy director of housing. “But we were constrained because land is so hard to find in this community. Some of the major concerns that we heard were about the potential impacts, from traffic to noise to new people coming into the neighborhood. We’re trying to be respectful of neighbors and the community.”…

“They’re almost segregating homeless families from existing neighborhoods and that’s not what San Jose is about,” Campos said. “If we can do this right and not give in to NIMBY-ism, then we set the path for other cities in California to address the homeless crisis in their own communities. This sends the wrong message.”…

But there’s push-back on those remaining sites as well. Councilman Johnny Khamis said at least 30 people came to his “open house” office hours last Saturday to voice concerns about the tiny homes site at Branham Lane near Monterey Road in his district. Residents were concerned about security and the “vetting process for the homeless,” he said, fearing crime, especially related to drugs and assaults, will rise.

How can a city address homelessness if few local residents want to live anywhere near the formerly homeless? Cities are sometimes criticized for sending the homeless out of town but it sounds like this could be an outcome here through restrictive options without officially sending them away.

There are several options available here but they aren’t that good. Homelessness, like many urban issues, is not just present in the big city but rather is a regional issue. Could multiple communities chip in? (Unlikely.) Perhaps the city could loosen their restrictions – such as needing a half acre of land – since these are unique housing units. (The neighbors might even be less happy if tiny houses are squeezed in smaller lots.) Try to shame the public into addressing homelessness? (Not a good long term strategy with voters and whatever shame might not be as compelling as the idea that their property values could fall.)

“Tiny Houses Are Big” – with 10,000 total in the United States

Tiny houses get a lot of attention – including this recent Parade story – but rarely are numbers provided about how big (or small) this trend really is. The Parade story did provide some data (though without any indication of how this was measured) on the number of tiny houses in the US. Ready for the figure?

10,000.

Without much context, it is hard to know what to do with this figure or how accurate it might be. Assuming the figure’s veracity, is that a lot of tiny houses? Not that many? Some comparisons might help:

Between February 2016 and March 2017, there were over 1,000,000 housing starts in each month. (National Association of Home Builders) Within data going back to 1959, the lowest point for housing starts after the 2000s housing bubble burst experienced about 500,000 new housing starts a month. (Census Bureau data at TradingEconomics.com)

The RV industry shipped over 430,000 units in 2016. This follows a low point of shipments in recent years back in 2009 where only 165,000 units were shipped. (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association)

The number of manufactured homes that have shipped in recent years – 2014 to 2016 – has surpassed 60,000 each year. (Census Bureau)

The percent of new homes that are under 1,400 square feet has actually dropped since 1999 to 7% in 2016. (Census Bureau)

Based on these comparisons, 10,000 units is not much at all. They are barely a drop in the bucket within all housing.

Perhaps the trend is sharply on the rise? There is a little evidence of this. I wrote my first post here on tiny houses back in 2010 and it involved how to measure the tiny house trend. The cited article in that post included measures like the number of visitors to a tiny house blog and sales figures from tiny house builders. Would the number of tiny house shows on HGTV and similar networks provide some data? All trends have to start somewhere – with a small number of occurrences – but it doesn’t seem like the tiny house movement is taking off in exponential form.

Ultimately, I would ask for more and better data on tiny houses. Clearly, there is some interest. Yet, calling this a major trend would be misleading.

 

Irony of getting away from society: resources are needed

An interesting article about intentional communities includes this insight into why they might not be available to everyone:

And perhaps these communities are not as immune from worldly flaws as they might like. For example: Many of them struggle to be accessible to people other than middle-class white folks. Sky Blue, a Twin Oaks resident who also serves as the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there are “a lot of racial [problems] and racism that are embedded in intentional communities.” Even despite good intentions, “Liberal white people who have a desire for diversity don’t necessarily understand what it means to be inclusive,” he said. “They’re going to create culture in [their] intentional community that is going to be comfortable for them, which isn’t necessarily comfortable for people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay or trans.” Ethan Tupelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who lived at Twin Oaks before he began studying intentional communities academically, said residents talked about this issue a lot when he was there. “It’s a bunch of white people sitting around wondering where all the people of color are,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re thinking about that, but it’s also frustrating.”

Tupelo sees a structural explanation for the inaccessibility of intentional communities: It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid. “Even when starting a new community, you need the capital to do it in the first place if you want it to be a legally recognized thing, as opposed to squats,” he said. As Nicolas and Rachel Sarah’s experience at the Downstream Project shows, becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.

To truly get away from big government, big society, and capitalism, it really helps to be pretty well off. This is one of the disadvantages of being powerless: you are at the mercy of others rather than having options.

This reminds me of some of the attention I see given to tiny houses: it seems like many of those interested are not working-class people struggling to get by who need affordable housing but rather educated white people who want to minimize some distractions in life and focus on what they really want to do (pay attention to family, travel, etc.). Or, those interested in minimalism: they appear to be middle and upper-class people who are seeking a new way of living because of unhappiness with the “typical” American/Western consumeristic lifestyle.

How about a foundation starts giving away money and resources to those who don’t have their own means to form intentional communities?

Shaming residents in small housing units

Without data, it is impossible to know how common this might be but one family in San Diego was recently chastised for living in a two bedroom condo:

Mike and Kelly Brüning, from San Diego, CA, are feeling shell-shocked after receiving an anonymous letter from a neighbor shaming them for the size of their house. According to San Diego’s KSWB, the couple, who have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, have been living in their two-bedroom condo, not far from the beach, for almost nine years.

In the scathing letter, the neighbor called the parents out for being too “selfish” to get a big enough home with a yard for their kids. (We are not making this up.) “Because you like the beach, your boys are trapped in a tiny, one bedroom upstairs apartment,” the message read. The rude neighbor then closed out the nasty letter by saying “SHAME ON YOU.”

This sort of article brings out the worst in the Internet: (1) a single incident that may be representative of nothing (2) paired with a bad headline and text suggesting the owners live in a tiny house (no – tiny houses tend to be something different than two bedroom condos) (3) plus discussions of shaming when this is really just ridiculous passive aggressive behavior on the part of a neighbor.

On the other hand, if tiny house dwellers suddenly ran into such a backlash – neighbors and others thought that such small spaces limited the upbringing of children – this could be interesting. There are a number of reasons people might be opposed to tiny houses, particularly zoning and property values issues. If this occurred, it could be akin to those who have claimed that McMansions – the opposites of tiny housesare bad for children.

Small house movement spreads in ADUs

One way to encourage smaller homes and affordable housing is to allow Accessory Dwelling Units:

The cottage, which won a top design award last year from the American Institute of Architects, is technically called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or A.D.U. Portland has been ahead of the curve in allowing these smaller housing units, which are illegal in many cities and towns under current zoning rules…

In 2010, during the economic slump, when many building plans were being shelved, Portland presciently began to allow homeowners the right to develop accessory dwelling units on standard 5,000-square-foot residential lots for the first time. The city also eliminated development charges of up to $15,000 for new accessory dwelling units to spur homeowners to build.

More incentives followed: Homeowners could build and even rent out a unit that did not have off-street parking; any design not visible from the street could be built without input from neighbors; and new height limits — raised to 20 feet from 18 feet — encouraged two-story units, like Ms. Wilson’s…

Not surprisingly, the concentration of accessory dwelling units has been in central, higher-income areas close to amenities like transit and shops. “Part of this could be due to the fact that people with large amounts of equity can more easily secure financing,” Mr. Wood said. “The City of Portland and Portland State University will be working on a project to encourage and facilitate A.D.U. development in more diverse neighborhoods.”

It may be helpful to compare the ADUs to other alternatives for affordable, small housing.

  1. Would residents and communities prefer tiny houses on their own lots or in communities of tiny houses? The first could be expensive due to the cost of land, defeating the purpose of the smaller housing which is supposed to be cheaper. The second could be too much of a change for some places. ADUs make use of existing lots and aren’t necessarily grouped together.
  2. Would residents and communities prefer larger apartment buildings? On the plus side, you can build more units up and everyone knows that this is an apartment structure (with its higher densities and other unique features). On the negative side, apartment buildings can alter the character of a neighborhood, may require parking, and people often have stereotypes about who lives in apartments. The ADUs hide the higher densities better than apartments – back behind the main housing unit – but don’t provide as many units.

Given the resistance of many municipalities to denser housing, I imagine ADUs could be attractive as they don’t require the density or size of some alternatives. Additionally they can use existing land and generate income for local residents. Even given all that, I think it would take a lot for many cities to adopt this. There is a large need for affordable housing throughout the United States and many communities don’t seem to be moved to do anything; I’m not sure ADUs are attractive enough to tilt the scales.