Suggestion that tiny houses face snobbish responses because of links to lower classes

An overview of tiny houses in the United States (though no mention of how many there actually are) includes an interesting bit about social class:

But the main obstacle is a legal one: most municipalities and towns ban residents from living year-round in anything on wheels, and often have statutes requiring homes to be at least 900 square feet…

Historically in American culture, bungalows, caravans and mobile homes have a bad reputation — they are seen as badly made and decidedly lower-class.

But the Berriers’ home is impeccably decorated with a bathtub, a sunroom and a movie screen — no “trailer trash” here.

“There are preconceived notions. They haven’t seen it enough. It’s just something new. I think that’s the problem,” Berrier said.

This leads to a conundrum: if Americans love driving and homeownership, why do they dislike mobile or smaller housing so much?

The less positive reactions to tiny houses suggests it is not solely about owning a vehicle or home; the kind of vehicle or home matters. Driving is good but driving a nicer car is better. Owning a home is good but owning a bigger, more permanent home is clearly superior. Cars and homes are functional items and status symbols, important social markers of who a person is and desires to be.

A more functional approach to housing might be more open to tiny houses. People need a place to live at a reasonable cost? Affordable housing is scarce? Homeless people need residences? Let’s make it happen. Change zoning guidelines. Make it cool to downsize.

On the other hand, there are plenty of tiny house buyers who prefer getaways or luxury touches, not long-term housing in such a small size. It would be easy for the tiny house movement to be co-opted by those with resources and social status. Those people might be able to get tiny houses into certain places where they might otherwise not be allowed, but their motives would run against others who want tiny houses because of their reduced footprint and simpler lifestyle.

Stealing a tiny house

Tiny houses can be more mobile than a larger single-family, creating opportunities for homeowners and potentially thieves:

For two years, the recent Webster University graduate had been working on the minimalist accommodation. She had drawn a floor plan, laid sheep’s wool insulation and found electric and water sources. The home rose 12 feet high, with green windows, a tin roof and stained cedar siding. Construction had cost her about $20,000…

As it took shape, the home had traveled back and forth between St. Louis and Webster Groves, where Panu’s university is located. But on Saturday morning, she received a call from the supply warehouse’s owner, who had recently invited her to park near his business, Refab.

“He asked if I had moved the tiny house overnight and when I said no, he had the unfortunate news that they hadn’t, and it was likely taken,” Panu told WTHR, an NBC affiliate…

On Wednesday, detectives found the house 30 miles down the Mississippi River in House Springs, Missouri, Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak announced on Twitter. The Associated Press reported that an anonymous tip had led them to the purloined residence. According to the Post-Dispatch, there was no word on suspects.

There has to be a way to immobilize the wheels when the tiny home is parked. Is it worth putting a boot on your own home? For those interested in putting together small communities of tiny homes, providing additional security (for a fee, of course) could be worthwhile.

It sounds like the house was discovered in one piece. Could future tiny house thieves become more crafty and either alter the exterior to hide key details or chop up the house for parts and easier movement? The article described a social media push to find the way with people reporting seeing it moving down the highway. It is hard to miss the movement of a tiny house (perhaps until they become so popular that they are being moved all the time).

 

Escaping to a tiny house/anti-McMansion for a getaway

The business Getaway offers tiny houses as an escape from the typical urban area, smartphone dominated life:

The “tiny houses,” or cabins, measure 8 by 20 feet, or about the size of a living room. They cost about $30,000 each to build and are shuttled on truck beds from a factory in Massachusetts to their destination.

McMansions they ain’t. In fact, these two are the anti-McMansion crowd, too.

They cluster the tiny houses in groups of 20 or so on leased woodland, just outside major cities. Each outpost has a long-term lease on private land. Cabins are spaced 200 feet from one another, allowing sufficient privacy. And you can drive right up to the door…

They share a love for community, neighborliness and a skepticism toward social media. They also share “old-fashioned values” that were affirmed with a course they took from Robert Putnam, who authored “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

While this business can be pitched as offering a return to nature and in-person experiences, I wonder who it is selling to. Two quick thoughts:

  1. This really is another lifestyle option for people to pursue. Work hard for weeks on end, get buried in your smartphone, and then detox for up to two weeks in a tiny house in the woods. Perhaps everything is a commodity these days but this is just another hotel option.
  2. This could reinforce the idea that tiny houses are unusual (there are still just a small number of them) and primarily for people with money (especially when they have nicer features or are priced nightly like a decent hotel). How many Americans could access this? How many would want to?

This is very different than tiny houses for affordable housing. This is tiny houses for profit (and perhaps some good time away from “normal” life).

Claim: Americans are giving up McMansions for tiny houses

A story about a tiny house promotion in New York City starts with this claim:

Over the past few years, the tiny home movement has picked up steam, with more and more folks deciding to abandon McMansions to live in small houses, typically less than 500 square feet.

I am skeptical about multiple parts of this claim:

  1. Tiny houses may garner some attention. But is there a tiny house revolution going on? I do not know if there is a single researcher or group tracking this but the number of sales is limited.
  2. The term McMansion is clearly negative. There may be fewer McMansions constructed today in the aftermath of the 2000s burst housing bubble but the percentage of new homes over 3,000 square feet has increased in the last ten years. McMansions are back and/or here to stay (and/or never really left). In contrast, in recent years homes under 1,400 square feet have been 7% or 8% of all new homes.
  3. The stronger part of this claim is that McMansion owners are giving up their homes to live in tiny houses. There may be some cases of this but this is quite a dramatic change. I suspect more tiny house owners are wealthier people who choose a tiny house as a vacation home or second home. Or, tiny houses offer helpful options for those looking for affordable housing or the homeless, not those that already have a large home.

In sum, the evidence suggests McMansions are alive and well and tiny homes are limited.

More on self-driving rooms and homes

Parts of your home or even your home itself could soon be on wheels and drive around without your help:

Honda recently announced the IeMobi Concept. It is an autonomous mobile living room that attaches and detaches from your home. When parked, the vehicle becomes a 50-square-foot living or workspace. Mercedes-Benz Vans rolled out an all-electric digitally-connected van with fully integrated cargo space and drone delivery capability, and Volvo just unveiled its 360c concept vehicle that serves as either a living room or mobile office. In other cases, some folks are simply retrofitting existing vehicles. One couple in Oxford England successfully converted a Mercedes Sprinter van into a micro-home that includes 153 square feet of living space, a complete kitchen, a sink, a fridge, a four-person dining area, and hidden storage spaces.

For those who are either unwilling or unable to own a home, self-driving van houses could become a convenient and affordable solution.  Soon, our mobile driverless vehicles may allow us to work from our cars and have our laundry and a hot meal delivered at the same time. In Los Angeles alone, it is estimated that 15,000 people are already living in their cars and in most countries it is perfectly legal to live in your vehicle.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The possibilities for adding a new and mobile room onto the homes of Americans might prove to be irresistible. Now I can add a room in which I can just drive away? Or, I can throw all sorts of things in there and then drive it out of view!
  2. The micro-home idea will find a market, particularly since the vehicles seem less cumbersome than the typical tiny home. At the same time, I imagine some wealthier communities will work to keep these sorts of vehicles out of the community. It may be an affordable option but if residents have concerns about apartment dwellers, wouldn’t they certainly have concerns about people who live out of their vehicles?
  3. These changes might only add to sprawl as it would enable residents to be more mobile. This could feed into the allure of driving and mobility. Of course, if some people give up large suburban homes for more mobile homes, perhaps the effects of sprawl might be reduced. Yet, I suspect that a good number of owners of mobile rooms and homes are purchasing them as a luxury item in addition to a home.

Manufactured housing to be more popular with fancier features?

Those seeking cheaper housing options may like both the price of manufactured housing and the features they can purchase:

The hope is that more Americans will see the factory units not only as a more-affordable alternative to a traditional single-family house, but also an appealing one, without the old trailer-park stigma. It helps that they’ve been getting fancier.

Scott Richards, a salesman for Rona Homes in Pataskala, Ohio, said that when shoppers come to his lot, he can dazzle them with customization options like hickory cabinets, rainforest showers and built-in entertainment systems coupled with electric fireplaces.

“We’ve got linoleum floors that look just like hardwood floors,” said Richards, who got back into selling factory-made houses after leaving the industry in 2012. “You don’t think about solid granite being in a manufactured home, but we have that as well.”…

The company sells what most people probably picture when they think of manufactured homes — single- and double-wide houses wholly built on a chassis in a factory — as well as modular homes, which are factory-built in sections that are assembled on a lot. While a single- or double-wide is often much cheaper than a modular home, both offer cost advantages that come with putting construction on an assembly line.

The article goes on to talk about some regulations involving the federal government and lenders that could be altered to make manufactured housing more available to house buyers. Theoretically, these changes could open the floodgates to cheaper housing for many.

Yet, I would suggest there is then another hurdle to overcome that might prove even more difficult. This housing may be cheaper than other options and it could even be attractive inside and out. This does not mean that it will be easily accepted by numerous communities, particularly those with higher qualities of life. In many of those places, manufactured housing implies all sorts of things that those communities work hard to keep out through formal and informal means. It will take time to reverse the common image of such housing.

The same issue faces tiny houses. Even if they look nice and are attractive inside, they are not easily accepted in places with more expensive single-family homes. Tiny houses are affordable – though significantly smaller than the manufactured housing options discussed in this article – but not necessarily that popular, either to consumers or neighbors.

Tiny houses with the luxury touches

Tiny houses could be used to address affordable housing or provide housing for the homeless – or they could be luxurious and appeal to the middle and upper classes:

The reality television series “Tiny Luxury” aims to bridge that gap, enticing viewers with high-end, highway-ready homes built on trailer chassis, all under 400 square feet…

Do new homeowners experience any angst about the size of the homes?

Tyson: They’ve anticipated what it’s going to be like. For people who can work remotely, it’s a traveler’s delight. They see it as having four times the freedom for a fourth of the price…

When you design for just a few hundred square feet, your homes can splurge on quality.

Tyson: We do a lot of granite and quartz countertops, or custom tops like slate, stone and butcher block. We can do really premium backsplashes and tile work in showers. We’re able to upgrade all the lighting and use better hardware.

The tiny house movement is not very big and I suspect the largest market involves people with means who either want to (1) downsize and live a different kind of life or (2) be more mobile and have a nicer house than an RV. If this is the case, then the tiny house becomes another luxury good that is not really within the reach of many Americans.

I know this might go against the audience of networks like DIY or HGTV that likely skew toward better off viewers but it would be interesting to see someone providing tiny houses to those who truly need one. It does not have to happen on a mass scale – imagine twenty episodes where one tiny house is built on each show – but it could generate a lot of positive sentiment toward tiny houses. Imagine “Extreme Home Makeover” with tiny houses.