The Battle for Tiny Houses
Posted: Mar 19, 2015
Depending on who you ask, the Battle for Tiny Houses could be any number of things.
To some it’s the social development of a lifetime … to others, an outrageous example of class warfare … and then to some it’s just a complete non-event. Some of us fantasize about the things, while others (mainly housing authorities and those married to tiny house aficionados) scoff at the idea.
And honestly, that shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise.
Americans have always been a people of extremes. We swing from staunch conservative to bleeding-heart liberal … from overly-spacious McMansion to truly Tiny Houses with little semblance of compromise anywhere in between. So the idea that we could obsess over tiny houses without coming to any real kind of settlement on whether we like them or not—that’s really just par for the course.
So today, we’re going to take a deeper look into the topic of Tiny Houses. We’re going to hear out both sides of the battle, and find out where the tiny house really stands in the lexicon of American Real Estate …
A Little Background
The "Small House Movement" is a very recent thing by all accounts, a sort of backlash against the ever-expanding size of the average American home (more than doubled in the 30 years leading up to 2007) and the ever-rising prices for those homes.
Especially when you consider the fact that every thirty-year-old in America today has spent a lifetime growing up alongside America’s trillion-dollar debt and through multiple pronounced market crashes, you might see why the younger generation is often reticent to sign on for a thirty-year mortgage.
So instead, some are opting for (and many are considering) something a little bit cheaper. Something a little bit more accessible and simpler, not unlike the historic Log Cabins so fondly remembered as a part of American history.
But from the very start, the Tiny House movement faced substantial headwinds—especially in terms of harsh and uniform zoning restrictions across most of the United States.
These restrictions, adapted from a standard set of regulations ratified by the International Code Council, specify that main rooms be no less than 120 square feet, with no habitable rooms of less than 70 square feet. In response, clever tiny house developers began building on trailers … so that residences would be considered RVs or "a load on a flatbed," and thus—strangely—legal for habitation.
That’s where we start to see the most important part of the Battle for Tiny Houses; the simple fact that they’re culturally divisive and too new for our legal structure to really cope with and appreciate.
In D.C. for example, where housing prices have soared over the last decade, the local Zoning Ordinance hasn’t been updated or re-ratified since 1958; that’s like seventy years’ worth of new technology and culture that’s not possibly accounted for (apparently the ordinance mentions the phrase "telegraph office" more than once).
The code can of course be altered … exemptions can be made, but the process is designed around commercial clients and comes with steep fees …
Tiny Houses Making a Real Difference
Of course there are plenty of jokes you could make Tiny Houses; like the idea that they’re chasing some childhood fantasy about a lost tree house … or that the Tiny House is just the logical next step after bragging to all your friends about not owning a television and switching to a Vegan diet.
But when push came to shove back in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina, it was the small houses that stepped up … namely the "Katrina Cottages" designed by Marianne Cusato as an alternative to drab FEMA trailers.
Those Katrina Cottages opened the door for a whole new wave of practical tiny housing; providing a cost-effective and comfortable way to provide longer-term, transitional housing to those who would otherwise remain permanently homeless.
"Homelessness isn’t just happening elsewhere, it’s here in Greensboro and we ignore it," explains a student working with North Carolina’s Center for Community-Engaged Design, where tiny houses are currently being considered as a way to relieve the city’s homeless population.
The recent Recession hit many families hard, especially when it came to Real Estate. The problem has been so substantial that some cities even developed appreciable homeless populations—or ‘tent cities’—near their downtown areas. In some cases, locals propose Tiny House settlements a solution to help people get back on their feet.
But the idea of housing the country’s homeless in specially-built "Tiny Houses," doesn’t sit well with everyone. Some are seeing it as potential second-class treatment, where housing vouchers would instead give the less fortunate freedom to choose their housing arrangements.
By the Numbers
Vocal and passionate as they may be about their Tiny Houses, supporters of this movement are in the minority.
Because according to a new report from Trulia, the average American home size is actually increasing once again, after just a few years of decreasing in the wake of McMansion-mania. And the demographic that most Americans would expect to favor Tiny Houses—the Millenials—are overwhelmingly in favor of larger residences, not smaller ones.
So while they’ve proven that Tiny Houses can have some practical use as transitional and short-term housing for the homeless, it’s still just a matter of curb appeal for most Americans.
It’s a nice thing to think about, for most of us. And indeed, for some Tiny House veterans as well. Several Interviewees including Tiny House guru Jay Shafer all live in "small houses" now. These small houses are more practical spaces with enough room to raise a family, but not enough room to cultivate clutter.
"In fact," one tiny Houser explains, "I think tiny houses are great, but really most people should be targeting small houses. 400 to 800 square feet, or if you’re a family, maybe 1,000 square feet or so."
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