larry fisher, a former New York Times reporter, writes about business, technology and design.
Published July 14, 2020
Homelessness has dogged American cities for decades, growing even worse as the rediscovery of the attractions of urban living has driven rents skyward. Now the pandemic, with its imperative to minimize social contact, is pushing desperate urban planners to take a fresh look at a partial fix long rejected: tiny houses. But a second look suggests that this flirtation with small portable dwellings is problematic.
Small Is Sometimes Chic
Most of humanity has lived in really small houses since troglodytes first left their caves. And many of those small dwellings have been mobile, like the yurts and tepees of nomadic tribes. But the modern-day tiny house — typically under 400 square feet and built on a trailer chassis to circumvent zoning laws — only came into its own a decade ago, in the Great Recession. Advocates claimed that tiny homes could rescue their owners from mortgage debt that bedeviled much of America, foster lower-cost sustainable lifestyles and mitigate household crises created by cycles in credit and employment.
The tiny houses — some of them quite charming — spawned countless news stories, YouTube videos, books and blogs and even a few doctoral dissertations. You can even buy a tiny house on Amazon, shipping included. But as the first decade of the new millennium gave way to the second, enthusiasm seemed to wane and the happy talk morphed into cautionary tales like “The Tiny House Fantasy.” Living in such cramped quarters was not so nice after a while, we were informed, and few people wanted to live next door to one, let alone 40 of them.
But worms have a way of turning. This was supposed to be an era of increased urbanization and high-density developments on prized urban land — modeling, say, the dormitory-style apartment buildings near Amazon’s Seattle headquarters.
Then Covid-19 reared its ominous spikes. Dorm living, with communal kitchens, temporary offices and rec centers, intentionally encourages social mixing. By contrast, tiny houses provide a measure of distance — a suddenly valued characteristic. Some localities have gotten the message since the pandemic began: Seattle, Tacoma and San Jose have all responded by muscling past zoning barriers and building house villages.
“People are thinking about how the current crisis might change how we live, and architecture is a big part of that, not only in terms of the home but in terms of how we use space — particularly urban space,” explains Robert Kronenburg, a professor of architecture at the University of Liverpool. “People just want to live mortgage-free and more sustainably; they want less stuff, and this seems a way to go. Having said that, it’s not a panacea.”
They May Think It’s a Movement
But a panacea was pretty much what Jay Shafer, a self-described “claustrophile,” had in mind when he jump-started the tiny house movement. As he told The New Yorker in a 2011 profile, he believed that suburban neighborhoods of wide streets and McMansions with false gables are cold and unsympathetic — even immoral. His design philosophies were realized substantially in reaction to his upbringing in Orange County, California. “I guess you could say I’m very angry, and I’m trying to find creative ways to use it,” he said.
Shaffer’s book of plans sold several thousand copies, prompting him to start the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in Sonoma County, California, which he left to found the Four Lights Tiny House Company and to co-found the Small House Society. He promoted a tiny house community in Sonoma County aptly named the Napoleon Complex, offering up “co-housing for the antisocial” in 2015. But it was never built.
The tiny house movement promoted financial prudence, shared community experiences and a shift away from consumerism-driven mindsets. And the movement drew encomiums from the counter-cultural left and the libertarian right alike. Tiny homes built on the antecedents of the owner-built house, a darling of the Whole Earth Catalog back in the day.
But there was always less to the movement than met the eye. Most tiny houses are illegal because they violate minimum-size zoning regulations or bans on “camping” on otherwise unoccupied land or are plunked down in the driveway of an existing house. Most are not connected to municipal sewers or septic systems. Many exist in a don’t-ask, don’t-tell netherworld, where cash-strapped counties lack the resources, or the will, to go after these rebels with a cause.
The movement’s optimists somehow also neglected the primary driver of high housing prices, which is the value of the land they sit on. Even if you could legally park a tiny house on an almost-as-tiny lot in San Francisco, the fully allocated cost of the dwelling would look a lot like that of a 2,000-foot three-bedroom ranch house in Des Moines. Consider, too, that tiny houses don’t appreciate the way traditional homes do; rather, they depreciate, just like RVs and trailers. Craigslist is full of used tiny houses.
“The legal issue was the biggest obstacle,” said Megan Carras, who researched tiny houses for her doctoral dissertation at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews in 2018. “For the people who decided to move out of their tiny houses, that was the number-one reason. They couldn’t find a place to park it, or they got in trouble with the authorities,” she said. “Another issue was utilities. You can hook up, but it’s expensive, and the sentiment was ‘we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to conform to RV certifications,’” she said.
There was always less to the movement than met the eye. Most tiny houses are illegal because they violate minimum-size zoning regulations or bans on “camping” on otherwise unoccupied land or are plunked down in the driveway of an existing house.
Tiny house dwellers also found life on wheels unpleasant, as the homes tend to sway as people move about inside. “It feels unstable, it doesn’t feel like a rooted place,” Carras said. And despite the wheels, tiny houses are not very mobile; they’re too heavy to tow easily and they have poor aerodynamics. Maybe that’s why fickle millennials are now flocking to van life instead.
In any event, there’s a downside to mobility. The Washington Post reported that a St. Louis woman returned home to discover that thieves had hitched up her tiny house and rolled it away. The police eventually located the house 30 miles down the Mississippi River in House Springs, Missouri.
Carras crossed the United States for her research, living for a time in a tiny house community in Orlando, a city with a flexible zoning system. “I actually couldn’t find many successful, legal tiny house communities where people were living in cities,” she said. The movement “ended up being one-offs: I went to the tiny house festivals and there were always people talking about communities, but none of them had broken ground.”
A Transition or a Home?
San Jose has over 6,000 homeless, but when the city proposed a tiny house development three years ago, 3,600 residents of adjoining neighborhoods signed a petition expressing their opposition. This year city officials went ahead with an initial 40 units, employing Covid-19 emergency declarations that allowed them to bypass key regulatory steps, including seeking public input at planning commission meetings and conducting environmental impact studies.
The new units will house homeless who have tested positive for Covid-19 or infected people who live in crowded houses and are unable to self-quarantine. These units are truly tiny, at 80 square feet (no misprint), with just enough room for a single cot-like bed, a desk and a bookshelf. The development has shared bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities, a kitchen space and common areas with computers, internet access and job boards. California governor Gavin Newsom praised it as an example of local initiative amidst a statewide crisis.
“At least right now, here in San Jose, they are using Covid to break through all kinds of red tape that has been keeping the tiny house movement from burgeoning, and the city is putting up all kinds of tiny houses,” said Nancy Unger, a professor of history at Santa Clara University. “There’s a hope that because the situation is so bad, people will grudgingly accept them. But that may be naïve.”
Unger noted that San Francisco built more than 5,000 small transportable cottages after the 1906 post-earthquake fire that destroyed much of the city’s affordable housing. Almost immediately, the small homes aroused complaints from middle- to upper-class San Franciscans, who groused that the camps in city parks deprived upright burghers of much-needed open space and were creating a class of idlers and paupers. They blamed the cottages for the spread of the bubonic plague, though the vector for that particular scourge was actually returning sailors infected in other parts of the world.
Ultimately the cottages were dispersed across the city, or simply torn down. Proving again that people will pay anything to live in the City by the Bay, one of the remaining cottages recently sold for $2.3 million.
“There is a stubborn resistance to affordable housing generally, because people fear it will bring down their property values,” Unger said. While San Jose has seized a moment to overcome public opposition to tiny houses, “I just don’t think people are ever going to really welcome them,” she said.
Seattle was one of the first cities to embrace tiny houses as a solution to homelessness, with over 400 built across the Puget Sound region over the past few years. “The 12 tiny-house villages that LIHI operates in Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia are a better option than traditional shelters because they provide separate living and sleeping spaces,” Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Institute, wrote for Shelterforce, a community development website. “As of May 12, hundreds of people living in LIHI’s tiny-house villages were tested for Covid-19 and no one was found positive.”
But tiny houses have had a rocky tenure in Seattle. Last year LIHI evicted Nickelsville, a self-governing community that was managing three of its villages, because it was treating the tiny houses more like homes than transitional housing. “Nickelsville views it as permanent housing,” LIHI’s Lee told The Stranger, a Seattle weekly. “The problem is that when you have people staying there long term, other people can’t move in.”
Advocates of tiny-house villages acknowledge that virtually all of them began as temporary encampments that cities only reluctantly agreed to accept or ignore under pressure of emergency. Kronenburg, the Liverpool architecture professor, said making tiny houses work for the long term is more a matter of administration than design. “They have to have longevity; they have to be places where people can transition from homelessness,” he said.
“It’s not the architecture,” Kronenburg added, “it’s the management.”