Last week, BillMoyers.com published a report on micro-houses (or, more popularly, “tiny houses”). These ultra-compact homes of 1,000 square feet or less are appealing to those who want to make their lives more sustainable, and, increasingly, are being looked at by some as a model for affordable housing.
On Facebook, we asked: “Do you think you could live in a tiny house?” We got some great responses — here are some of our favorites.
Experience with micro-living
First of all, many in our audience had lived in a micro-house. “I lived in a 920-square-foot passive solar house and was very happy. My heating bill for the entire winter: $98,” said Gordon Billingsley. And even though our BillMoyers.com piece looked at micro-homes for individuals, some of our audience said that they work for families, too.
“I know we could live in a tiny house, because we do — 336 square feet, plus a sleeping loft with sleeping cubbies. We raised two kids here. Having no mortgage, minimal heating costs, minimal electricity use and very low property taxes made it possible to weather the layoffs that have hit us over the last 15 years, otherwise, we’d have lost everything,” said Liane Allen. “I know it’s unheard of for a lot of people, but try spending time in the same room with your family members. You’ll find you need a lot less house than you think you do,” said Kathy Copeland Padden.
Fighting the trend toward “McMansions”
Others noted that in the past, America favored much smaller homes than what has become popular in recent years. Between 1973 and 2007, the average size of a single family home increased from 1,660 square feet to 2,521 square feet, even though family size decreased during the same period. As Henry Graber notes at Salon, that 2007 high was “more than three times the size of the ‘little boxes’ of Levittown, New York, the 1947 Long Island development that marked the dawn of the suburban era.” The “McMansion” is a relatively recent phenomenon.
A necessary model in an increasingly unequal America?
But as homes have grown, incomes have shrank. The bottom 90 percent of income-earners has seen its wages drop slightly over the last 40 years. Some of those who responded on Facebook worried that tiny houses were a response to, or the inevitable result of, our country’s increasingly hard-to-find middle class and our growing inequality. “If the middle class keeps shrinking the way it has for the past 30 years it [micro-living] may be the only option for millions,” said Rodger Flemming.
Housing and homelessness
Our piece last week looked at micro-living as a model being put into practice to help with homelessness. Some on Facebook suggested that this was less practical than putting the homeless in the vacant homes that dot America, many of which are the result of the foreclosure crisis. “There are six to seven empty homes in the US for every homeless person,” said Harold Jennings. “Shortage of housing is NOT the problem.” Amnesty International noted in 2011 that there were 3.5 million homeless people in America, and about 18.5 million vacant homes.
Vacant and abandoned homes are a serious problem — just a handful of empty single family residencies can lower the value of nearby homes that are occupied and cause blight to spread through an entire neighborhood. Putting the homeless in these homes could, in some cases, help. But, like tiny houses, this too is not a one-size-fits-all solution. In many of the communities with recently abandoned neighborhoods a building that has gone even a few years without maintenance — and, in some cases, may have been stripped by looters — is unlivable. In many cases, it is cheaper for a revenue-starved city to demolish these buildings rather than renovate. In places like Cleveland, Ohio, where the housing crisis struck first and the housing market remains relatively weak, efforts are underway to replace blighted homes with shared land like community parks and gardens. But perhaps these homes could also be replaced with more environmentally sustainable forms of affordable housing — like micro-houses.
“A beautiful trailer park”
Many of those who responded noted that they were living in a mobile home, which was its own form of micro-house. This parallel is not a coincidence — in fact, one of the tiny home designers we spoke with drew inspiration for a tiny house community from trailer parks.
“Quote-unquote trailer parks — they’re really called manufactured housing communities — are fantastic in a lot of ways,” said Brian Levy, who designed a micro-home called Minim House. “They’re affordable, they’re relatively green… there’s a great sense of parity — everyone kind of has more or less the same size structure and a nice sense of community, from what I’ve found.” The problem, Levy found, was that, despite their sustainability, “trailer parks” have a negative connotation. One thought that guided Levy’s tiny house project was, “‘How can you have a cool, kind of ennobling place that also happens to be full of micro-dwellings?’ Kind of a beautiful trailer park, if you will.”