The Tiny House Fantasy

The tiny house movement embraces individualistic visions of property while ignoring the real causes of housing insecurity.

Last year was the year of the tiny house — a moment in which living small, once a niche design trend for isolationists and weirdos, moved to the mainstream, filling a respectable slot in the American conception of home ownership.

TV shows (Tiny House Nation), movies (TINY: A Story About Living Small), and even politicians (who proposed building tiny home communities) all touted radically downsizing, whether to fight consumerism or save the environment or ameliorate other social ills.

The object of their affection was indeed less capacious than the 2,600-square-foot dwelling the average new American home measured in 2014. According to one site partial to the lifestyle, a tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.

Tiny design trends aren’t new; they can be traced back to Lloyd Kahn’s 1973 book Shelter. And more recent iterations can be found in work from the 1990s, most notably Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (1998). Reacting to the proliferation of ever-larger suburban housing developments, Susanka argued that housing sizes were ballooning out of control with little redeeming design merit.

She thought that homeowners could do more with less, that large houses were filled with too much space and not enough substance: “I was looking for houses that were made for today’s lifestyles, that were beautifully designed and detailed . . . and that embodied an attitude of doing more with less.”

Today, the ideas of Kahn, Susanka, and others are manifest in tiny house movements across the country. Tumbleweed Tiny House Company — based in Sonoma, CA, and Colorado Springs, CO — manufactures artfully designed 130-square-foot homes on wheels. One fully furnished model has a loft bedroom, wood paneling, and a full kitchen, complete with a dishwasher and electric stove. Another boasts a full porch, just large enough for two people to stand or sit comfortably.

The appeal of Tumbleweed’s tiny houses, and the lifestyle more broadly, goes beyond aesthetics; it springs from the idea of the individual or nuclear couple homesteading, self-sufficient and free. But what if this notion is as flawed as tiny house partisans’ social critiques and proffered solutions?

Tiny Roots

The tiny house movement took off after the Great Recession hit.

Amid a pervasive sense of insecurity, with millions of Americans losing their jobs, savings, and homes, the fantasy of becoming independent by living small loomed large in many people’s minds. A yearning for autonomy aligned with a strong desire to continue owning individual property, even in the face of economic collapse.

That appeal didn’t let up, even after the country climbed out of the depths of the recession. Last year, tiny house proposals took root in urban activist and politicians’ plans to alleviate homelessness and housing insecurity.

In Denver, an activist group called Denver Homeless Out Loud tried to build tiny houses in an urban park for people experiencing homelessness, and an October article in the Atlantic chronicled a Nashville pastor’s attempts to provide tiny housing to those without a home. Meanwhile, in New York City, 120-foot-long micro-housing units for millennials are being touted as a cost-saving measure.

All of these versions of tiny housing — from the mobile Tumbleweed home to the New York City micro-apartment — prioritize individual space and ownership, separating the self or the couple from the outside world.

Viewing the enthusiasm for tiny living through the lens of individual space and ownership calls up much older ideas than Kahn’s shelter or Susanka’s not-so-big spaces; the tiny house fantasy rests on visions of property and expansion embedded in the American consciousness for more than a century.

Frederick Jackson Turner was central to developing this consciousness. Turner, a historian writing in the 1890s, argued — in works like The Significance of the Frontier in American History — that hardy, freethinking pioneers pushed the American frontier westward using only their quick wits, their material know-how, and their easy appropriation of “free land” to create a lively, healthy, liberal democracy.

These trailblazers, Turner wrote, possess “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grip of material things . . . that dominant individualism.”

Tiny housing enthusiasts harbor the same cultural aspirations. The Tumbleweed tiny house pioneers imagine themselves as self-reliant — self-contained pods moving along the still-open highway of the great American West.

Because they’re all on wheels, Tumbleweed houses can navigate the American frontier without constraint. And because each pod contains its own sink, toilet, bed, and dishwasher, collaboration with people beyond the individual — or couple — outside the house is unnecessary, perhaps even unsavory.

Neither Tumbleweed nor other tiny house movement leaders have a blueprint for how — and where — to park a tiny house, a major hurdle for anyone who purchases one.

Jarred Ehart, a Tumbleweed Tiny House RV specialist who showed me around a number of tiny houses in Colorado, admitted it was difficult to find an area to park. Before moving to the Centennial State, he built a tiny home in rural Kansas with salvaged wood and his own two hands, paying for nothing except the nails. The urban sprawl of the Springs, where housing codes are strict and land isn’t abundant, made the search for space more difficult.

In Turner’s time, rugged individuals in the American West snatched up land relatively unimpeded, backed up by state power. Land in Tumbleweed’s strongholds, Colorado and California, is no longer for the taking — even as the company’s aesthetic (in which beautiful, miniature wooden houses roll along pristine American highways against a backdrop of rugged mountains) imagines land as empty space, free to be transformed through creativity and hard work.

But maybe practical inconveniences are unimportant given the purported environmental benefits — more sustainable living, with less energy.

It’s true that, both in terms of money and fossil fuels, large homes take more to heat and cool. And many of the tiny homes that have become media darlings — like Jay Austin’s Matchbox, originally designed for Washington DC’s now-defunct Boneyard Studios — are custom-built with sustainability in mind, an environmentally responsible example for the rest of us.

But whether tiny homes are an environmental boon is questionable. These dwellings don’t improve energy efficiency on a large scale — particularly in urban settings, where tiny homes are increasingly viewed as an antidote to both environmental and housing problems.

As David Owen and others have pointed out, New York City is already the greenest place in the US, possessing the smallest per capita footprint simply by virtue of its density. Instead of constructing tiny, stand-alone houses, cities could house many more people — efficiently and cheaply — by making available affordable apartment housing close to basic needs and important services.

Frontier to Alley

Technically, Tumbleweed’s tiny houses are mobile homes. Legally defining them as such, Tumbleweed Operations Manager Ross Beck explained to me, allows Tumbleweed’s customers to park their homes in places sanctioned for mobile homes and gives them a type of legibility in public space.

The irony is apparent. RVs and mobile homes are currently — and for many years have been —the only market-produced, low-income housing option in the United States. Other low-income buildings are either old spaces that have market deficiencies or exist with the help of government subsidy.

July Westhale, a writer who grew up in a mobile home in California, has described her qualms with the mobile-home-turned-tiny-home:

It’s likely, from where I sit, that this [tiny house] back-to-nature and boxed-up simplicity is not being marketed to people like me, who come from simplicity and heightened knowledge of poverty, but to people who have not wanted for creature comforts. For them to try on, glamorize, identify with.

In Washington, DC, Councilmember Vincent Orange’s plan to build one thousand tiny homes is similarly unsettling, considering the city’s history. Orange’s bill calls for the construction of six-hundred-square-foot properties at a cost of $50,000 or less each, making it easier for young people to enter the housing market.

And David Alpert, the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington,  has an idea of where to put them all: “There is one place where this is a great idea: Alleys,” Alpert wrote a few months ago. “All around DC there are small garages, sheds, or historic carriage houses along alleys.”

Alpert (and Orange) seem unaware that around a hundred years ago, tiny houses were commonplace in DC’s alleys — only back then, they were called shacks.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Washington policymakers were incensed at the prevalence of African-American communities living in DC’s alleyways. Charles Weller’s 1909 book Neglected Neighbors sought to expose and expunge the horrors of alley life.

Weller considered alley houses a problem “with few if any parallels in American cities,” because “Washington’s “mini-ghettoes” were spread throughout the city, often in close proximity to the most expensive and elegant houses,” historian James Borchert explains in Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850­1970.

This stands in stark contrast to today’s rhetoric: urban planning theories now valorize dense, mixed-income, and mixed-use neighborhoods. But tiny houses generally do nothing to increase urban density in cities like Washington, DC, which is already concentrated with people and has little open space.

In addition, Orange’s houses are designed for upwardly mobile young people — the bill contains discriminatory language that makes the homes only available to millennials. Reading between the lines, these spaces are clearly meant for young, white, nonprofit and government workers.

The urban tiny house and micro-housing experiments’ focus on independent adults means they miss many parts of the population that experience homelessness or acute housing insecurity, including families and youth.

According to a 2014 point-in-time survey by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 216,197 people in families were without a home. As spaces in city housing are cut into smaller and smaller swaths, designed to privilege young, independent, salaried workers, the most vulnerable members of the community lose out.

Moreover, in the third quarter of 2015, there were over 17.4 million unoccupied units in the US, including millions of homes that would accommodate young people and families experiencing housing insecurity far better than the tiny home solution.

Design and Nostalgia

David Harvey has argued that the trend toward more spread-out cities — through suburbanization — has diminished urban areas’ potential for organizing and revolt. Poor communities once huddled together in tightly knit neighborhoods conducive to political organizing are now scattered to the suburbs.

At the same time, public space is often no longer available for public activity. Spaces like New York’s Union Square now have more flower beds than gathering places, while Denver’s Triangle Park — once a shared place in which many homeless people sat during the day — has become a locked “community” garden. Harvey’s contention suggests the city could re-envision itself by increasing density and common space.

Tiny houses address neither of these issues. Because they are generally mobile and their tenants or owners rarely have rights to the land upon which they are parked, they are more vulnerable to expulsion when the market finds a more profitable use for the spaces they inhabit.

Activists in Denver learned that lesson the hard way in October, when police destroyed a nascent tiny home development in Sustainability Park and arrested ten organizers. The activists’ failure to establish tiny house communities highlights how the social dynamics that make cities unaffordable and isolating run much deeper than the physical presence of homes.

Tiny homes aren’t a solution. Small living is another superficial fix, brandishing clever design and appeals to nostalgia while ignoring the underlying social relations which cause homelessness, housing insecurity, and environmental degradation.

But while the fad of living tiny is in one sense nothing new — exemplifying and reinforcing tropes about individual ownership and an ever-expanding frontier — it also points to growing insecurity and a troubling future in which temporary, unstable, and atomized living arrangements potentially become the norm.

Ultimately, alleviating housing insecurity, creating dense, environmentally friendly cities, and realizing the desire for independence and self-sufficiency will come from collective demands and struggle — not from buying or building a better home, no matter how small it is.