Picture this: the middle class was shrinking as the economy became rockier. As the in-hand dollars of the average American diminished, housing insecurity and rent/mortgage expenses became a plague.
Enter the tiny house revolution, a flavor of living which has attracted seekers with the zeal of religious converts since the early 2000’s. Particularly in free-wheeling liberal cities (think Seattle, Portland, and Denver), tiny living has all but become a movement—touted as environmentally sustainable, economically liberating, and a wellspring of personal freedom.
Along the way, the tiny house revolution has picked up not just evangelists, but detractors as well. As with any lifestyle, tiny living is complicated.
Tiny Houses by the Numbers
A tiny house is defined as a self-contained living space under 500 square feet—though most clock in quite a bit smaller. There are several other numbers that are gospel to tiny home builders:
— 8.5 ft. is as wide as your home can be before you have to get a wide load permit to haul it
— 18.5 ft. long and 10,000 lb. weight limit also allow for mobility (and legality)
— Builders can only go as high as 13.5 ft. before their roofs start kissing bridges and underpasses with alacrity.
As stipulated by zoning codes, an occupied structure must be a minimum of one thousand square feet, and tiny house adherents bypass this law by putting their homes on wheels, constructing what amounts to an RV on a technicality. Due to their small size, tiny house converts purport that the houses are greener, requiring less to heat and cool. Their petite stature and efficient use of space make it cheaper to own a home (small though it may be), and lastly, their mobility means that, hypothetically, you can live anywhere and take your home with you.
The Not-So-Tiny Price Tag
Tiny living supposedly offers an answer to housing insecurity and how generally unaffordable owning a home is for many of us—even those staunchly middle class, with a college degree and a career. In 2015, the average cost of a single-family home in the United States had ballooned to $272,000, and the sizes of the typical home had fattened up as well—steadily rising to 10 percent larger than a decade prior.
Despite the general trend of going bigger, tiny homes have captured mainstream consciousness, perhaps because we’re working harder to secure a place to lay our heads and put our stuff. The average person spends 27 percent of their salary on housing, begging the question: How many hours of your life do you want to spend at the office to pay for your house?
The average build for a tiny house costs around $23,000, though they can boast a smaller price tag if you’re willing to construct it yourself with salvaged materials. On the flip side, they can get a lot more expensive if you’re buying one that’s ready to go (the most expensive model offered by the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, one of the O.G. businesses selling tiny houses and design plans runs close to $63,000). As far as the affordability racket goes, something to consider is, for all the efficiency and design of a tiny home, they can cost as much as $200 more per square foot than the average, albeit larger, American home. And then there’s the question of where to put it. Many owners of tiny homes—whether fledgling tiny livers or seasoned—find that they must still pay rent to park their home somewhere, cutting into all those savings they expected when they decided to go small.
Perhaps what is most troubling about the argument that tiny houses are the most economical option for young people looking to get a toehold in the world, or those slightly older seeking to escape the chains of a mortgage is that, like a car or an actual RV, tiny houses actually lose value over time, as opposed to land, which gains it. In fact, at the root of rising housing costs is the sheer fact that land is becoming more expensive and as house sizes and populations grow, it is also at more of a premium.
If land is the piece that makes home-owning so expensive, tiny houses don’t do much to solve the problem, and the tiny house revolution has been held back considerably by the fact that there’s nowhere to put them. Considering that living small seems to offer a solution to the expense of living in urban centers, it doesn’t do well in real metropolises, where even parking spaces can fetch a price tag of up to $100,000. As such, the options for tiny livers become fewer—you can either pay a high premium to live in an urban area (and contend with legality issues surrounding your choice of housing) or, park your life somewhere far away and deal with isolation and a lengthy commute—which, one might add, contributes to a larger carbon footprint.
Tiny Equals Green?
When it comes to greening the city, all the research points in one direction—and it’s not tiny, individual houses. For that matter, it’s not large, suburban plots, either. Unexpectedly, New York City is the greenest city, boasting the lowest carbon emissions per household in the United States. Those numbers boil down to two factors: density and proximity.
Affordable, compact apartment housing close to basic necessities is ultimately the most effective way to reduce emissions and solve the crisis of finding livable homes that suit a small budget in the long term. Sure, a tiny urban apartment isn’t as photo-ready as a petite house on wheels crafted from cedar with ornate gables. If tiny houses are all about living one’s convictions, then those considering going small might do well to recognize the individualistic, acquisitive streak that may be driving them toward ownership of a self-contained house vulnerable to expulsion and legal trouble at every turn. In reality, tiny houses seem to ignore the deeper conditions that drive housing insecurity and environmental degradation.
In the search for sustainable housing that seeks to answer our society’s troubles by putting ideals into action, tiny houses may provide an immediate answer, though not an enduring one.