Tiny Houses: Does Size Matter?

The condescension—and impracticality—of recommending tiny homes as a solution to housing unaffordability.

tiny houses illusion photograph
‘Tiny Houses,’ Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset. Credit: Michał Koralewski via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In his article last week, Miles Howard explores how trendy “tiny homes” are being pitched as a solution to affordable housing. They are certainly a step up from a shelter bed. However, Howard concludes that fixating on “tiny homes”—whether in villages or wealthier people’s backyards—as a permanent solution to housing affordability is a distraction from generating the political will to actually build sufficient amounts of permanent affordable housing at appropriate densities.

Howard also notes that the concept of a tiny home may appeal more to those who have had problems with having too much space than to those who’ve primarily had too little.

I want to take that idea a step further and argue that tiny houses are a terrible thing to recommend as a permanent housing solution for people who are trying to stabilize their finances and work their way out of poverty.

First, they aren’t as much cheaper as we might think they are. The things that make them livable—customized furniture and non-standard compact appliances and fixtures and plumbing, for example—add significantly to the final cost per square foot, which can be three times higher than usual construction. “When you’re trying to fit an entire home—and everything a person needs to live comfortably—into 400 square feet, you have to be much more conscious of design and function,” notes Brigitt Earley at Apartment Therapy. Being more conscious of design is not a cost-neutral proposition.

If we’re talking homeownership, you often can’t get a mortgage for a tiny home, and you might have trouble getting insurance.

But even beyond these things, there’s a size at which smaller living spaces stop being more efficient and frugal and start being more wasteful. As Caoimhe McKeogh writes in “Stop Telling Your Poor Friends to Try Minimalism,” “Clutter is a way of reducing risk. It is only safe to decide not to own many things if you have the money to buy things as soon as you need them.”

In other words, some level of storage space is not a luxury.

Here are just a fraction of the sort of risk-reducing frugal behaviors that become hard to impossible to do in a tiny home:

  • Buying things like food or toiletries in bulk to get a cheaper price or take advantage of a sale.
  • Storing hand-me-downs (clothes, shoes, school supplies, books, toys) from older kids (in your immediate family or from extended family and friends) until younger kids grow into them.
  • Buying gifts ahead of time at yard sales or when something is on sale.
  • Buying small appliances, fixtures, or furniture used or on sale, instead of customized for a very particular space configuration.
  • Keeping extras of anything, or anything not immediately or frequently in use—crutches, an extra phone charger, camping supplies, a cooler.
  • Having a store of miscellaneous dress-up, cardboard, and craft supplies available for making Halloween costumes instead of buying them.
  • Having enough tools and supplies on hand to make basic repairs to your home, possessions, or vehicle.
  • Keeping enough food or other emergency supplies on hand for an unexpected period of being homebound by illness or natural disaster.
  • Exercising at home instead of paying for classes or a gym membership.
  • Having friends and family over instead of socializing at a place where you need to spend money. “Invariably, I meet friends elsewhere, since there aren’t enough places to sit,” writes Fast Company staff writer Adele Peters in “Why I Hate Living in My Tiny House.”

The list could go on and on.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that every low-income household ought to do all of the things on that list. Having free time and being able to cover up-front costs in order to get the savings are also big obstacles to doing many of these things. I’m also not saying that any of these things will solve poverty, or that not doing them causes it. That’s a lie perpetuated by people who want to distract from structural causes of inequality. Poverty is a matter of things like exploitative low-wage jobs, extractive capitalism, structural racism, an upside-down tax system, and escalating healthcare and housing costs.

However, when you are already in a difficult financial position because of those larger structural factors, it’s insulting to be told by people who are supposed to be on your side that the solution is to live in such a small space that you lose a whole bunch of choices that might help you survive it.

4 COMMENTS

  1. While a tiny home is not appropriate for a family, and should not be considered for such, they are certainly a partial solution to individual homelessness. Those street people in many communities, California being the one talked about today, do not need anything more than a shelter, and a tiny home gives them that. Now, it does not change their homeless nature, and for that different solutions must be found. A tiny home, with a minimum of toilet facilities and sleeping surface, is a solution for the street people.

  2. Why rule out tiny house villages as an option? For some, regaining a sense of dignity and self-efficacy—the ability to make choices that have meaningful outcomes–is key. For nearly two decades, Dignity Village (Portland Oregon) has succeeded as a self-managed community. The average length of stay is 1.7 years, and 80% move into permanent housing. It is self-financed ($50 per month, accepts donations) and has a contract with the City of Portland for the public land it is on. No one “places” a person in Dignity Village; people apply, and there is a waiting list. It’s certainly not suitable for many, maybe most—but it is right for some. Yes, more permanently affordable housing is the solution (along with raising wages), but why rule out immediate low-cost options that alleviate pain, reduce harm and restore dignity and hope for some?

  3. My intention is not to suggest we rule them out! My point is that people are starting to make the leap to suggesting they are an answer for everyone, and specifically an answer to long-term affordable housing solutions for families, not just as better shelters/transitional spaces, and I see that as short-sighted and problematic for the reasons above. It’s very easy to imagine that a smaller place is better somehow when you are trying to be frugal, and it’s important to point out that after you hit a certain point, it isn’t anymore. By analogy, saying the minimum wage isn’t a living wage doesn’t mean I think the minimum wage isn’t better than nothing. And it’s still true even if some people can get by on the minimum wage.

  4. REACH Advocacy in Rochester NY is planning a Tiny Home Village to increase the supportive housing available in our City. Our tiny homes will be designed to survive in a Rochester winter! We are also planning on have a central building for support services and common meeting space. From our experiences in running winter shelters for the past five years for the chronically homeless we know that there are many of our guests who would do well in this kind of village arrangement. Our social work team who have placed 40% of our guests into some form of permanent housing constantly speak of the paucity of affordable supportive housing here.
    I agree that not all are suited to Tiny Homes, but we believe that there are sufficient numbers who will see this as a step up from the street and learn to take pride in their own space. And we believe that we can do this for rents or rent to buy that meets the needs of extremely low income people. Our team is hard at work building the business model and raising money and hopes to begin construction in the near future.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.