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.