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Tiny House Activism and the Future of the Movement

Tiny House Activism and the Future of the Movement

Paprika Clark silhouetted against a rich orange sunset, stapling off underlayment on the roof of the Goldfinch tiny house of wheels.

A healthy economic system is driven by the same principles at work in a healthy ecosystem – diversity, adaptation, complex webs of interacting forces. The global financial crisis that showed itself in 2007 was rooted in factors put into play over many years leading up to the breaking point. The Great Recession we’re still barely recovering from has a lot to do with the monocultural landscape of business. Like industrial agriculture, it’s dominated by crowd thinking, where the market favors the largest players, banks fund proven players who externalize costs to artificially pump up margins, and only the bottom line defines success. The resulting lack of diversity leads to a weak economy – herds of big businesses with similar vulnerabilities.

Now people and organizations are evolving radical solutions to tough times. Whether it’s a return to simpler values, a stringent work ethic descended from the Depression era, or a sense of our interdependence that brings our choices into sharper focus, connections are being made. Success in life and in business is about having a positive impact on the community and the environment while growing the bottom line. A number of different behavior changes can take us in the right direction, but none of them are more fundamental than our homes. Living smaller is a choice that shapes our daily behaviors and consumer choices more than anything else. We know that the interest in tiny houses these days goes deeper than just enjoying pictures on the web and sharing touching stories about tiny living. We call it a movement because it’s a growing body of people with common ideals about living a simpler life and an interest in taking organized action to make it a viable option. Now the next questions are waiting to be answered. What is the nature of the battle we’re fighting, how do we define victory, and what’s our overall strategy?

Everyone should be able to live as small as they want, within reasonable parameters to ensure safety and practicality. We’ll have won the freedom in housing we deserve when anyone anywhere with the resources to do so can build a little cottage of whatever size works for them. We’ll have won when accessory dwelling units are permitted in all residential zones across the country, with a reasonable framework for the required permits. We’ll have won when people all over can build or buy a house on wheels and live in it on their own land, rent a spot in someone else’s yard, or move into a tiny house RV park in the town of their choice and know they’ll have the amenities they want and the security of being within the law.

Unfortunately, when we consider building codes, zoning laws, insurance challenges, and the lack of financing options, the goal of living legally in a tiny house starts to look like Hercules battling the hydra. Every time we move toward solving one problem, more seem to appear in its place. Hope is not lost, however. It’s undeniable that many people are facing challenges with housing these days that are profoundly difficult and not adequately addressed by current options. More of our institutions and organizations are recognizing these factors all the time and moving to create more freedom in housing that will let us create great solutions.

The legal barriers to living tiny are already softening in expensive, densely populated areas. Housing costs in cities have risen so steeply that young people starting out, artists and artisans, people working in the trades and services, and older people on fixed incomes can simply no longer afford to live there. They’re driven out to the suburbs, and if they work in the city they have to commute, adding to traffic pressures and pollution. The absence of these populations wipes out the diversity that makes a city vibrant, adaptive, and resilient in the face of changing conditions. The pressures are undeniable, and those in power have begun allowing smaller residential alternatives to give people of average or lower incomes a chance to get by. The rates for mini apartments in big cities are still staggeringly high; an article in the Business Insider from July of 2012 details 10 apartments from 480 square feet down to 310 square feet available at that time. Prices range from $1395 per month for 450 square feet (near Columbia University) up to $6000 per month for 358 furnished square feet in Central Park South. Hopefully carefully guided future development will start producing solutions that can work for those of average income as well.

A group of friends came together in Washington DC in 2010 to create a demonstration project featuring tiny homes on wheels. They recognize some painful trends in their community – median home prices doubled between 2000 and 2010, rents increased by 50%, and affordable housing units dropped in number by half. Lee Pera started the ball rolling by attending a Tumbleweed workshop in 2010, and getting fired up and empowered to charge ahead and build her own house. The group of four friends have access to a scrap of an urban lot there that had been derelict; covered by weeds, debris and ponding water, used only for parking (by people outside the neighborhood) and occasionally for dumping a stolen car. They formed a plan, named their effort Boneyard Studios, got permits for improvements like a fence and a storage container, and proceeded to build four tiny houses on wheels and plant several trees and garden beds. They offer periodic open houses and an open and considerate stance toward their neighbors that’s a wonderful example of how nicely the tiny lifestyle can fit into an urban situation.

The old Las Vegas downtown area has been dismissed as seedy and overlooked in recent times in favor of the more modern Strip area where all the new hotels and casinos are. For several years the mayor and other prominent Las Vegas figures have launched various revitalization projects, and the most recent among them is an epic exercise in social entrepreneurship called The Downtown Project. Online shoe retailer Zappos moved into the old city hall building in 2013, and intends to become an economic anchor to attract new businesses and “transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world”. They’re investing locally in education, small business, and the tech sector, supporting the creation of a dense ground level culture of businesses, arts, and events, and creating “the co-working capital of the world”. Alongside their infusion of capital for business and technology, they also plan to create ample office and living spaces using shipping containers and tiny homes on wheels. They bought a ready made unit from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company in 2012, and committed to purchasing 10 more in fall of 2013. It’s not clear precisely how they will be used yet, but possibilities include short term rentals, temporary quarters for contract workers or visiting consultants, and long term housing for permanent Zappos employees. It’s very likely the little homes will be set up in a location where at least the exteriors can be seen by the public and tiny house fans.

Paprika Clark

I’m a lifelong student of language, art, and human nature: an ENFP Aries Fire Dragon Sex Positive Intersectional Feminist Independent. Join me as I feel my way through this. If you have any questions, send them my way - as far as I'm concerned, every day is an Ask Me Anything.


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