3 Pivotal Ways Tiny Houses Can Revitalize America & How Your City Can Help

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This is a long post and I recognize the time constraints of many readers, so I’ve provided an outline of the main points to help you decide if you’re interested in the details.

Three Pivotal Ways Tiny Houses Can Revitalize America
1. By decreasing the cost of housing, tiny houses can free up income for more productive use.
2. The lower energy consumption of tiny houses decreases our reliance on foreign oil and contributes less to climate change.
3. The tiny lifestyle can improve physical and mental health.

Why aren’t existing tiny dwelling solutions adequate?
1. Micro apartments
2. Mobile homes
3. RVs
4. Mobile home & RV parks

Local governments can encourage tiny houses by taking these three steps:
1. Revise zoning to accommodate tiny houses.
2. Approve tiny house community plans.
3. Support owner-builders and small craftsmen

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Three Pivotal Ways Tiny Houses Can Revitalize America

1. By decreasing the cost of housing, tiny houses can free up income for more productive use.

Tiny houses offer relief from the high cost of housing that currently constrain many Americans. “Nationwide, more than two of five renters spend 35 percent of their income or more on housing, according to the Urban Institute.“ 1 “The U.S. is in the midst of what Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan calls the ‘worst rental affordability crisis’ ever.” 2

student debt cartoonFor college students and recent graduates, lower housing costs would put them in a better position to pay back student loans. As CNBC reported, “The numbers are staggering: more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, 40 million borrowers, an average balance of $29,000…Men and women laboring under student debt are postponing marriage, childbearing and home purchases.” 3

High student debt has consequences beyond the individual. “Research has also found that the burden of student debt hinders innovation and entrepreneurship, a core component of the economic prowess of the United States. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania State studied the relationship between student debt and small business formation and found a significant and economically meaningful link: more student debt led to fewer small businesses being formed.“ 3

For people nearing retirement, the opportunity to live in a tiny house could provide a safe haven if Social Security proves inadequate to meet mainstream housing options. “No matter how the government addresses the growing shortfall in Social Security, one thing is clear: woman searching in dumpsterAmericans have to save more for their retirement because the future is uncertain.” 4 Without sufficient income through Social Security, seniors could require other assistance from the government. Tiny houses can leave more income in the pockets of seniors to help pay for other essentials like food and health care.

For people of any age who are currently living on the edge of poverty, lower housing costs via tiny homes could reduce reliance on subsidized housing and welfare, allowing them to be self-sufficient. In Washington DC, “there are currently 72,000 families on the city’s waiting list [for subsidized housing].” 2

Americans have become increasingly discouraged, angry and disengaged. “Though much more productive and generally better educated, most of today’s workers are falling farther and farther behind their parents’ generation in most measures of economic well-being.” 5 Clearing a path for attractive, well-designed, affordable housing is in the best interest of the local governments.

2. The lower energy consumption of tiny houses decreases our reliance on foreign oil and contributes less to climate change.

According to the White House blog, “President Obama’s focus on increasing America’s energy independence is… a critical national security strategy.” 6

Not only vital to national security, decreased energy usage is essential to protecting our planet. The Natural Resource Defense Council reports that “Climate change is the greatest man walking between arid and green fieldshumanitarian crisis of our time, responsible for rising seas, raging storms, searing heat, ferocious fires, severe drought, and punishing floods. It threatens our health, communities, economy, and national security… Here in the United States, power plants represent the single-largest source of carbon pollution, spewing two billion tons into the air each year.” 7

Heating and cooling accounts for almost half of our energy consumption. 8 With less square footage to heat & cool, and with better insulation than older homes, tiny houses use significantly less energy.

3. The tiny lifestyle can improve physical and mental health.

It’s long been recognized that high stress contributes to poor health. High stress due to poor economic conditions may be a contributory factor in this finding: “Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this man reviewing checkbookgroup have been rising, not falling,” reported the New York Times today. “Death rates in this group [middle-aged white Americans with a high school education or less] have been rising from an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse… Those with the least education reported the most pain and the worst general health… The least educated also had the most financial distress. In the period examined by Dr. Deaton and Dr. Case, inflation-adjusted income for households headed by a high school graduate fell by 19 percent.” 9

While tiny houses may not be right for the majority of middle aged Americans with kids, a lower cost of housing from tiny living can benefit singles and couples.

Emily building her tiny home.
Emily building her tiny home. See more at https://www.facebook.com/EmilysTinyAdventure/
Building a tiny house brings a sense of empowerment. “Tiny houses on wheels are still one of the only ways that one person and a dream can solve their own personal housing crisis. It’s not easy or instant, but it’s pretty rare today for people to feel such a sense of personal empowerment – that they can truly take their life into their own two hands, and change it with a practical project.” 10 From teenagers to grandmas, tiny house enthusiasts are strapping on a tool belt, picking up a hammer, and taking control of their futures.

There are additional health benefits to living in a tiny house. By “living leaner, Kim says… she has more time for her family and her community, and she says her kids have discovered the great outdoors.” 11 Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens writes, “Downsizing to a smaller apartment (and eventually a tiny home) enabled us to devote more time to outdoor activities, writing and the important things in life like friends and family.” 12

lonely manTiny house dwellers often report the desire to spend less time indoors and more time outside or with their community. This may be helpful in curbing the trend toward increasing isolation. According to a 2010 study published in the Public Library of Science, “10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general… There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated… People with fewer social relationships die earlier on average than those with more social relationships… People with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships… The influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. “13

owner versus renterWhile small apartments can also result in lower housing costs and increased time spent out with friends & family, apartments don’t provide the social benefits of home ownership. Realtor.com reports that “Homeownership boosts the educational performance of children, induces higher participation in civic and volunteering activity, improves health care outcomes, lowers crime rates and lessens welfare dependency. Owning a home is different from renting. With the home purchase comes the pride of ownership and the sense of belonging in a community where one has a financial stake in the neighborhood.” 14

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Why aren’t existing tiny dwelling solutions adequate?

Micro Apartments
Apartments as small as 300 square feet are popping up not only in coastal metropolises like New York and San Francisco but even in mid-American cities like Des Moines. However, the emphasis is on profit, not empowerment.

Micro apartment building in Seattle
Micro apartment building in Seattle

“The shift toward smaller apartments can be seen as simple economics: Smaller apartments are more profitable for developers to build and more affordable for tenants to rent.
‘I could paint a cooler picture about value of design, efficiency, and all of that,’ says Alexander Grgurich, a development analyst at Nelson Construction & Development, which converted a century-old office building in Des Moines into 425-square-foot apartments in 2013. ‘For us, it’s about getting a higher price per square foot while offering a lower absolute rent to the renter.’” 1

And unsurprisingly, “surveys from 110 micro-apartment renters [showed] that they were less likely than traditional renters to be satisfied with the value they got for their money.” 1

Mobile Homes
For years, according to George Casey in Builder, “Manufactured housing [mobile homes] provided some of the lowest cost housing (both for-sale and for-rent) in the housing spectrum… In the 1990s, the financing structure for manufactured housing imploded and the industry has gone south with it to the point that the level of placements currently is less than it was 60 years ago… My guess is that part of the population that was served by relatively inexpensive manufactured housing is now doubling up with relatives or has been added to the homeless population of the country.” 15

Mobile homes have lost favor, due in part to their reputation for poor construction in earlier years. “We have found that Florida mobile homes built to the lower standards of the 1970s, and now 40 to 50 years old, are reaching the end of their serviceable life—even in well-maintained senior citizen manufactured home developments,” says McGarrey & Madsen Home Inspection company. “Florida’s humid environment is one factor, mobile home in disrepairbut the lesser quality materials such as wood fiber-board flooring also come into play. As the water supply piping fails and its time for the second re-roofing, along with soft spots appearing in the floor, many homeowners make the decision to have their old home towed away and pull in a new one. While an aging mobile home may still be habitable, there are several downsides to continuing to maintain it. Lack of adequate insulation is one problem. Older mobiles are notorious for high utility bills during the winter heating or sweltering summer seasons. Many have 60 or 100-amp electric panels, which are marginally adequate for today’s higher electric usage.” 16

Visions of dilapidated trailers and the associated stigma of living in trailer parks don’t inspire young people to seek out manufactured housing, even though quality has improved since the ’70’s. Some mobile home companies have sought to change perceptions by adopting names that include “eco” or “tiny” and touting the efficiencies of factory builds.

RVs
Many retirees live full or part time in Recreational Vehicles (RVs) but they are built for travel and accordingly need to have lightweight rather than long-lasting materials. Insulation is minimal in many RVs and they are vulnerable to mold in humid climates. According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), “life-span of an RV can be 20 years+ if properly maintained, depending on the amount of usage.” 17 Several larger tiny house building companies have begun to turn away from the tiny house moniker and embrace the RV label. Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s home page banner reads “An RV Like You’ve Never Seen Before”.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Company home page
Tumbleweed Tiny House Company home page

Classifying their structures as RVs allows the company’s buyers to obtain financing and insurance. Yet, an RV is, by definition, recreational and not intended as a permanent dwelling. This contradicts the heart of the tiny house movement, which is about creating a true home.

Mobile Home and RV Parks

tiny house in Orlando RV park
tiny house in Orlando RV park

While mobile home and RV parks can provide part of the solution for tiny living, the typical economic model runs counter to a tiny house enthusiast’s dream. Usually run for profit, mobile home and RV parks charge rent that may provide meager savings over an apartment, for a slice of land that provides little to no opportunity for homesteading. Exceptions do exist — there are some spacious, affordable, for-profit parks and even some non-profit co-ops — but many won’t accept tiny houses, citing safety and insurance concerns.

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If after reading this far, you agree that tiny houses can help revitalize America, and you can see that alternative solutions may be inadequate, then you’re probably wondering how we can support the tiny house movement.

How Your City Can Help

former Boneyard Studios in Washington, DC
former Boneyard Studios in Washington, DC
  1. Revise zoning to accommodate tiny houses.
    • Create new single family residential zones with minimal lot size specifications and no minimum square foot requirement for the home itself. Lots previously deemed too small for a home could be ideal for this, allowing cities to increase density in alleys and other unused urban patches. This was the dream behind Boneyard Studios 18 in Washington, DC, but the city never got behind it and the original group has dispersed.
    • In existing residential zones of larger homes, allow an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the backyard. ADUs can provide low cost housing for students, caregivers or elderly relatives. Overlay districts 19 can be used as a small first step forward. Model code is offered by Accessory Dwelling.org. 20
  2. Approve tiny house community plans.
    • If you read tiny house blogs and participate in forums or Facebook groups, you know that there’s a strong interest among tiny house enthusiasts in creating communities. Yet, overcoming zoning restrictions can seem insurmountable. While traditional towns may embrace a Planned Unit Development (PDU) or “pocket neighborhood” such as the one proposed for Rockledge, FL through the activism of Rene’ Hardee, 21 its reliance on an outside developer who needs to recoup his or her investment may limit the ability to keep costs affordable.
    • More progressive approaches are to permit the formation of ecovillages like Dancing Rabbit 22 and/or self-governing communities for the homeless like those Andrew Heben has pioneered. Heben’s tiny house villages “offer a sustainable path forward in confronting issues like homelessness and affordable housing. The hybrid land use combines the privacy and character of the single-family home with the economy and density of the apartment building—creating the opportunity to address the inflated cost and size of conventional housing options, while preserving individual autonomy within a community setting.” 23
    • Welcoming citizens with innovate community housing concepts could re-energize a town and diminish issues of disengagement and dependency.
      Opportunity Village, Eugene, Oregon
      Opportunity Village, Eugene, Oregon
  3. Support owner-builders and small craftsmen.
    • Concerns abound regarding the safety of tiny houses and the fact that they aren’t held to a specific standard, neither the International Residential Code (IRC) which applies to traditional foundation-based homes, nor the ANSI 119.2 or 119.5 that the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association promotes for RVs and park models.
    • However, tiny houses on foundations could easily meet IRC 2015, should communities decide to recognize tiny structures as true homes and begin permitting and inspecting them.
    • And for tiny houses on wheels, alternative standards have been proposed 24 that address issues such as insulation and securing the structure to the trailer – topics not found in the ANSI standards.
    • To further simplify safe construction, planning boards could make freely available pre-approved tiny house plans such as those from the Small House Catalog 25 while still allowing for custom designs from builders willing to submit to a review.
      custom designed tiny house, The Fortune Cookie, built by Zyl Vardos
      custom designed tiny house, The Fortune Cookie (built by Zyl Vardos) and owner Kera with her dog Riley
    • Recognizing the value in the owner-builder and small professional craftsman is a crucial step for planning & zoning departments. If instead, communities turn their backs on do-it-yourselfers and small builders, and invoke legislation that requires all to be licensed and/or members of trade associations, they lose a valuable resource and risk further alienation of those who are able-bodied but of modest means.
    • School boards could incorporate tiny house construction curricula such as that proposed by the Collaborative Tiny House Project26 for students at high school and as well as for adults via continuing education.

Tiny houses can empower Americans, improving our financial fitness, reducing our stress, and promoting healthy community participation. Local governments can take advantage of the recent tiny house momentum by embracing change and taking the steps needed to welcome  tiny living.

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References
1. Patrick Clark. “Micro-Apartments are Coming to the Mid-West.” Bloomberg Business.
July 16, 2015. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-07-16/micro-apartments-are-coming-to-the-midwest

2. Pam Fessler. “Lack Of Affordable Housing Puts The Squeeze On Poor Families.” NPR.
May 14, 2014. http://www.npr.org/2014/05/27/316110665/lack-of-affordable-housing-puts-the-squeeze-on-poor-families

3. Kelly Holland. “The high economic and social costs of student loan debt.” CNBC. June 15, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/15/the-high-economic-and-social-costs-of-student-loan-debt.html

4. Sheyna Steiner. “Will Social Security be there when you need it?” Bankrate. http://www.bankrate.com/finance/retirement/future-of-social-security.aspx

5. Phillip Longman. “Wealth and Generations.” Washington Monthly. June-July-August 2015. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/junejulyaugust_2015/features/wealth_and_generations055898.php?page=all

6. Jason Furman, Gene Sperling. “Reducing America’s Dependence on Foreign Oil As a Strategy to Increase Economic Growth and Reduce Economic Vulnerability.” The Whitehouse. August 29, 2013. https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/08/29/reducing-america-s-dependence-foreign-oil-strategy-increase-economic-growth-and-redu

7.Natural Resource Defense Council. “Demand Climate Action.” http://www.nrdc.org/climate/default.asp

8. U.S. Energy Information Administration. http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=10271

9. Gina Kolatanov. “Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds”. New York Times. November 3, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html

10. Billy Ulmer. “What’s Next for the Tiny House Movement.” Portland Alternative Dwellings. October 2015. https://padtinyhouses.com/whats-next-for-the-tiny-house-movement/

11. Amy Graff. “Family finds a simpler, less stressful life in a tiny house.” SF Gate. September 12, 2015. http://blog.sfgate.com/sfmoms/2015/09/12/family-finds-a-simpler-less-stressful-life-in-a-tiny-house/

12. Tammy Strobel. “10 Reasons to Go Small.” Rowdy Kittens. June 20, 2008. http://www.rowdykittens.com/2008/06/10-reasons-to-go-small-a-short-explanation-of-our-tiny-house-obsession/

13. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton. “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review.“ PLOS Medicine. July 27, 2010. http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316#pmed-1000316-g006

14. National Association of Realtors, Research Division. “Social Benefits of Homeownership and Stable Housing.” Realtor.com. April 2012. http://www.realtor.org/sites/default/files/social-benefits-of-stable-housing-2012-04.pdf

15. George Casey. “And Now, the Rest of the Story.” Builder. November 02, 2015. http://www.builderonline.com/builder-100/strategy/and-now-the-rest-of-the-story_o

16. “What is the Life Expectancy of a Mobile Home?” McGarrey & Madsen Home Inspection. May 24, 2014. http://www.mcgarryandmadsen.com/inspection/Blog/Entries/2014/5/24_What_is_the_life_expectancy_of_a_mobile_home.html

17. “Talk Today, RVing, An Interview with the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association of America.” USA Today, August 1, 2003. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/community/chat_03/2003-08-01-rv.htm

18. Tafline Laylin. “Whole Village of Tiny Houses Makes Boneyard Studios a Unique Urban Retreat.” Habitat. November 13, 2013. http://inhabitat.com/d-c-s-first-tiny-house-village-boneyard-studios-offers-up-a-slice-of-urban-paradise/

19. Elizabeth Roberts. “Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) and/or Tiny House Overlay District.” Tiny House Community. http://tinyhousecommunity.com/overlay-district.html

20. Eli Spevak. “Model Code for Accessory Dwelling Units”. Accessory Dwellings.. http://accessorydwellings.org/2014/11/25/model-code-for-accessory-dwelling-units/

21. “Model Zoning for Tiny House from Rockledge, Florida.” American Tiny House Association August 19, 2015. http://americantinyhouseassociation.org/model-zoning-for-tiny-houses-from-rockledge-fl/

22. Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage on 280 acres in the rolling hills of northeastern Missouri. http://www.dancingrabbit.org/about-dancing-rabbit-ecovillage/

23. The Village Collaborative.The Tiny House Village offers a sustainable path forward in confronting issues like homelessness and affordable housing. The hybrid land use combines the privacy and character of the single-family home with the economy and density of the apartment building—creating the opportunity to address the inflated cost and size of conventional housing options, while preserving individual autonomy within a community setting. http://www.thevillagecollaborative.net/

24. Tiny House Community http://tinyhousecommunity.com/guidelines.htm

25. The Small House Catalog http://www.thesmallhousecatalog.com/free-plans/

26. The Collaborative Tiny House Project hhttp://www.thecollaborativetinyhouseproject.com