I’ve noticed tiny houses popping up in the news a lot, lately, and for good reason: they’re the latest proposed solution for the issue of homelessness, and this particular solution is managing to stick. That’s because a great deal of research has pointed to evidence that housing is an integral component in an individual’s successful journey away from chronic homelessness.
Before they were in the news relating to “Housing First,” however, tiny houses were the latest real estate trend. They’ve come a long way from their origins as a new, trendy real estate fad to a new revolution in the way we think about community and successful personhood.
In terms of origins, that’s a complicated answer. Susan Susanka is said to have started the “countermovement toward smaller houses” when she published The Not So Big House (1997). Later, there was Hurricane Katrina in 2005, after which Marianne Cusato designed the “Katrina Cottages” as an alternative to FEMA trailers. This movement toward practical solutions, coupled with the economic crash of 2007-2008, created a climate in need of inventive solutions to the collapse of the housing bubble and the slump in the job market. Suddenly, stocks and real estate values were plummeting, and there was little that could be done to counteract its effect.
Bridget Thornton, head of public relations and marketing for Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, speculates that one reason for an increase in the popularity of tiny houses is likely a confluence of climate change and Baby Boomers: “people are reaching retirement and looking for more efficient space, and people are becoming more concerned about their environmental footprint.” Of course, one could argue—and as Mariah Coz points out here—the first builders of mobile tiny homes could be said to have been Native Americans with the North American Tipi, not to mention the examples of Mongolian yurts and Gypsy wagons.
Rising costs of living around the country—most notably in major metropolitan areas like the Bay Area and New York City—also contributed to the urge to downgrade to more manageable costs of living and sustainable forms of housing. Although most tiny houses aren’t equipped with solar panels and composting toilets, those features are certainly within the realm of possibility. And, of course, their compact size factors the most into their relatively small carbon footprint, since they simply require less energy to power than standard-sized houses.
It’s this move toward renewable energy and small carbon footprints that probably provides the other greatest motivation for downsizing to a tiny house—besides the relative affordability. That last bit, though: that’s probably the most crucial aspect. That’s why there are projects like this one in Sonoma County, California, springing up in various parts of the country. The cooperative housing villages recall the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s, which seem to have seen a resurgence. There’s been a value shift to the ideal of being self-sufficient, once again. Indeed, one glance at the average cost of buying and maintaining a typical house, in the long run, would cause most people to blanch in alarm and dismay.
It seems as if “the American dream” has become a thing of the past. The gradual transformation of the American family unit to be less traditional—single or coupled and childless rather than married with children—has also influenced the shift to alternative housing that facilitates a greater sense of community and shared living spaces. Take, for example, this micro-housing community near Washington D.C.: there is a shared dining area, a roof deck, and a lounge with Wi-Fi and TV. The idea behind all the shared space is the impetus to spend time with other residents and build community. It’s a refreshing antidote to the proliferation of social media and the ironic isolation constant connectedness produces. Even alternative real estate constructed from shipping containers and aimed at more affluent house hunters is designed to be high-end, yet still small. There’s even a Small House Society to keep you updated on all the most recent legislation and building options.