Can Tiny Homes Help Solve the Affordable Housing And Climate Crises?

Is buying a big house still part of the American dream?

Buying a house is the largest purchase most people will ever make. Many began to doubt the wisdom of taking on a big mortgage after the recession of 2008. This question loomed especially large for millennials coming into adulthood at that time, already burdened with student loan debt. Many Baby Boomers were rocked by the impact of the recession on their retirement funds. The Boomers felt an urgency to reduce their housing costs while living on a fixed income. The number of families entering homeless shelters dramatically increased. The conventional wisdom that a home is a “good investment” felt dubious when the housing market crashed. US homes collectively lost $2 trillion in value in 2008. Can tiny houses help to solve not only the affordable housing crisis but also help solve the climate crisis?

Unaffordable housing

The lack of affordable housing options in major cities across the United States adds to housing problems seen during the 2008 recession. Chronic homelessness has been on the rise in the US and is likely to get worse given the historic level of unemployment we’re experiencing in 2020. Houses are unaffordable for average wage earners in 74% of counties looked at in the US Home Affordability Report.

People are seeking alternate housing options, searching for ways to live with lower debt or even mortgage-free. Cities are looking for a lower cost yet honorable way to house their homeless population. Home buyers and cities are getting creative. Some are also willing to go against convention. These factors contribute to the rise of the “tiny home” movement.

One survey reported that 53% respondents were open to the idea of purchasing a tiny home. Cities across the country are trialing tiny home villages as a way to create transitional housing or permanent residences for their homeless population. It can be argued that tiny homes provide more dignity for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Additionally, they provide increased flexibility for public agencies addressing the challenge.

What are tiny homes?

A tiny home is generally considered to be a dwelling of less than 400 square feet; a marked contrast to the more than 2,450 square feet of the average American house. The small size alone means that fewer resources are used in the build. In addition, tiny homes are being built with recycled and ecofriendly materials (and these materials are also easier to source given the smaller scale). Many tiny homes are created as DIY projects. Tiny home kits are even sold online, including on Amazon. Blokable, a Seattle based start-up, is doing not-for-profit fee based “housing development as a service”.

Sustainability of tiny homes

One core aspect of sustainability is lowering consumption. Tiny homes are often associated with the concept of minimalism. The size of the home, no matter how well-designed, limits the amount of stuff you can accommodate.

These houses also reduce resource use in other ways, operating on just 7% of the energy of a conventional home. Many tiny homes are also made to be mobile and are sited on “parking spots”. These mobile tiny homes avoid the estimated 17.5 gallons of water the average American family uses for lawn and garden maintenance. Some tiny homes are built to be mostly or entirely off-grid, using carbon-free solar power, rainwater recycling, and composting toilets.

Tiny homes which are manufactured in a controlled environment (e.g., prefabrication, mass production and mass customization) also result in a significant reduction of construction waste. This also translates into reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Greater precision in the building process not only reduces waste, it also leads to higher quality.

Dream come true?

We dream about having a spot to call our own. We hope to have that spot be affordable. In the right circumstances, tiny homes can provide both low cost and sustainable living. Paradoxically, they can help Baby Boomers, Millennials, and homeless residents to have a place to hang up their “home sweet home” signs.

Photos by, respectively, Courtney Blodgett, and Julian Hochgesang

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