Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Broadening the Scope of the Tiny House Movement

I recently stumbled upon a blog post titled “Why Tiny Houses Aren’t the Best Homeless Housing (IMO),” which made the argument that using tiny houses to address homelessness could be ruining it for everyone else. Since this blog suggests the opposite—that the unhoused are a complimentary ally to the tiny house movement—I thought it deserved a response. Here is what I believe to be the heart of the post I am referencing:

"To decrease homelessness is a noble cause and should be sought but I am leery of developments wanting to use a tiny house model as a solution, I fear it may have negative consequences on the tiny house community as a whole... I feel that tiny houses are a luxury of the middle/upper class, I feel there are better solutions to cure homelessness, I am fearful that tiny houses will be put into the category of ‘low income housing’, putting them out of reach for the average person." (Read the full post here).

In all fairness the author opens by saying she was “airing some thoughts”, so this is not personal, but I’d like to address the fears presented here. As far as I know, this was the first time these points have been made publicly, but I was already fairly certain that it was a common sentiment shared by many in the tiny house movement wanting to preserve the novelty of the contemporary “tiny house.”

The fact that several people who first commented on the post agreed with the author—commenting things like “very well put” or “great article” or “brilliant”—verified this.

So, I posted it to the Opportunity Village Eugene facebook page, encouraging those who follow our page to let the author know what they think. And they did. We left dozens of comments until we finally convinced her (and hopefully others as well) to rethink things.

The original post exhibits both class bias and status anxiety, but I tried to focus on the crux of the matter—that her fears were unwarranted—writing:

“I really think I can address your concerns of being limited to only low-income folks, and that was my primary intention from the beginning. In my opinion, your concerns have a lot more to do with funding than they do building codes and zoning. If developers go out and seek public funding specifically tied to low-income/homelessness, than sure those projects will be exclusively for that demographic. But that does not stop others from going out and doing it a different way. They just have to find another kind of funding.

This is where we run into the problem of codes/zoning. But cities are not changing these regulations specifically to only accommodate the homeless. They are being accomplished through planned unit developments and conditional uses. City officials are, however, being more lenient in their interpretations of existing regulations in an effort to deal with the emergency of homelessness (I have great examples of this).  However, from what I have witnessed, this is not limiting the legalization of tiny houses for middle class people. Instead it is setting precedent for it (a city councilor here in Eugene said that last part on his own). That's why I believe these early "tiny house villages" focused on homelessness are opening the doors to similar communities for all income levels, and that is a major theme of my book.”

This response led to the follow up post, "Tiny Houses as‘Homeless Housing’ Part II," which states, “After this discussion do I think these developments are in any way a threat to others wanting to live in a tiny house?  No, I don’t.”

While I was initially outraged at the original post, I am glad this conversation was had and that we can now move forward. This may have just been a brief exchange in the blogosphere, but I believe it to be a pivotal moment in the tiny house movement.

It is time we broaden the scope of the tiny house movement beyond the tiny house as a novelty—beyond the template fluff pieces that have been appearing in the news media for over a decade—and beyond the trailer and excessive gingerbreading—toward a pragmatic and affordable housing option for anyone, no matter what your income or status.

That's not to say that those things aren't important, but that it's time to make use of the attention they have generated to influence large-scale change in the housing market.

But if you’re worried that your posh little tiny house won’t be as cool after it gets all that poor people stigma all over it, there’s not much I can do. That’s just something you’re going to have to get over.


  1. Thanks for opening up and continuing this dialogue. It's very helpful in bringing greater understanding of alternative forms of housing.

  2. I feel: That only as more and more people are opting for Tiny Homes will real change come. Until the numbers and way of life become sufficient and noticeable, they will, whatever size, be a novelty .... Just because several groups are building smaller Tiny Homes for the homeless ( I didn't miss the term unhoused above ) does NOT weaken or change the movement. What really is needed is some forward thinking, progressive leaders, that can see the benefits. Just my .02

    1. I think it will take moving the tiny house out of a legal "grey area" before we see large-scale buy in, especially politically. My point is that cities like Madison, Olympia, and Eugene have advanced this effort, but through demographics not typically linked to the "tiny house movement." Those looking to downsize have largely been ignored (or hassled) by municipal governments, but through addressing the emergency of homelessness we have found a back door to legal acceptance. This now sets precedent for advancing this housing option to other demographics as well.

      For example, here in Eugene, we started with Opportunity Village as a transitional micro-housing pilot project, and one year later we are now seeing political support for our next step forward, Emerald Village, which will be an affordable (tiny) housing project independent of government subsidy.

  3. I will proudly say that I am the author of those blog posts, both of them. I am sorry to have outraged you but I too am glad the exchange happened. Everyone is coming at this from different backgrounds, and I am grateful for the exchanges we've had. My background is more from the developer side, which is part of the variance (and makes tiny houses more of a business and less of a 'people' issue). I had good intentions with the first post but bad wording, the point was not to perpetuate some classist debate but to look at it financially and see the feasibility... again, from the developer side. It was short sited and I really appreciate the issues brought to light by it. I just want to make sure, like you, that everyone has access to their version of affordable housing. I can see now, after our exchanges, that in fact we are all on the same side and progress is progress, we are all working toward the exact same solution and that these developments will not inhibit others' ability to pursue their tiny house goals. Thank you for speaking up and clarifying things for those of us who were left wondering... You've certainly got my uninhibited support moving forward for whatever that is worth ;-).

    1. Right on, Macy! It's awesome that this exchange led to a common understanding, when so often it can lead to people remaining with polarized opinions.

  4. This is a great dialogue on tiny houses. Personally, I think the society has not fully embraced the concept of tiny houses, because they haven’t found a reason to. However, if you ask a few homeless individuals who have found refuge in them, then you will understand and appreciate the importance of these new inventions. Learn more facts here: