The Tiny House Movement seems to be caught in a cruel cycle that many fashionable things go through. Here’s a rough guide to the phenomenon:
- Wow, look at this new thing, never seen that before!
- This is great! People say it’s the answer! It’s everywhere!
- It’s everywhere.
- Sceptical or vaguely hostile articles start appearing.
- Someone in the media declares it a “fad”.
- Hipsters and others sprint to say “I’m over it.”
- Advocates get defensive, feeding hipsters’ self-certainty.
- The onetime fad either settles into obscure middle age, or becomes radioactively passé.
- “Where Are They Now?” and “Whatever Happened to…?”
- Revival, with irony.
With tiny houses, I believe we’re at the middle of the cycle. After several unopposed years of chic, tiny houses are now getting the “fad” label.
The image you often see: Mt Hood tiny house village in the US.
So people like me who live in tiny houses should not be surprised at any waning in media enthusiasm for how we live. It’s the circle of life.
But there’s more to it. With tiny houses, there’s always been the question “Are they the solution to the housing crisis?”
People seem to envisage serried rows of tiny houses accommodating all kinds of people, both housing the homeless and getting millennials on to the home ownership ladder.
To put this expectation on tiny houses, as journalists and TV hosts have kept doing, is to load way more weight on their axles than they can and should take.
The answer to the headline question “Are tiny houses the answer?” will, according to Betteridge’s Law, inevitably emerge as being “No”. At which point the tiny house movement starts to look, if not a failure, then at least tarnished.
The question is the wrong question. The expectations have been too high.
To repeat and be clear: No, tiny houses are not, and never were, in themselves the solution to the housing crisis. But they can be the answer for some people, at a certain point in their lives.
Tom and I had our own reasons for ending our big-house existence and changing to a tiny-house life. I wrote about it last year. Here’s the bullet-point summary of our reasoning:
- To be debt-free with low outgoings, allowing us…
- To live lighter, less crowded lives with more autonomy and freedom. That means getting rid of the unimportant things in our life.
- To take on a challenge to benefit our wellbeing.
We are achieving all those aims. But every tiny-house dweller or dreamer has his or her reasons.
Some want to build the house themselves, so they’ll be able to live super-cheaply and save more easily for a bigger land-based house.
Some plan to live long-term in their self-built house, perhaps using their new skills to build houses for others.
Some are young, looking for a way of paying off student debt more quickly and keen on an alternative to renting.
Some are older, rewiring their lives.
Some want to live in a tiny-house community, perhaps (but not necessarily) practising permaculture or self-sufficiency.
Fy Nyth, a tiny house in Wyoming — a personal role model in going tiny.
Some want to live in the woods or on a mountain, off-grid and independent.
Some want town water and power supply and the conveniences of the city.
Some want to find the perfect spot and stay there; some want to keep on the move.
Some see a business case: live in a tiny house and rent out space or other structures as homes or B&Bs.
My Point Is
Tiny-housers are a diverse group. They don’t all have the same aims, values or timetables.
Which means it’s risky to stereotype them, to imagine that tiny houses have one single purpose and achieve one single thing. And it’s therefore tricky to establish villages or communities of tiny houses, as pretty as they would look.
An opinion column by Mike Yardley in The Press is a good read but it misses the mark when he tells readers that the tiny-house movement “embraces eco-friendly choices, sustainability, shared community experiences, and a rejection of rampant consumerism for minimalism. In other words, they are contemporary hippies.”
Watch out Mike, you’ll take someone’s eye out with that broad brush of yours. Hippies? Not in my experience of tiny housers! They’re a much more varied bunch. The one generalisation you can make about them is that they love the boiled-down beauty and design genius of the best tiny homes.
Yardley goes on to talk fair-mindedly about what role tiny houses might play in the regrowth of Christchurch’s Red Zone — the area left unsafe and depopulated by the earthquake of 2011.
Indeed it’ll be great if tiny houses, whether mobile or fixed, have a role in the remaking of Christchurch. But I’d be nervous of loading too much starry-eyed expectation on the possibility. Just as I’m loath to talk about tiny housers in the broad-brush way that Yardley does, depicting them as modern-day hippies.
The appeal of tiny-house living is as much about freedom from noise, crowds and social pressure as it is about communal closeness. It’s as much about spaciousness as smallness, as much about expediency as permanence.
So don’t expect to see tiny houses stand in multiples, like the rows of single men’s huts I used to see around public works sites, or like little boxes on the hillside.
High-density urban dwelling solution: single men’s huts in the Hutt Valley.
The Obvious Thing To Say Is
Tiny houses are not for everybody. They are a life-changer for some, a stopgap for others.
An important truth about tiny houses, and it’s absurd and circular, is that they are the solution for people for whom they are the solution. As Miss Jean Brodie might say, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”
If you can get enough like-minded people together to populate a community of tiny houses, then that’s great; I’ve heard of several people in New Zealand who are trying. I hope they can find enough people whose aims and financial means match, but my gut feeling is that they seldom will.
I think mobile tiny houses appeal most to an individualistic outlook — not selfish or even necessarily introverted, but autonomy-seeking and pattern-breaking. So my belief is that you’ll see them in spaces between conventional homes or, like ours, in rural spots.
They won’t be solving the Housing Crisis, but they will be solving thousands of individual “housing crises”.