Is the tiny house movement a 'big lie'?

Laird Herbert Leaf House Version 2
© Laird Herbert

Tiny houses are a popular topic on TreeHugger, and no wonder: they touch on many elements of a sustainable lifestyle, such as simplifying one's life, eschewing the enormous McMansion and corresponding mortgage in favour of more financial freedom. But as we've noted before, the teeny size of tiny homes aren't for everyone, and there are still some big barriers to consider even before thinking about living in one.

Erin Anderssen over at The Globe and Mail goes further, questioning whether they are truly sustainable in the long term, noting that some high-profile tiny housers are now up-sizing. In an article titled 'Teeny house, big lie: Why so many proponents of the tiny-house movement have decided to upsize', Anderssen writes:

The ardour for tiny homes suggests it’s the next best trend in four walls. Certainly, the motivation is hard to fault. As a society, we’ve been urban sprawling to our detriment, wasting energy, space and interest on sky-high mortgages. And we could definitely kick the knick-knack habit. But how small can we shrink without wreaking havoc of a different kind? Are tiny homes really sustainable? Maybe not so much. At least, not for everyone.

Why are tiny homes so small, anyway?

Anderssen outlines the reasons why and shares stories of how the extremely small size of tiny homes are now driving some to abandon them for larger homes. For starters, she points out that tiny home are "too small," especially for families, and that their shoebox size can "take their toll... on our physical and mental health."

This is a valid point, one that has also been raised along with the recent trend toward urban micro-apartments. But what Anderssen glosses over is why tiny homes are so small. For decades, they've been a bit of a reactionary response to an increasingly unaffordable existing housing market, based on the false ideal of "bigger is better."

Certainly, they could be bigger, but tiny homes are now typically sized under 200 square feet and put on wheels to go under the radar of municipal bylaws and the need to pay the larger property taxes that go with larger, immovable homes. Many municipalities have minimum square footage requirements because they prefer the higher tax assessments, but that doesn't necessarily mean that these minimum square footages are an absolute, indisputable ideal for everyone either.

A tiny stab at complex problems

There's also the elephant in the tiny room that people need to talk more about: how to concretely tackle the broader crisis of unaffordable housing, beyond building one's own mortgage-free tiny home. With wages stagnating against rising costs of living, real estate prices, rents, and rampant speculation in urban centers, many younger Millennials can only dream of owning a home like their parents. Some may argue tiny homes represent a kind of "poverty appropriation," but the economic inequality between the wealthy and the middle-class is growing, and the recent popularity of tiny homes are but a symptom of this very real problem.

The health toll of larger homes

And are small spaces damaging for your mental and physical health? It depends: conversely, one could also argue that people living in much larger houses in affluent suburbs could experience depression and isolation too: family members are segregated to their own rooms, no one bonds, and the car-centric character of the suburbs means it's planned around big-box stores instead of universally accessible community spaces.

The psychological toll of large homes is an issue that some tiny house proponents have brought up, and may be the reason why smaller homes -- with some smart community-centred urban planning to go along with it -- could bring more financial, emotional freedom and better relationships, even for families.

No "one size fits all"

So is the tiny house movement a "big lie" as Anderssen maintains? It might a bit exaggerated; after all, Anderssen goes on to concede that:

To be fair, the people abandoning their tiny homes aren’t trading them for McMansions – their fallbacks are still small by modern standards.

There's a lot of positive possibilities with experimenting with lower-impact lifestyles, and certainly tiny homes can be photogenic and endlessly inventive, but they are only one possibility.

Beyond the inherent idealism of tiny homes, the larger reality we need to further explore is how legal, carefully planned micro-housing might look in our cities and neighbourhoods. Even if there are up-sizers, it doesn't detract from the fact that it will work for some people, and recent tiny house subdivisions planned for the US and Canada prove that they are being taken seriously as one potential way to revive declining rural communities. Micro-apartments are already popping up in cities like NYC, San Francisco and Vancouver, and even unlikely places like Chicago, Spokane and Edmonton. So if 200 square feet is too small, then what about 500 or 900 square feet small homes, planned in a way that allows real communities to take root?

It appears that even with their flaws, tiny homes and other micro-dwellings are here to stay. In any case, they should not be taken as a "one-size-fits-all" panacea to complex socioeconomic problems, and certainly not as an ideology. No doubt it won't work for some. But if it works for others, then why not? More over at The Globe and Mail.

Tags: Less Is More | Living With Less | Small Spaces

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