The Tiny House Movement Needs More Inclusion, Diversity, and Representation

Two Black tiny homeowners share their experiences.

Jewel Pearson tiny house

Glyn A Stanley Photography

From the outside, the tiny house movement seems like it represents the best of what people can do when they think creatively outside of the box so they can live more freely and simply, and with less "stuff." There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of websites, podcasts, and social media accounts dedicated to the tiny house ethos of how small can indeed be beautiful.

But in looking a bit deeper past its aspirational veneer, one might start to notice that the tiny house movement is overwhelmingly represented by White faces and that there is a notable lack of diversity when it comes to big-name tiny house festivals and media landscape, which in turn fuels the misguided stereotype that tiny houses are mainly something for "white hipsters," rather than something that everyone (and anyone) should be able to feel free to consider.

Why representation matters

Though one might not see them often, there are indeed plenty of BIPOC tiny homeowners and enthusiasts out there. Some contend that in the early days of the movement, there were actually quite a few BIPOC people joining in. Nevertheless, it's these preconceived—and often unconscious— notions about who truly belongs in the tiny house movement which many BIPOC folks are often made acutely aware of.

"Many people think of tiny house living as a 'white person thing' which Is frustrating to say the least," says Ashley Okegbenro Monkhouse, a recent psychology graduate who has been living in her own tiny house in Florida since 2018. Ashley, who also has a YouTube channel documenting her tiny house journey, caught the tiny house bug from her sister, Alexis, who also lives in a tiny house right next door. Ashley says that she even gets comments sometimes from other Black folks who believe that tiny houses aren't for them. "We're just trying to live out our lives in ways that seem interesting for us, but some people don't think it is the right 'way' we should be living."

Such stereotypes are reinforced by the ongoing lack of non-White representation in the tiny house movement, as well as in the broader sustainability movement, all of which more people are beginning to reckon with as the inextricable links between social inequality, environmental and racial justice becomes increasingly clear. For Ashley, this lack of representation creates a kind of vicious cycle, where people don't join in because they feel they don't belong. "I think representation matters because then it makes it not seem like an anomaly," she says. "It makes it easy to picture yourself doing something, when you see someone that looks like you is already doing it."

A similar sentiment is echoed by Charlotte, North Carolina-based designer, consultant, and tiny house advocate Jewel Pearson, who designed and built her gem of a tiny house in 2015, in addition to founding Tiny House Trailblazers, a group that advocates for more BIPOC representation in the tiny house community:

"For many years now the tiny house movement has been portrayed as this 'young white hipster' movement lacking inclusivity and diversity. I can’t tell you the number of times Black people have told me they didn’t think the movement was for them, until they saw me on HGTV in 2015, and then as I continued to share my journey. They also often share that was the encouragement they needed to consider the movement for themselves."

Grappling with history

In addition, many potential Black tiny homeowners often face challenges that their White counterparts do not, thanks to the historical impacts of slavery, race-based violence, and housing discrimination that has destroyed generational wealth. As Pearson explained to us, these historical factors can have serious implications in the present:

"Homeowner statistics for traditional housing show Black people at the bottom of the list, in the lowest percentile, year after year, due to things such as predatory lending, racist lending and housing policies, gentrification and the like. Therefore, Black people often don’t have access to the funding to get started [on the path to traditional home ownership], and tiny house loans are challenging.
"Later, if they are able to build, the challenge then becomes a parking location, which is a challenge overall, but even more of a challenge for a Black person, as tiny houses are most accepted in RV parks and rural areas, where issues with and the dangers of racism are even more prevalent. I’ve personally had to relocate my tiny house twice, due to concerns for my personal safety, as a result of racism."
Ashley Okegbenro Monkhouse tiny house

Ashley Okegbenro Monkhouse

What can allies do?

Such stories point to the need for potential allies within the tiny house movement to step up and to put good intentions into action, whether that means speaking out in order to push for more BIPOC representation, diversity, and inclusion at events, or being more mindful in their day-to-day interactions. Ashley recommends that:

"I think potential allies can stop with the judgments when they do see someone doing something different. That can even come in the form of not making a statement that has to do anything with race. For example, instead of saying something like, 'You are doing something cool that I haven't seen many Black people do', they can change it to, 'That's cool that you're going tiny'. They don't need to mention how there is very few of us, or anything to do with race, which may stigmatize the other person's decision, and cause some to second-guess their choice. By supporting BIPOC that they do see living tiny also helps push the narrative that it's something inclusive, not just something that only white people can do."

Pearson, who is now in the process of developing ReCommune, a venture that focuses on the creation of inclusive communities with movable housing and business infrastructure, advises well-meaning supporters to see the bigger picture, and not just the superficial aspects of tiny living:

"Allies can help improve the situation by seeing outside themselves, seeing outside the aesthetics of building and tiny home decor, and focus on listening to comprehend and creating real community opportunities -- where everyone is safe and able to be included. It is one thing to speak as an ally, but a totally different thing to put action to words as an ally. Be vocal advocates, and not just for the tiny house movement."

Pearson also has equally inspiring words for potential BIPOC tiny homeowners to not give up, as tiny living is not for the faint of heart, especially as this effect is amplified for BIPOC folks in the movement:

"I encourage BIPOC to find a like-minded support group, with representation, and to share their stories to encourage other potential and future BIPOC tiny homeowners. The year 2020 should have shown us we need to be doing things differently for our health and wealth, and small(er) living and downsizing are great starts. I encourage future BIPOC tiny homeowners to consider the overall value a tiny house and the lifestyle has to offer, because we need to do things differently for our communities."

Indeed, there is a lot of work to be done to ensure that the tiny house tent is large and inclusive enough for everyone, regardless of their background. Tiny homes might not be the cure-all for the dire complexities of an increasingly unaffordable housing market, homelessness, and a growing chasm between the ultra-rich and the rest of us, but they can potentially be part of a multi-pronged solution. Whatever it may be, it's imperative that the tiny house movement widens its reach and scope, so that it can actually live up to its promise and make a real difference.