Why We Need Tiny House Communities

It really does take a village, and there are real benefits.

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Escape Tiny House
Escape Tiny House.

 Escape Tampa Bay Village

After Treehugger wrote about a tiny home community in Tampa Bay, Florida, the developer of the project, Dan Dobrowolski, was depressed. I had forgotten to advise him that commenters can be harsh, particularly if they are not our wonderful Treehugger regulars. The post was very popular and got a lot of comments, many complaining about costs. This has been the case with every tiny house post I have ever written, and was also the case when I was trying to sell a green modern tiny house many years ago.

Tiny houses started with a fantasy: that you could build a little place of your own and park it somewhere and live a tiny life with almost no money. There indeed are people who have done this, but land is expensive, as are niceties like water and a sewer connection. That's why after I bombed out of the tiny house biz, I wrote that "the only way the tiny house movement is going to succeed is if people get together and build intentional communities of tiny houses." I was a big fan of the trailer park economic model, where you own the house but rent the land, because all the base costs of land and services are shared, so the costs are much lower.

This is the problem Dan had with the comments, where people were saying that they could go out and buy a house or a condo for the price of one of his tiny homes. Dan felt he had to clarify:

Specifically, many want to make the comparison between units in a community like ESCAPE Tampa Bay and a condo or home in terms of costs and expenses. They are vastly different. The only cost, other than power and internet, for a unit in our community is a monthly lot rental...this varies from $400 - 600.

That lot rental fee includes property taxes, water, sewer, garbage pickup, parking, exterior maintenance, landscaping, and on-site management. There are also onsite amenities like the office space.

And as for the comparison to an apartment, this one is simple. In addition to savings on some of the items listed above, when your lease is up on an apartment, you have nothing, your money is gone. With one of our units, you own it. Plus the monthly cost for one of our units in Tampa is LESS than the average apartment rent in the area. Renting seems a very bad deal in comparison.

This is not meant to be a free advertisement for Escape Tampa Bay. But it is an attempt to point out that ever since the start of the tiny house movement, it has been complicated. Ben Brown wrote almost a decade ago about his experience living in a community of tiny homes (Katrina cottages, not Tiny Homes on Wheels) and the three lessons he learned:

  1. They cannot just be dropped anywhere. "They need small-lot site-planning and the company of friends."
  2. They need to be really well-designed and well-built. "When you compress the volume, the first thing to go is wiggle room for sloppy decision-making. Compromise on design and construction quality, including material choices, and you’re off to the race to the bottom."
  3. It takes a town. "No problem feeding the private, nesting impulse with cottage living; but the smaller the nest, the bigger the balancing need for community."

Ben Brown was living in a cottage community within a quarter-mile of resources like supermarkets, bars, and a YMCA. ESCAPE Tampa bay is not; its location gets a Walkscore of 26 and the only restaurant within walking distance is an IHOP, so this is not a car-free paradise.

Tampa Bay Village
Tampa Bay Village. Tampa Bay Village

But it is a community. It does provide the necessary services and a framework of support. Yes, the cost per square foot is high; it always is when you use quality materials and details, and you build to last. As Ben Brown said, "Better to achieve the savings by intelligently compacting the space, as opposed to competing with production builders who amortize prices per square foot over thousands of under-performing square feet."

The Katrina Cottage where Ben stayed was supposed to be the start of a movement. I wrote at the time that "we are on the cusp of a revolution, where small, efficient and affordable houses on narrow lots in walkable neighborhoods will be the new normal and the new hot commodity."

I really did think the tiny house would be part of this revolution, but it didn't happen, perhaps because people didn't understand it; they thought that if they are getting trailer-sized homes then they should be paying trailer-like prices; and the reverse, if they are paying ESCAPE prices, they should get a house. But it doesn't work that way in the real world. (Ben Brown had his own take on why the Katrina Cottage revolution didn't happen.)

This is why I am still excited about the ESCAPE project; perhaps it is revolution time. You can get a high quality, well-designed home that's built to last, and like everything in life, you get what you pay for. It is not a trailer park but in a tiny home community. They are two different things, serving two different markets.

Dan started his note to me saying "sadly, I feel I did a poor job explaining some things for your readers." But frankly, many of us have been doing a poor job explaining things since tiny houses started, because nobody was quite sure what they were: Are they trailers? Are they houses? Where do I put one?

Dan Dobrowolski may not have explained these things in words, but he is demonstrating it on the ground, and that is far more important.