Tiny homes are merely a trendy fantasy, not an affordable housing solution

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      Tiny houses are now all the rage in British Columbia nowadaysNelson Tiny Houses calls them a "political movement" and "as much a work of art as they are a place to live." It's the latest iteration of a "smaller living" trajectory that began with laneway housing in Vancouver, moved on to Gastown microlofts, and now settles on 300-square-foot luxury homes on the back of a trailer.

      There is something disturbing about the way local media continues to laud people for moving into smaller and smaller spaces simply because they can't afford anything else. How long until we can expect a CBC feature celebrating an "innovative" student who has opted to live in a repurposed hollowed-out refrigerator?

      Let me begin by saying that there are several very admirable things about the decision to live smaller that are arguably epitomized by the tiny house movement. First, the architectural ingenuity necessary to make smaller spaces feasible: from floor hatches to convertible furniture to efficient lofts. Second, there is something commendable in adopting a personal ethos at odds with the dominant worldview: consume less, resist sprawl, embrace community.

      But there is also something deeply troubling about holding up a rarefied, consumer-driven living experience as some kind of "solution" to a deep-seated social problem. Henry David Thoreau tried as much when he hoed all kinds of beans on Walden Pond during the pinnacle of American transcendentalism, hoping his example would elevate his compatriots to new spiritual heights. He didn't like emphasizing that his mum did his laundry every week or that he bought his cabin boards and roof on the cheap from a destitute Irish immigrant forced out of town with his entire family.

      Consider the "dream" scenario of the Lukow family, the "tiny house" disciples featured in a recent CBC story: "we love being outdoors so it would be fantastic if we could find a space on an acreage or a small hobby farm." Within biking distance to work, natch. A lovely idea, but this is literally fantasy—and there is nothing wrong with that. But clearly this fantasy is only feasible in the world of a family with some means (buoyed by a feature by a public broadcaster). Yet it is billed by mainstream media, like microlofts and laneway houses, as a bootstrap "solution" to the housing crisis. It worked for them, it could work for everyone. No, CBC, it couldn't.

      All of these tiny-fications are fantasies, in fact. People live "with less" all over the world in ingenious and innovative ways using only the space and materials at hand. But we usually just call them poor. Romanticizing shack-dwelling—replete with high-spec wood and stainless finishes—does not subvert the status quo. It merely shrinks it to a size you can hold in the palm of your hand, like a Littlest Pet Shop.

      West Van transplants buying up microlofts on West Hastings aren't trying to "be happy with less," they are trying to break off a manageable piece of the Good Life that everything they see, hear, and feel tells them involves living in Gastown. They may not sleep soundly on their Murphy bed but they take comfort from their proximity to that fantasy. 

      All of these conversations take for granted the "unaffordability crisis" as if it is as unchangeable as the weather. As if the facts that young people are buried in debt, that real estate prices are astronomical, that communities have been gutted and depersonalized—are somehow accidental and writ in stone, rather than deliberate acts of public policy that can be changed. Not to mention that many of these so-called smaller living solutions are themselves leveraged by new-landlord homeowners so that they can afford their ludicrous mortgages.

      I don't want to be defeatist here, because I do admire people who refuse to accept that the world is given to us as is—and instead choose to live as if the maxim of their actions should become a universal truth. It's what remains so attractive about Thoreau's Walden experiment. But we can't laud tiny houses for their innovation without beginning by saying that the economic realities that necessitate it are a huge fucking problem that won't go away with vintage marine lightbulb cages or marble countertops. And we can't treat tiny houses squatting on hobby farms as the latest trend for the well-heeled lumbersexual set.

      Stories like these spread the falsehood that consumers have a say in how their neighbourhoods, communities and cities are planned—while the evidence repeatedly shows that our urban agendas are set by developers. Laneway houses, microlofts, tiny housesthese are individuated solutions to social problems that require social fixes. Why can't we see the ingenuity and innovation so evident on this "tiny" scale at macro levels? Because building a wee home on a trailer and towing it out to Sooke just isn't an option for a struggling daycare professional or recently laid-off Target worker—and they shouldn't be promised that it is.

      Comments

      23 Comments

      Split the atom

      Jan 30, 2015 at 1:50pm

      I dont want to blow anyones mind here, so ill try to be as simple as possible. The solution to affordable housing is to buy whats affordable.

      In case those bitching about housing costs didn't realize there is more then one place to purchase home. Many places will be unaffordable, but many places will. Buy what you can afford.

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      ursa minor

      Jan 30, 2015 at 3:04pm

      To buy what you can afford, you need an income, so it has to be near a source of income, ie. your job.

      This would be a good argument for the 'Yes' side in the TransLink plebiscite - better connections between well-paying jobs and affordable homes.

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      land

      Jan 30, 2015 at 3:12pm

      that's the bigger cost. where is the inexpensive land?

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      RUK

      Jan 30, 2015 at 3:18pm

      It's nice to be able to blame the politicians for creating an affordability crisis. Our parents won't let us have nice things! They could if they wanted to!

      Or can they?

      Explain to me how more land will be created in Vancouver by any act of government policy, that will allow the growth of traditional big houses and sprawling apartments to be built presumably at yesterday's rates.

      Or, explain how policy to prevent more people from moving to Vancouver or indeed being born here, to maintain or indeed reduce the pressure on residential availability.

      The simple answer is that you can't.

      We can do other things though, and we should because fundamentally I agree that there is an affordability crisis, and that microlofts are a symptom more than they are a solution.

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      Steve y

      Jan 30, 2015 at 4:01pm

      the cost of vancouver housing is due to a provincial government pouring money into downtown Vancouver at the expense of Surrey which should be the centre city of the gvrd. Instead of replacing the roof of bc place they should have built a new stadium in Surrey and the convention centre as well

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      Natty

      Jan 30, 2015 at 4:41pm

      You know what the real problem with "microlofts" is? The fact they're still unaffordable to the majority of the population. An acquaintance of mine bought a 400sq foot space in False Creek for $335,000. Depressing as f@$%.

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      Rainbow

      Jan 30, 2015 at 5:46pm

      I live in a mobile home, though it isn't very mobile. It's bigger than many of the tiny houses I see in these "tiny house" stories, and cheaper. Why don't any of these "tiny house" aficionados consider living in a mobile home?

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      Lee Ann Dodson

      Jan 30, 2015 at 8:21pm

      I've been doing a lot of fantasizing myself about how I might be able to fix my precarious situation by attempting to build my own 'tiny house' and homestead near my brother and his wife out in their neck of the Ozarks. My bachelors degree was in Interior Design and Housing. Then I studied urban and regional planning in the progressive location of Eugene, OR at a graduate level for three years. Began to paint and never wrote my thesis because of some complications with my subject, the tiny lumber town Westfir, OR.. Once I transferred to the University of FL to finish my degree, my 'thesis committee' decided I had to find a whole new subject in FL.....That did not make me very happy.

      The sweet folks of Westfir certainly had some problems. The lumber mill closed, and the company town no longer had any basic services like water and sewer. I worked with the mayor and a county planner along with the city council and helped everyone understand that incorporation with property taxes was a necessity. It went to a vote and passed with a whopping majority voting YES! At the time, that was an historical first. It helped to make sure people understood why imposing a new tax on themselves was in their best interests.

      Anyway, I've been interested in housing and communities for a long time. But the problems have not gotten better across this country in the 35 years since I worked with Westfir. I'm sure I'm not the only baby boomer reaching the age of 'retirement' who will not be able to maintain living in their current situation.

      This trend towards sizing down and making a smaller footprint is not fantasy. It is a true necessity for a whole lot of people both young and old. The media loves a "cuteness' factor, and that is what we've been seeing, but whether it is a cardboard box in an alley, a cobbled together shack on the outskirts of New Delhi, a tent city in the gold rush days, or the after effects of a natural disaster, when there are not enough suitable housing options for people, they get desperate and innovative and self-preserving.

      Right now it is a trickle of people individually seeking their own small solution....but the 'tiny house trend' is just the tip of the iceberg. We certainly don't need any public housing disasters like we saw in the sixties and seventies. Nope, we need a whole new paradigm shift and unfortunately, I predict the housi

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      Tiny Traveler

      Jan 31, 2015 at 9:12am

      Living tiny is a personal choice. Just like living large is a personal choice. There is evidence scattered throughout the article that the writer, Michael, is writing from a social perspective. I think we need to remember each of us make choices based on what our needs are. Personally, our family of three lived in a 3000 sqft 4 bdrm home. Sold it. Now we live in 300 sqft. Personally, we chose to spend our money on experiences vs spending money on square footage. Our family has traveled extensively and lived in many different countries. Using our "tiny" 300 sqft home in Canada as our landing pad. We have no debt, we have savings and a ton of priceless experiences. Sure, we will buy a traditional size home again one day. Personally, "tiny" works for us for now. In regards to living tiny being a "fantasy", life is what you personally choose it to be. And as for a "fix", if you look at history, homes in the 50's on average were 900 sqft housing a family of 4 or 5. Socially I don't view tiny as a "trendy fantasy", I view tiny as finding our way back to balance.

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      Jonathan Baker

      Jan 31, 2015 at 9:34am

      The micro house movement is the reinvention of the trailer without the efficiency of mass production.

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