Tiny houses. They sound cute, harmless; perhaps populated by Hobbits or other adorably petite magical folk, but according to Wikipedia, they are a cultural phenomenon. A movement. A THING. The tiny house movement involves a group of folks who have decided that for a variety of reasons, they’d prefer to live, as they describe it, affordably, simply, and sustainably, in a small house. Not just any small house, though. A very small house, practically microscopic, usually built on the frame of a tow-behind trailer and made to be portable. These houses are so tiny you can live like a modern-day nomad and literally hook your house up to a truck and tow it to wherever you want to live, plop a welcome mat outside and call it home, sweet, home.
The folks whose job it is to hate everything written from this type of perspective, perhaps unsurprisingly, hate this perspective.
This is kind of an interesting debate to me. Despite generally disliking the “appropriation” angle (anyone who’d like to eat mac and cheese with hot dogs mixed into it alongside me, please feel free, I raise my glass of watered-down Kool Aid to you in tribute, I actually DO find tiny houses and some of the attitudes of those who tend to dwell within them, to be kind of offensive to my sensibilities as a poor-ish person. Because tiny houses are not cheap houses and the tiny house lifestyle is not always, or even usually, simple or sustainable – at least not without a ready supply of cash to support it. It’s not a new opinion, not based on any of these articles, it’s something the husband and I have occasionally discussed ever since tiny houses became a thing. We don’t like it.
To give a little context here, my husband grew up in a miniscule Forest Service trailer in a Forest Service employee trailer park and was a tiny houser before it was cool. Additionally, our family has lived in small houses for the entire 25 year span of our marriage. For several years, we had 5 children in a 2 bedroom house with one bathroom – 2 kids slept in modified closets, one in the attic, whoever was a baby at the time slept in our bed with us, and we all developed excellent bladder control. We have since moved with our three youngest children and 13 Buff Orpington chickens to a very rural cabin completely off the grid. (Our older two, in case you were wondering, are now adults and stayed behind in our original house. The chickens, in case you were wondering, are also now adults and live outside.) Our cabin is larger than our previous house, but not by much, and like the majority of tiny houses, we’re off the grid. Our power comes from the sun and from propane, our heat from wood. So I feel fairly qualified to comment upon the slightly annoying tiny house trend.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not keeping me up at night dwelling on the injustice of it all or anything. But I do find something offputting about people, at least some of whom look down their nose at trailer courts full of redneck breeders with junk in their yard and avert their eyes entirely at the poorest of the poor, the true nomads who move from cheap rental to cheap rental one step ahead of eviction, plunking down tens of thousands in ready cash to buy a tiny house that they can then live in only because they have the money to live “sustainably”.
Some tiny houses cost nearly as much as an affordable, small regular house does. Others are cheaper, but still pretty spendy. Prices range from $20k through 75K on average. They’re quite expensive for what they are; claiming anything that costs tens of thousands of dollars is in any way economical is like wearing a fur coat and passing it off as a secondhand cardigan because you got it on sale for 10% off.
Tiny houses are a status symbol, no denying it. They’re not just small houses, you see. They are brilliantly designed and magnificently outfitted small houses- they have to be to be able to allow a person to live comfortably in such a small space. Being portable, most are not hooked up to traditional sources of power, relying instead upon solar and propane appliances, and those ain’t cheap. And those costs don’t even cover a piece of land to park it on and other related amenities like water and sewer hookups, also very expensive if they are even allowed. Nor does it cover the cost of a reliable truck-type vehicle to tow it with (15-40k depending on age of vehicle) or the gas and other vehicle/travel related expenses for the romantic gypsyhearts who plan to roam the country with their tiny house.
While some financing is available in the form of RV loans, it takes a lot of ready cash to get into the tiny house lifestyle. This is something that those who live paycheck to paycheck don’t have. Tiny houses are often promoted as being affordable, even economical, but for many, a 75k tiny house or a 300k McMansion are equally unattainable, the difference between a trip to the Moon or a trip to Mars. The idea of ever accumulating that kind of money to blow on what is essentially a fancy garden shed feels crazy to anyone without that kind of money. In order to build our cabin, it took my husband and I 20 years of constant scrimping and saving and foregoing pleasures that others take for granted such as days off and new underwear and even accruing some credit card debt (naughty, naughty, irresponsible poor folk are we) to make it happen. It wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t a thriftshopping cheapskate who never pays full price for anything and he wasn’t extremely handy and highly resourceful, building the place all by himself using a significant amount of scrounged material he procured from a series of very interesting Russians. It wasn’t at all easy and is not something that most would have the stamina to do, building a house bit by bit for 20 years, but that’s the kind of effort it takes people in our tax bracket to accomplish a dream like that.
We ended up with an unassuming place on a spectacular piece of land at the end of it, while still keeping our our first home as a backup plan or hopefully a future return on our investment. I just cannot imagine making that kind of sacrifice for a walk-in closet built on a horse trailer. There’s no real security in that, especially for those tiny housers who don’t even own the land they’ve parked on. Anyone who has the freedom to pursue that living situation is either insanely irresponsible or has more money to spare than the average lower middle class family – certainly more cash on hand than a family living below the poverty line.
Owning a home is security, particularly for those of us without a lot of other resources. But a tiny house isn’t security in the way that owning land is security or a home is security. It’s really more of a recreational thing, like buying a boat or an RV. I can’t imagine anyone going into it thinking a tiny house will have gained value by the time they retire. I can’t imagine a bank loaning money for a future purchase using a tiny house as collateral. It’s not an investment, it’s not a necessity, it’s a splurge for people who don’t need to have anything solid to own in 20 years because they can afford the luxury of not having it. I don’t believe for a minute that the majority of people who buy tiny houses are really doing it to save money. The math just doesn’t make sense. It takes too much ready cash to get started. It’s too great a sacrifice in terms of long term financial security to sink so much into so little. But that’s ok, after all, many of the people who choose the tiny house lifestyle aren’t claiming to be frugal, they’re claiming that their desire is to live more simply, more sustainably. Of course, those things cost too.
The costs of simplicity, of sustainability, don’t end with the buying of a tiny house. They don’t end with finding a piece of land to plunk it on, they don’t end with the $900 top of the line Dometic fridge mentioned in one of the links above, which I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to have but cannot afford. (We make do with an old rusty propane fridge we bought used on Craigslist from a fine Ukrainian gent and we have NO freezer. Ice cream is not something we eat, except on special occasions in the hottest part of the summer when we scrape together our pennies and buy a box of ice cream sandwiches that we wolf down as quickly as we can before they melt.)
No, aside from the obvious costs, living that “sustainable” lifestyle comes with a huge price tag attached to it. It is not a lifestyle that any poor person living in tiny houses by default can attain. And it’s not because the products marketed as sustainable are invariably more expensive, even though they are. It’s because of the nature of a tiny house itself. You can’t keep much of anything in them. Their very smallness precludes the kind of make-it-do resourcefulness that many less monetarily gifted folk pride themselves on. One of the untold secrets of successful poverty is the accumulation of stuff. That’s the reason why poor people have junk outside their house. It’s a matter of practicality. When something comes your way, you don’t know if you’ll have another chance at it, so it’s best to hang onto it. It’s not because we don’t value simplicity or sustainability, it’s not because we are greedy or have a hoarding disorder, it’s because we are in a foxhole mindset and may NEED that stuff eventually.
If you suddenly find yourself in dire need of an air filter from a 1983 Chevy Monte Carlo and you’re broke, having a parts car in the yard means that you can go to work on Monday. If your shirt gets dirty or ruined in the process of changing that air filter and you don’t have $20 to buy a new one, all of a sudden it makes a lot more sense that you hung onto that “Frampton Comes Alive” t-shirt so you can wear it when you work on the car. How could you keep enough tools to fix a car in a tiny house, or even to do basic automotive maintenance like changing the oil or filling a flat tire? Obviously, you can’t, and that indicates the kind of lifestyle where a newer car is owned and maintained by others in exchange for money. How could you clothe yourself without either the ability to store at least some of your wardrobe – seasonal clothes or dressy stuff, the things you need occasionally but don’t wear often – or the ability to buy clothing on demand? Again, you probably can’t, and so that implies a level of discretionary income that others don’t have. Either you buy new clothes as needed, or you pay for a storage closet…and if you pay for a storage closet, are you really truly doing all your living in that tiny space?
Food is another area where tiny houses fail the “simple and sustainable” test. Since I live in the country, drive old cars, and can’t guarantee an unexpected expense will not arise in any given week, I buy 50 lbs of rice and flour and large buckets of cocoa and Tang and powdered milk to have on hand in case I can’t get to the store due to weather, or to fill in any gaps in our meals during lean times when someone gets sick and needs a trip to the doctor or the solar inverter goes out. I also buy things as they go on sale and store them to use during times when they aren’t. And of course, every Washington State mom’s secret weapon – Costco. It’s more economical buying large quantities in advance, but it does take up a fair amount of space. Now, if you have the ability to simply hop in your new car and gas it up and drive to Whole Foods for a prepackaged tossed salad and a kombucha for dinner every night that’s great, but simple and sustainable it is not. (Not to mention the landfill choking single-serve packaging, yikes!)
The same goes for literally everything else. Books, movies, music, video games, exercise equipment, lattes, pretty much anything you can think of – if one has the money to buy a digital version of your preferred entertainment, and/or high speed Internet and various subscriptions to streaming services, and/or a 4G data plan, and/or a gym membership, it may allow that one to live in a smaller house uncluttered with bourgeois crapola, but is it really any more simple or sustainable than the person who watches used DVDs while riding an old exercise bike and sipping a homemade cup of coffee instead of a Starbucks one? Being able to live in a small space because everything has been outsourced to places accessible via automobile or Internet connection is really not quite the same thing as, like, being Amish or something.
I’m sure that at least some of the tiny housers do walk the walk as well. But let’s not pretend that having the luxury of living with absolutely no long term ability to meet one’s most basic needs without a ready source of cash, is in any way frugal. If anything, it’s the height of consumerism to know that at any moment you need any thing, or any service, you can simply dash off and buy it. It is a freedom that poor and lower middle class people do not have and indicates nothing about one’s light and fluffy carbon footprint. After all, it’s not exactly a light carbon footprint if you rely upon the existence of stores full of goods and services to be available whenever you need them. If you don’t have stuff because you don’t NEED stuff because you have the money to buy any stuff that you need at a moment’s notice and a vast free market infrastructure consistently bringing it to a Walmart near you, it’s really tantamount to having stuff, isn’t it? Just because you store it, well, in a store, and access it after spending money, I see no appreciable moral difference between that and storing something in an attic that you access via a rickety ladder and an unfortunate encounter with some cobwebs.
If anything, I find the tiny house lifestyle wasteful (using the standards of simplicity and sustainability to judge, not my own personal standards, of course). There are empty houses and vacant apartments all across the United States. There are entire small towns and inner city neighborhoods nationwide decaying because no one lives in them. They’re just rotting, their economic value decreasing with every passing year. That is truly wasteful. It’s such an immense waste of resources to take money that could have been spent refurbishing, reusing, and recycling an already existing structure and put it into a new one if your self-stated purpose is living sustainably. Most tiny housers desire a rural lifestyle, it’s true, but many of these old, abandoned dwellings are in the country. Within an hour of where I sit, there are at least a dozen beautiful vacant farmhouses with spectacular views and spectacular privacy, already hooked up to water and power – two of the largest expenses for tiny housers. And most of them are for sale. A rural home could be converted to solar power for a similar price as adding solar to a tiny house. And since they are real houses, the zoning issues many tiny housers have faced would be nonexistent. A person could have nearly everything they wanted from a tiny house without the hassle, by taking that same bundle of ready cash they’re considering blowing on that tiny house and putting it into an older home.
And as for city life, living in an apartment within walking distance of stores and jobs and entertainment is more sustainable by far than driving back and forth for many miles in all kinds of weather to do the most basic of things (this is a very real downside of living in the country that is more life-impacting, even oppressive, than many dreamers realize) You wouldn’t even have to own a car, let alone a gas-guzzling pickup capable of hauling a heavy trailer around. It would be totally sustainable, you’d leave a very light carbon footprint indeed. If you believe you could easily live in a tiny house, living in an apartment would be a piece of cake.
All this adds up to one unavoidable truth. The tiny house thing is not really about saving money. It isn’t about living sustainably or saving the planet. It is people doing a thing that they want to do because they think it’s cool. And that is awesome! It is awesome that people have a dream and pursue it. It’s awesome we live in a country that is free enough to allow people to chase their dreams. That’s what life is all about, you know? Enjoying it. We only get one life and if you want to live it in a tiny house on the back of a trailer, have at it. It’s that darn moral superiority that’s the issue. Nobody who has the kind of money it takes to get into a tiny house should ever, ever raise an eyebrow at the bemulleted dude wearing a tattered “Frampton Comes Alive” t-shirt, sitting on his trailer porch with a cold one in his hand when he probably should be sorting his recyclables. He’s doing the best he can to enjoy his life, he only gets one too. Yeah, he probably doesn’t love the planet as much as you but he very well may have a smaller carbon footprint.
Image by byzantiumbooks