In 2008, as the full weight of the global economic collapse came to bear on American consumers there was a brief period of sanity: average house sizes bucked the trend and began to decline. Since the early 1980s, average detached homes had grown by about 50%. After the economic crisis, the average size settled back about 10%.
But don’t worry, that short blip was quickly forgotten as America once again lost its mind. You can see the sharp uptick in home size at the right side of the graph below.
In case you haven’t noticed, family sizes have not increased by 50% to 67% over this timeframe. On the contrary, they have actually decreased. There are less and less people rattling around bigger and bigger houses that consume vast resources and sprawl into the suburban wasteland. In keeping up with the Joneses, homeowners gain the privilege of greater levels of loneliness, disconnection, and stress from the high mortgage payment that comes with the American dream.
There is a relatively tiny countermovement that has proceeded in fits and starts over the past fifty years. One of the bibles of the “smaller but better” movement – Sarah Susanka’s “The Not So Big House” offered some great inspiration. However, her suggestion to consider dropping your 6000 square foot house plans for a 3000 square foot home of higher quality and more efficient design might leave you questioning what “not so big” means.
I recently attended TinyFest in San Diego where a full range of mostly mobile and truly tiny homes (under the commonly accepted limit of 400 square feet) was on display. There were converted school buses and cargo vans, and even a trailer mounted box that a young fellow built for about $1000 to hold his essentials: A/C unit, bed, flatscreen TV, and X-Box. There were also more elaborate homes and modular designs that cost closer to $100 000.
Dan Fitzpatrick of the American Tiny Home Industry Association spoke about the process to legalize tiny homes, with emphasis on California. As he pointed out, tiny homes aren’t a new thing – they used to be called “homes”. Growing up in the 1950s, Fitzpatrick said his bedroom was what one might call a walk-in closet today, and a family of five shared one bathroom. Oh the deprivation!
Some other interesting facts from his presentation:
- single female baby boomers are the number one buyers of tiny homes
- tiny homes as “Accessory Dwelling Units” are gaining traction in markets like San Diego where to create a low-income housing unit, the city has to give the developer $350 000 in order to keep rents affordable.
- in San Francisco the subsidy is closer to $550 000 per unit
- a tiny home can be placed in a serviced city lot for $80 000 to $100 000 with no subsidy and even low-income rents can be very profitable for the owner
Fitzpatrick’s presentation was standing room only and attendees scribbled furiously on notepads as he spoke. Thousands of attendees jostled to get into the demo homes. There is clearly a growing appetite for this tiny version of the American Dream.
As I walked back to the lush, tropical neighbourhood that surrounded the tiny home I had rented for the weekend (though only 250 square feet in size it rents for about $6000 per month in peak season), I could see why people wanted to stay in San Diego and were investigating new ways to make it possible.
However, the beauty of this seaside paradise is a mirage. Twenty percent of San Diego’s water comes from local aquifers or plants that convert sea water to drinking water. Eighty percent is imported, from the overcommitted Colorado River and Northern California. The Northern California water is piped over the Tehachapi Mountains, with a vertical lift of about 2000 feet (one of the biggest lifts in the world – taking an amount of electricity that could run a small city).
Using tiny homes to fill in and densify may help keep families closer together and keep people with low incomes off the street, but the spectre of limited resources, especially water, still looms large.
The belief in a divine right to persist in a particular place is so common we forget that most of us are relatively recent transplants in our communities. Our families escaped from the persistent social problems of their day, often related to resource depletion. In a world of almost eight billion humans, we can pack up our tiny homes and head for greener fields – but where will we find them?
PS: If you want to see the Caring Curmudgeon’s favourite tiny home check out the “Waterhaus” by GreenPod development.