Small Is Better: Downsizing Houses
The subprime mortgage crisis that erupted in 2008, and resulted in nearly a million foreclosures by October 2009, is far from over. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that, after a nine-month high in home foreclosures in November, another surge will come in 2012, in which many homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages will have their homes taken by banks or creditors.
The Occupy movement has refocused Americans’ attention to the severity of the subprime mortgage crisis and its deleterious impact on the national economy. Protesters at Occupy rallies are seen holding signs saying, “I will never own a home,” referring to the impossibility of taking on such a massive debt load in a context of job scarcity. Recently, during the December 6th Occupy Homes action, protesters around the country marched through neighborhoods with high levels of foreclosure, and in a few cases, helped homeless families occupy abandoned, foreclosed home.
The assumption that people should aim to live in large, spacious homes is almost built into the middle-class American imagination. But many Americans who are part of a growing “tiny house” movement have realized that these homes can be debtors’ prisons—and, furthermore, that their size results in a materialistic lifestyle. More space to fill equals more furniture to buy, and makes it easier to accumulate possessions over time, the residents of tiny houses reason.
Jay Schaefer, owner of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, built the first contemporary tiny house in Iowa, in 1999. Tiny houses are simple abodes ranging between 100 and 130 square feet. They stand on trailer platforms and are not entirely legal, so owners typically move them around or share property with friends. Some of them cost as few as a couple hundred dollars, while others cost as much as $23,000; the cost of the house goes up significantly if Tumbleweed does the construction rather than the habitant.
Seven years ago, Washington state resident Dee Williams had been working as a hazardous waste inspector with the Washington state Department of Ecology. She would visit businesses that produce or repair electronics and machines to ensure they were safely managing their hazardous wastes.
“I began seeing how stuff is made and the wastes associated with production,” she told Dowser. “As a consumer, I’m part of that cycle.”
At the time, Williams was living in a three-bedroom bungalow that she paid a $1200 monthly mortgage on. She sold the house, and built a tiny house that she ordered unassembled through Tumbleweed. Williams erected the house in the backyard of a friend’s home.
The tiny house has a bathroom, a kitchen, a living room, and a loft space where Williams sleeps. There is no running water, so Williams has installed a composting toilet, and uses her friend’s shower and tap. She has devised a system using jugs of water for washing dishes.
It cost Williams $10,000 in total to build the tiny house, which she shares with her dog. One-fourth of that was for solar panels, which power all Williams’ personal electronics—such as her laptop and DVD player—as well as light fixtures and lamps. Utility bills come out to about $8 per month, for propane to heat the home and fire up the cookstove.
For Williams, one of the main perks of living in a tiny house is its reduced environmental footprint. Another thing Williams loves about her unconventional home is that it forces her to rely on public services in her community—thereby bringing her out of her domestic shell and fostering relationships with her neighbors. Williams relies on the local public library and food co-op since her tiny home doesn’t allow space for owning many books or gardening. She lives in literal symbiosis with her friends, who allow her to park on their property and use their water on a daily basis.
Tiny houses may not be practical for everyone—particularly families. Even Schaefer moved out of his tiny house and into a standard one when he and his wife had a child. But for individuals or couples who don’t mind sharing close quarters, it’s an option that can reduce the environmental impact of living and avert the mortgage lending system.