For decades, the pinnacle of the American Dream was to own a sprawling house with acres of kitchen space, multiple guest rooms, and a pool shaped like a Fender Stratocaster. This is why many Millennials grew up watching MTV Cribs, and probably also why so much porn is filmed in mansions. But not long after the 2007 housing market crash, a different kind of real estate dream was born: chucking the expensive mortgage payments and downsizing to something simpler, easier to maintain, and above all, smaller.
The tiny house has been called a spiritual cousin of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, the ultimate “simple living” book and a fixture on high school reading lists in America. Starting around 2008, people inspired by that dream built the first wave of tiny houses: cute, exquisitely designed little dwellings that compressed the essentials of a home into a compact space rarely larger than 400 square feet. Their finished wood floors and paneling, recessed mood lighting, and kitchen counters with built-in dog beds made them a fixture on Instagram and in lifestyle magazines.
But today, tiny houses are more than a fad for people looking to trade in their suburban homes and city apartments for something smaller and quirkier. Across a handful of prohibitively expensive U.S. cities, tiny homes are being presented as an affordable housing solution, and in some places, as a way to house the homeless.
In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh’s Housing Innovation Lab (or iLab) is running a public interest campaign for a new build-it-yourself product called the “plugin house,” which homeowners can build in their backyards and rent to low-income tenants. Each plugin house is made of polyurethane panels that can be screwed together with a hex wrench, and costs roughly $50,000 to build. For that, you get a modest interior that’s spacious enough for a stove, a toilet and shower, a queen-size bed, and a desk. And if you’re a homeowner, building a plugin house in your backyard offers another benefit: the opportunity to be a landlord and generate rental income.
Designed by People’s Architecture Office principle and Harvard Graduate School of Design fellow James Shen, the plugin house was tested in China before its stateside debut. A video from the PAO website chronicles this test run. The Beijing unit belongs to a young woman referred to as “Mrs. Fan,” who grew up in an old courtyard house in Beijing; her parents have since relocated to an apartment, but retain ownership of the property. After tying the knot, Mrs. Fan thought long and hard about whether she really wanted to plump for an apartment that she could move into with her husband. The plugin house, which Mrs. Fan built with the help of its designers in her parents’ courtyard space, allowed her to renovate and happily remain in a place she loved — at a price she could afford.
Mrs. Fan’s story is a crucial part of PAO’s effort to take the plugin house overseas to cities like Boston. In order to sell the plugin house idea to the general public, Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab had Shen and a team of volunteers erect a 360-square-foot model plugin house in the middle of city hall plaza. When I arrived at the unit to take a look, it was bustling with visitors from the nearby financial district. The house itself was unfurnished, but artists had sketched images on the walls that depicted where either the landlord or the tenant could place certain objects: a shower, a bed, a washer and dryer, a vase of flowers. One wall was covered with photos of Mrs. Fan cooking and relaxing in her Beijing plugin house. Even with furniture in it, Mrs. Fan’s house was elegant in its white-walled minimalism: there were no piles of magazines, tupperware containers, or clothes to be seen. Standing in the Boston house — which contained no real bed, stove, or toilet — I could only imagine how claustrophobic I might feel if the house was actually filled with stuff.
James Shen isn’t the only young urban innovation designer proposing the tiny house as an affordable housing solution. In Austin, a company called ICON — which recently partnered with global housing nonprofit New Story — is taking a similar approach by producing 3D printed houses. To demonstrate that it’s possible to build a cheap, code-compliant tiny house in less than 24 hours, ICON and New Story unveiled their first single-story 3D printed house at this year’s South by Southwest. Soon, ICON’s Vulcan printer will head south, to begin building houses in Haiti, El Salvador, and Bolivia: not necessarily in the backyards of homeowners, but wherever housing for the poor can legally be built.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, a startup known as Dweller (founded by a former City of Portland housing official!) is helping homeowners build prefabricated tiny house rentals in their yards. Though not as easy to slap together as a plugin house or a 3D printed house, the Dweller units are scaled for minimalist living, just like the tiny houses many of us dream of, and the homeowners who build them pay nothing to Dweller up front on the condition that they rent the unit to tenants. (Dweller takes 70 percent of the rent, and the homeowner gets to keep 30 percent.)
But the most ambitious tiny house program happening in America right now is taking place in Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration has launched a pilot program that involves offering loans of $75,000 to homeowners who build backyard houses on their property and rent them to homeless city residents. (The program was kickstarted by a $100,000 “Mayor’s Challenge” grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies back in February.) While similar to the tiny house concept, the LA backyard houses aren’t bound to a single set of dimension requirements or a product like the plugin house. The rent is subsidized by low income vouchers from the city, with each tenant paying no more than 30% of their monthly income to the homeowner. After 10 years, the city forgives the loan to the landlord altogether, and the homeowner can keep renting their backyard house to low income tenants or turn it into an Airbnb rental.
The backyard tiny house approach is the newest evolution of something cities across America have been experimenting with for quite some time: Accessory Dwelling Units. Referred to as ADUs, these tight little living spaces are usually built in places like attics and garages. They allow homeowners to house a loved one for free, or rent a little piece of their house to a tenant. Since 2017, city officials in LA and Boston have been looking for ways to loosen zoning laws and promote ADU development, as affordable housing disappears from formerly working class neighborhoods like Boyle Heights and Jamaica Plain. Though the ADU itself is hardly a novel idea, the affordable backyard tiny house idea seems knowingly engineered to take advantage of the growing interest in tiny houses. For instance, it’s probably no coincidence that the words “smaller living” are featured in the subhead on the City of Boston’s Plugin House webpage.
But does the idea of living smaller really retain its sexiness when it’s applied to affordable housing? Remember, the tiny houses that you see in magazines spreads aren’t just tiny: they’re gorgeously elegant. Better yet, they’re transportable: you can put a tiny house in your backyard or you can take it to a starlit ridge in the Sierras for a weekend of glamping.
Tiny house ADUs like the plugin house offer plenty of simplicity, but they don’t offer much in the way of elegance or mobility. (A tiny house ADU would be hooked up to the local utilities and thereby immovable without modification.) And when you slice those two features out of the tiny house picture, the whole thing starts to stink. Literally. As Boston area writer and tiny apartment dweller Gene Tempest explained in a brutally honest New York Times piece last summer, the minimalist dimensions of a tiny house can exacerbate the wear and tear of your furniture and absorb the weeks-old odor of food that you cooked. These little indignities are things that people with modest incomes already experience in regular old apartments. But when you compress all of that into an even tighter space — not by choice, but out of economic necessity — the downsizing isn’t so much a lifestyle enhancement as it is a demotion.
Then there’s the matter of rent. As of this writing, Boston’s iLab is in the process of figuring out how the landlord-tenant relationship between plugin house builders and low income renters would work, along with whether or not the city will offer incentives like the construction loans that LA is extending to homeowners. “We are definitely open to exploring different options,” said iLab director Mary Ostberg, when I asked whether the City of Boston would take measures to ensure affordable rent for plugin house tenants. “With [Boston’s] current ADUs in basements and attics, that is up to the homeowner to make the decision about rent.” Ostberg also mentioned that Boston homeowners would not be limited to building only plugin houses in their backyard. “One important clarification is that we’ve been exploring backyard homes in general,” she said. “The plugin house is a great way for us to draw attention to that.”
The “30% of monthly income as rent” rule that LA has adopted for people who house homeless tenants offers some stability to low-income renters, and Boston could decide to take a similar approach. But for now, there’s nothing stopping homeowners from building tiny houses and then renting them at a market rate that’s too steep for low income residents. And according to Karen Chen — an affordable housing advocate and the Executive Director of Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association — this limits the potential of tiny houses and ADUs as affordable housing solutions.
“What we haven’t figured out yet is how to disincentivize speculation, when it comes to housing and land prices going up,” Chen says. “I’m not against ADUs, but they’re not a complete solution because, they don’t offer rent stability unless the city steps in. The only stable housing you really see in working class communities is public housing.”
Chen is quick to concede that plenty of people are still critical of public housing due to the idea that it concentrates poverty, and also because the waiting lists can become arduously long. “I don’t think it’s exclusively the fault of cities that we have such a shortage of public housing, since you need support at a state and even federal level to build it,” Chen says. “But at the same time, there’s nothing stopping cities like Boston from advocating for more public investment in housing projects.”
Chen’s comment spotlights the biggest problem with affordable tiny houses, and even the city-subsidized ones that LA is building: The concept, while well-intentioned and better than nothing, is a step towards privatizing something that should really be managed by the city. And that “something” isn’t just building little innovator-designed designed housing units that are affordable for low income residents. Ideally, these tiny house initiatives would be complimented by a renewed public conversation about building more social housing in major U.S. cities, expanding tenant’s rights, revisiting rent control, and at the end of the day, preventing real estate in neighborhoods from becoming so untenably expensive in the first place.
As the towers keep popping up in our neighborhoods, we should be seeing city leaders fighting harder for those on the brink of being pushed out. But instead, we can expect an increasingly rarified parade of “fixes” for the affordable housing crisis. If tiny houses in homeowners’ backyards are adapted as an affordable housing solution, this will further relieve city governments of strong-arming luxury apartment block developers into building more affordable housing, or even telling some of those developers to build their towers elsewhere (They won’t: Many cities would rather incentivize developers with tax breaks at the expense of residents who can’t afford the units they build or the proximal rent hikes these new constructions spark.) Because that’s what people with power tend to do when asked to pony up for something that addresses structural inequality: they offer rarified alternatives that reflect their interests.
Last year, when Tesla employees announced to Elon Musk that they were keen on joining the United Autoworkers Union, Musk panicked and immediately tried to dissuade his employees by making them a counter offer of free frozen yogurt and an in-house roller coaster. Today, low income Boston and LA residents are waiting for their cities’ best and brightest to build more affordable, rent-stabilized housing. The innovators are on it and cities are pre-emptively celebrating their ingenuity. But when all is said and done, the reality is that people who move into new living spaces will not be getting a tiny house, with its creative architectural fixtures and “back to the land” appeal — just a really small house.
To listen to an interview with Miles Howard and additional thoughts on the “tiny house” movement, listen above or through your favorite app below.