Friday, 21 June 2019

What should we ask about Tiny Homes - Part 1

Recently I’ve become somewhat obsessed by Tiny Homes and the Tiny Homes Movement and it’s got me thinking over some issues and asking a few questions.

First of all what are Tiny Homes and how is it a movement?

Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like, very small compact homes often under 37m^2 and generally made as temporary buildings or to be mobile.

The definition often includes converted vans and vehicles such as buses but crucially doesn’t include traditional commercial RVs, camper vans or caravans. The reason for that distinction is something I’ll get into later.

The Tiny House Movement is a term for the online and often international communities created to talk about and share ideas relating to tiny homes. There isn’t one firm fixed ethos or manifesto but shared goals and beliefs usually include some take on minimising footprint, being eco-friendly, downsizing, minimalism, and being rent or mortgage free as well as personal freedom. However the motivations for people deciding to live in a tiny home are as varied as the people who chose to do it. From retirees to hippies, young professionals to families, travellers (please note the lower case t here) to people looking to settle down: many people are drawn to the idea of tiny house living.

There are a multitude of websites forums, Facebook groups and YouTube videos dedicated to exploring the tiny home movement and tiny homes themselves. So if you would like to fall down that particular wormhole you won’t have to look hard.

There are many things I enjoy about tiny houses and the movement, I wouldn’t have fallen down the rabbit hole otherwise. The two big appeals for me are firstly that there is a lot of opportunity for being environmentally friendly and conscious and secondly that it provides an option outside of the standard model of the capitalist housing and rental economy. Additionally the opportunity for highly personalised customised spaces is very appealing: who doesn’t want to live in a bespoke crafted house?

Image shows a small home on a trailer clad in grey panels. It has a teal green door and wooden set of external steps. From Reeds Road Home Design

The Housing Ladder Alternative

It’s the alternative to the prevailing housing market aspect that I want to tackle first, though. 

Undeniably for many people, the majority I would say in fact including those who are home owners, the current model for housing in the UK and other Western capitalist countries is difficult, expensive, and not fit for purpose. We devote a huge portion of our earnings to either paying a mortgage or rent. The cost of housing has shot up over the decades making living in some areas only accessible to the very wealthy unless you are willing to live in cramped squalor. Though they are slowly and not without a fight being improved, laws surrounding rental accommodation have long been in the favour of the landlords leaving renters in often precarious living situations and dealing with high rent and often very poor housing including damp, mould, structural safety issues, fire hazards and poor security. Though renting is seen as the norm and a perfectly reasonable living option in many countries, in the UK at least it is often treated as inferior to home ownership. Home ownership is seen as the goal and a sign of being a “responsible adult” however the cost of buying is now so high that many younger people (and for this article that’s pretty much anybody under 35) are unable to get onto the housing ladder without incurring significant debt or being fortunate enough to use equity from their parent’s home.

When finding somewhere safe comfortable, practical and above all affordable to live is so difficult it is no surprise that people start turning to alternatives and for them Tiny Homes may be the ideal solution. Now we get to the crux of the issue: Tiny Homes as a solution to high rents and a hostile housing market. But why is that a problem? Surely that’s to be celebrated and encouraged. I see it as only short term solution to a much larger problem and one that allows people to think we are addressing the housing crisis when all we are doing is affixing a sticking plaster.

Tiny houses are undoubtedly a good solution for individuals but they are not a solution to overcrowding and high costs of living. Tiny living spaces have been a feature of capitalist housing for centuries and while they do undoubtedly provide shelter for those in need (and who can pay) they don’t bring about any end to a hostile housing environment. Tiny Houses have the advantage that they are individually owned and therefore not contributing to (or minimally at least) the housing market. The issue of course is in this individuality that, with the exception of those who live in planned communities, the benefit of this new way of living is restricted to a few and doesn’t lead to systemic change. If anything it can serve to uphold the current system as those in power are able to point to those who “survive” in such tiny dwellings whilst continuing to pay rent or fees to management companies. It’s worth noting that blame for this shouldn’t be placed on the individual tenants who are simply doing the best they can.

It could be argued that those turning to Tiny Houses are undermining the traditional housing market, but it simply isn’t being done on a scale that has any real impact on the status quo. Instead of it being a solution that benefits many, it is the preserve of a few.

This leads nicely into my next point. As I said, Tiny Home owners often cite reducing housing costs or getting out of expensive housing markets as core motivations, and it’s indeed true that Tiny House living is often significantly cheaper than even small homes in the traditional housing market. However that doesn’t necessarily make them affordable. Some of you may be familiar with the “Sam Vimes “Boot” Theory of Economics” from author Terry Pratchett.

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

In the Tiny House movement it’s not to say that Tiny House owners are necessarily rich or wealthy, but like the person who can afford to pay for the good fifty dollar boots and have them last a lifetime, the Tiny Home owner has the money to invest in their new low cost living arrangement.

There are of course exceptions, but for the most part, Tiny Homes require you to be rich in either time or money, if not both. While £16,000 may be a tiny amount to pay to own your own home outright, it’s still a substantial amount of money for a person to have. Those built for that little often also rely on the ability of the home owner to dedicate time and effort to do much of the work themselves – a fully built Tiny House will cost upwards from £25000 in the UK. Less than a mortgage deposit perhaps but still not a small amount and one that many won’t have sitting in their banks. 

Additionally, whether going self built or pre-fab you need to have somewhere to live while it’s being made and before it’s on site, costing you rent or mortgage payments. Essentially you have to be able to afford standard housing before you can go Tiny. Then there are costs like having a suitable vehicle to tow with if you go for a mobile model, or the cost of transport for larger or shipping container style homes. You also need to consider location. You may be lucky and have access to rent free land but for most there will be some sort of land purchase or rental cost or weekly hire rates. 

Now think about the type of people who would really benefit from Tiny Houses: those who are low income and struggle with the traditional housing market: single parents, people who are unemployed, those who are currently homeless, disabled people and other low income groups. These are the people who are most negatively impacted by the high cost of living in many areas and who would benefit from genuine alternatives to the traditional housing market. They are also the same people who are least likely to be able to afford the initial costs of a Tiny House. If they don’t already have savings they may be able to get a loan, but only if a bank approves them and if they have a steady income that can take on the repayments. Paying back a loan while also paying for accommodation while your house is being built might be too steep for many and those who work full time just to afford that probably can’t afford the time off needed to self build, or they have other limitations such as disability or carer duties to restrict their ability to self build.

When these factors are considered we can see that while Tiny Homes are a low cost housing solution they are not necessarily affordable or accessible to those who are struggling with the traditional housing market.

This is Part One in a series of three on Tiny Homes. Read Part Two here. 

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1 comment:

Yehudi said...

You made a very good point about affordability. I am a lifelong tenant, I do not have a deposit (I used to, but went through too many housemoves). I can see how tiny houses would be ideal for people who own their house outright or have a lot of equity in it, and are looking to downsize. The capital that is freed is more than enough to buy a tiny house, and the balance can go towards helping children on the property ladder, or even buying a BTL property... so as to have a source of income in retirement!
For people like me however, even the £25K for the very smallest tiny homes could only be funded thanks to a bank loan... and there would still remain the question of where to put the tiny home (land planning...) and of how to keep a residential address (as I don't have any parents or children or relatives or friends whose address I could use... especially for a bank loan, or credit card debt!)
On the other hand, if councils were to put up settlements of tiny homes, for rent, it would save them housing benefits etc. in the long run. I can see the homes filling up rapidly though... and the BTL landlords would be real unhappy!