Friday, 28 June 2019

What should we ask about tiny homes - Part 2

Part 2 of 3 in a series looking at issues in the Tiny House movement. You can read Part 1 here.

Last week we looked at how the cost of Tiny Houses wasn't always as low as you'd think and how it didn't necessarily break the traditional mould of housing. This week we are going to take that a step further as we consider what makes a Tiny Home a Tiny Home. 

Tiny or merely small

look at the cost of Tiny Homes in terms of people who already live in low cost and often small accommodation, be it rented or owned. Why is it that Tiny Homes are celebrated, given YouTube channels and the prestige of capitalisation whilst simply living in a small home is not. Small houses are far from being unusual with a two bedroom terrace being around 164m^2 or less and the average apartment or flat being smaller still. Though not common in the UK, trailer homes and trailer parks are a ubiquitous feature of the US housing market and landscape. Trailers, similar to a static caravan for those in the UK, are around 148.5m^2 so clearly a small living space.

Photo taken from image shows a small but tidy kitchen viewed from the doorway. It is not much wider than the doorway.

Certainly there is no glamour in the UK to living in a small house, and certainly not when you are renting a back-to-back or a council flat in an impoverished area. Similarly, trailers and trailer parks in the US garner a lot of stigma, neatly summed up in the common insult “trailer trash” - people who dwell in trailers are often stereotyped as being rough, common and of low intelligence. Nothing like the praise, prestige and compliments given to those who live in a tiny home. Those who live in a house with a kitchen so small you can’t open a cupboard and the fridge at the same time (or indeed can’t even fit the fridge in the kitchen) tend to “make do” to struggle and to put up with these difficult spaces, where as those with Tiny House kitchens often marvel at the ingenuity, how little space they actually need and the easiness with which they can use the space. 

Tiny House living is often described in terms of comfort, ease, ingenuity and enjoyment of “the simple life”1, concepts which may not be familiar to those of us who live or who have lived in something which is simply considered “a small house”. Part of this difference in attitude is due to how Tiny Houses come to exist and the place they hold in our housing culture. Tiny Houses are deliberate and considered. They are self build projects wither entirely built by the people living in them or with a lot of input from the owners to the designers and manufacturers. Like other self build projects they are bespoke, tailored to the owners needs and can involve non-standard features that make use easier. They are also intentional in terms of a person’s desire to live in a Tiny House – they have chosen to downsize or live “more simply” or have lifestyles and needs that work with a Tiny Home. Compare this to a family or person who is forced into a small home due to economic and sociopolitical circumstances and may not have a lifestyle or personality that is well adapted to a small and ill-fitting space. It is far easier to live in a small space that meets your specific needs than it is attempting to adapt your needs to an existing and fixed design – especially when that design may have come about over a century earlier and without any idea what the needs of a 2019 family may be.

Photo shows a compact bespoke kitchen made out of natural wood with curved countertops. It has several windows and easy access. photo CCC Lindahouse
This is closely tied to the financial issues described earlier and therefore to issues of classism and social discrimination based on income, and in some cases to racism. The average Tiny Home dweller is not the same as the average person who lives in a merely small home. Exact figures on these demographics are very difficult to come by, it’s simply not something that is documented and there is no consensus on exactly what a small home is. In the US the demographics and tradition of trailer park residents suggest lower income people, those who would traditionally be considered lower or working class and, due to historic and systemic racial discrimination and town planning2 regulation, are likely to be of minority ethnicities3.

When espousing the right of people to be able to build and own their own homes, or to have access to not just affordable housing but also housing that is fit for purpose we need to be aware of who is able to access these new innovations and do our best to try and breakdown and overcome existing systemic persecution of those groups who have not been afforded the luxury of such housing including those on a low income and those from BAME communities. Part of this involves examining our existing attitudes toward those in small and low cost housing and how that compares to attitudes to Tiny Houses as well as doing what we can to ensure that our enthusiasm for Tiny Homes does not exclude the already excluded and perpetuate inequality.

Ready for the next instalment: read Part 3 here

1 for issues relating to the privilege of minimalism please refer to the Pratchet quote from Part 1 and consider how it is easy to get rid of possessions when you know you can afford to buy a new one should you need it).
2This excellent history of Suburbia from McMansion Hell blogger Kate Wagner gives some insight into mid century town planning in the US

3This wikipedia article on White Flight may shed some light.

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