Over the past decade the tiny house movement has boomed, most notably during the pandemic as people looked for alternative ways to social distance by building accessory dwelling units or offices in their backyards or escaping the city altogether as work from home allowed geographic flexibility.
My tiny home journey started after the last economic recession of 2008. However, unlike many people who build tiny homes, I didn’t build mine to live tiny or to social distance but to build a community and challenge the nature of “ownership” in our society. Having grown up moving every couple of years, the idea of a 30-year mortgage was not something I ever considered practical. I also couldn’t understand why land and home were treated as commodities in this country, things from which to make money, rather than as living resources you steward and create with others.
When I started my journey building a tiny home community on a vacant alley lot in the nation’s capital, not many people knew what tiny homes were and why anyone would want to live in a small space on wheels. Fast forward a decade, and there are multiple TV shows on tiny homes, glossy magazine spreads, and celebrities buying them. I no longer need to explain what tiny homes are, yet they also don’t seem to hold the same promise as an affordable housing option like they used to.
Photo of tiny houses in Washington D.C., 2012, taken by Jay Austin
Homes in Backyards
“Just add land” is the slogan for Jupe, a new venture-capital backed tiny house company. More a luxury glamping tent than a tiny house, their marketing mentions putting Jupe in outer space and in the ocean and housing 1 billion people. But it’s difficult to imagine Jupe being an attainable housing solution for the masses when access to land is the main stumbling block for anyone wanting to live tiny.
New technology is needed in housing, but initiatives that rely on venture capital are unlikely to be the ones to radically shift the status quo since they are still fully within the current economic model that treats housing as a commodity. Although it’s too soon to tell, I hope this effort turns out to be different than past venture-capital housing models.
As investors look to profit off this “new” tiny house trend, many initiatives like Jupe are popping up, and not all of them are solely about profit. There are also initiatives like The Block Project in Seattle which seek to involve the community in housing solutions. The Block project pairs homeowners who are willing to offer up backyard space with a person who has been houseless and is ready for their own home.
This is not a model based on AirBnB where those who own property seek to extract maximum profit from short-term renters. This model asks both parties (the backyard resident and the main homeowner) to make a long-term commitment, and the property owner who offers the backyard space does not profit financially but instead socially and communally. And that’s a more sustainable housing model for times like these.
Curious about which cities are allowing tiny homes in backyards and where you might be able to place one?
The Pandemic and New/Old Ways of Living
The pandemic gave us all a chance to see the deep cracks in our current systems and communities and ask ourselves: is this how I want to be living the next time another one comes? And the answer for most was no.
As people started reassessing their lives these past two years, many reached out to me. It seemed everyone wanted to start communities. They were looking for land. They were wondering how to build a tiny home community or where they could find a community to move their tiny home. They wanted to know how to develop property with little investment in infrastructure and how to build things for themselves.
And they asked me to share...about home and what that means in these changing times, about the various places I’ve lived and the communities I’ve stayed in, about the wisdom of people I’ve worked with1, and about my own journey finding home for myself, a quest that has led me to the past.
According to the semi-nomadic Sami from the Arctic, Baiki roughly translates to mean “the home that lives in one's heart as one travels from place to place.” My paternal family comes from Sapmi (Finnish Lapland), and while it may sound similar to the cliche “home is where the heart is,” Baiki also means cultural survival of the Sami. It is imperative that we don’t just design home and communities for the future without learning from the past, from those who’ve come before us, and from the original stewards of the land. For me that means remembering our ability to move with the seasons, live lightly on the land, and repurpose everything. As I read more about how those in the Arctic used to build and remember my grandfather’s projects, I realize how much of that cultural ethos informed my tiny house journey.
Azure Magazine’s Interview with Joar Nango about his project Girjegumpi, (also known as the Sámi Architectural Library) https://www.azuremagazine.com/article/space-in-itself-is-a-language-a-conversation-with-joar-nango/
Luckily I no longer have to explain what tiny homes are; however, I do find myself having to explain why our current models of “home ownership” aren’t sustainable for the climate crisis we are in. Even though many of our ancestors knew more resilient ways of living, I’m often labeled as naïve for believing there are other models that would serve us better in these times. So, if you’re also naive enough to think we can live differently, I invite you to follow along and share this series.
Through these dispatches, I’ll be exploring topics around home and community, delving into what we can learn from past generations, and sharing about the new models that many have begun envisioning, designing, and building. And, if you’re one of the ones who is out there building, please reach out. There is a small group of us designing a platform to share knowledge, and we’d love to have you join us!
Thank you for traveling alongside me on this journey,