George and Mary Caley, a retired JCPenney manager living in a condo in Laguna Hills, California, had a proposal in 2014.
The couple had a passion for the popular reality show, Tiny House Nation, which featured people downsizing into 200-square-foot cottages.
Mary suggested to George that they move into a tiny house and free themselves from the burden of years of collecting possessions.
At first, George opposed the idea due to the couple having three sons and three granddaughters, and wanting a larger home for family gatherings.
However, Mary was suffering from breast cancer and was George’s great love, so the two decided to search for tiny houses in Colorado, where Mary could get medicinal cannabis for pain relief. Mary’s sister and her husband were also part of the plan.
One day, the group went for a drive along a picturesque road and ended up in the mountain village of Woodland Park, where they came across a nine-acre property on a wooded hillside, with some charming little cottages near the bottom.
The land was owned by two real estate developers, who wanted to turn it into a tiny-house village, but had not been able to find anyone to take it.
Pete LaBarre and his business partner Matt Fredell drove them up the hill, to the two lots with a view of Pikes Peak in the background.
The next spring, the couples leased the two lots, and Fredell bought two 399-square-foot houses, each for just over $70,000, and put in a white picket fence around their shared yard.
The houses were so close to each other, one sister could look into the other’s window and see what was on TV.
In 2013, LaBarre and Fredell purchased an old, disheveled hillside for $660,000, as it had been an old motel and RV park for the homeless and transient.
It had gotten negative attention in 2001 due to a group of escaped prisoners being found there, pretending to be missionaries.
After its foreclosure in 2009, it was neglected and left in ruins. LaBarre and Fredell cleaned it up, separated it into vacant RV lots, and renamed it Peak View Park in honor of Pikes Peak.
As the park had little attention, the two decided to rebrand it as a tiny house neighborhood; three models were ordered from a builder in Texas and put on the roadside. Shortly after, the Caleys drove by and stopped.
The houses of Mary and her sister were incredibly captivating, with their tasty exterior and natural environment.
LaBarre then began bringing people to take a peek. When he and Fredell went to the first Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs, they perceived some of the miniature houses on display that were selling for almost $100,000.
Consequently, as the night progressed, LaBarre and Fredell distributed brochures with a picture of a porch and the mountains in the background.
By the end of that year, two more tiny houses had been sold to people they’d encountered at the Jamboree. The subsequent year, they added thirteen more tiny homes; that number has now grown to over fifty.
At the age of sixty-four, LaBarre comes off as a friendly neighbor with a hippie-esque look that belies his love for the free market.
His family of seven resides in a 2,600-square-foot residence, and though he may not personally be a part of the small-home movement, he is still very supportive of it.
He was quoted saying, “I think this group of people has come to the realization that a home is significant, but it doesn’t determine who they are. It’s just one aspect of the hierarchy of needs.”
Ever since humans have looked for shelter, there have been modest homes, but the tiny house–which is usually described as a home with a surface area of 399 square feet or less, and is frequently constructed on a trailer–is often perceived as an intentional type of design.
The version of tiny living that is portrayed on television and seen on curated Instagram accounts usually show young, flannel-clad couples lounging in beautiful little dwellings.
This lifestyle includes camper vans, tree houses, sailboats, RVs and yurts, but the prime example of it is the tiny house.
If you reside in a trailer or a small apartment, it is assumed that you are impoverished; however, if you choose a tiny house, which costs roughly the same amount for a smaller area, you’re making a statement about how to live with moderation in an era of excess.
Despite the surge in attention, it is still difficult to find real-life tiny-house dwellers. Only an estimated 10,000 of these homes exist in the US.
The legal requirements of tiny homes can be a challenge, since most states require dwellings to be at least 400 square feet when built on a foundation.
As a result, builders have turned to constructing tiny homes on wheels and adhering to the regulations for recreational vehicles (RVs). However, many states and cities do not allow RVs to remain in one place for an extended period of time.
Additionally, when one purchases a tiny home, this does not include the land it needs to be placed on, so the buyer must either buy, use someone else’s for free, or find a landlord who will rent out land.
As LaBarre and Fredell were making their entrepreneurial venture, there was a huge difference between tiny living’s depiction on TV and its actual experience in real life. This was something they were not aware of, but it actually worked in their favor.
The land they were utilizing had been a full-time RV park for years, and LaBarre was able to make a case for the county ordinance to permit it, including for tiny houses.
In this way, they ended up being among the only ones involved in developing a tiny-living community, although they didn’t know what they were doing.
In 1999, Jay Shafer, the father of the modern small-house movement, created a 96-square foot cabin for himself while he was working as an adjunct art professor at the University of Iowa.
When asked about it, he stated that the idea was born out of financial constraints rather than a desire to achieve transcendence.
He further commented that he was attempting to appeal to the widest possible audience, noting that the term “affordable housing” has an undeservedly negative connotation.
Jay Shafer didn’t come up with the concept of small homes; he did, however, come up with a way to market them.
After constructing his own tiny house, he created the first tiny house company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which sold plans for people to build their own tiny homes.
In 2007, Shafer and one of his houses were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
During the episode, a shower stall was shown with Shafer demonstrating how small a bathroom can be, followed by a tour of the lofted bedroom and kitchen with a sink that was fed by an upside-down jug.
Oprah’s commentary mentioned how for Shafer, living small is about finding personal happiness, and then the camera focused on him brushing his teeth at the sink.
The Oprah episode sparked an explosion in tiny-house culture, prompting Shafer to travel along the West Coast, giving workshops while towing a tiny house. Magazines started featuring the houses and their ingenious space-saving tricks.
An article about a couple living in a 300-square-foot house piqued the interest of Jon Feld, the senior vice president of original programming and production for HGTV and the FYI Network.
After some research, he realized there was a huge movement and that they needed to get on board. Consequently, in 2014 the FYI Network launched Tiny House Nation, which followed people looking for their tiny dream homes.
Since then, Feld has also developed several other shows on the subject, such as Love Yurts, Tiny House Arrest, Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House Builders, Tiny Paradise, and Tiny Luxury.
However, these programs don’t delve into the difficulties of obtaining a loan, finding land, or connecting utilities, which are more complicated but less exciting to watch than reducing a shoe collection.
The prevalence of tiny houses on television and their scarcity in reality have created an illusion, according to Baudrillard, that the movement consists of privileged influencers who fail to recognize the reality of most people who are living in small dwellings due to economic hardship.
Consequently, in the past couple of years, there has been some degree of criticism towards tiny houses.
In a widely read BuzzFeed article, Doree Shafrir declared that “the tiny house movement has a built-in privilege to it, as going tiny is a conscious decision” instead of a necessity.
Notwithstanding, the majority of tiny-house occupants are not especially affluent.
While the poorest tend not to buy tiny homes–since acquiring any kind of house involves capital–tiny living is getting increasingly popular among a growing group of working-class Americans who may have owned a traditional abode a generation ago but whose financial statements or credit records have since made that option impossible.
Many of them are single women of a more advanced age.
The average cost of a home in the US is $220,000, of which most people pay for with a mortgage. Tiny homes, on the other hand, typically retail for $40,000 to $90,000 without land, and buyers usually pay in cash or get a property loan.
Jay Shafer, who initially popularized the trend of tiny-living, married, had two sons, and moved into a regular-sized house.
His tiny house was left in the backyard and used as a showroom and office. Unfortunately, he experienced difficult times, parting with his business partner, enduring an unpleasant divorce, and eventually becoming homeless.
He informed me that he was “living in a pigpen”–a shed shared with pigs in a friend’s salvage yard. Recently, nevertheless, he has been designing a new home, this time focusing on the affordable-housing market.
His goal is to design and sell a house for under $10,000, the shell of the house will cost a thousand dollars and the rest, including appliances, will add to the total. His latest project measures 50 square feet.
One day in the winter, LaBarre drove me up a curvy, Ponderosa-lined road. Houses at Peak View Park were scattered a few yards apart, like vehicles in a slanted parking lot.
The dwellings exhibited a variety of designs: a log cabin, a revamped shipping container, and Craftsman-style bungalows, yet all with a captivating simplicity.
A few of the homes had a view of the four-lane road that connected Colorado Springs to the ski resorts, with a Walmart across the way, and just beyond that, the beautiful Pikes Peak.
To rent a plot of this land for a month, most inhabitants paid anywhere from $500 to $600, including utilities, with the house not included.
The citizens of Peak View were a diverse group, ranging from bus drivers to bakers, retirees, and children. Courtney Cunard, a forty-year-old aesthetician, had always dreamed of owning a home, but was rejected for a mortgage.
She was living with family and friends until she found an alternative way to homeownership in Peak View. Her boyfriend had made custom furniture to fit the space, and her desk was even raised a foot and a half off the ground.
Anna Lawler, a retired office manager, moved to Peak View from Fontana with her fifteen-year-old granddaughter, Malissa, to avoid the drug and gang scene.
The staircase to her room was too narrow for a regular mattress, so they got one shipped in a box and hoisted it up from the living room.
Two years ago, Mary Caley, who had been acting as a kind of matron to the community, passed away. LaBarre and I went to visit George one morning.
He was a stout, bespectacled person who had a mischievous sense of humor–someone had lovingly called him “our little Ewok.”
He opened the door with a small canine jumping around him and a breathing tube hanging from his nostrils; he had just been released from the hospital after combating pneumonia, and he still looked pale and seemed to be short of breath.
We went into his living room, which, though compact, held a flat-screen TV, a dog bed, and two recliners. Everywhere we looked, there were items scattered about: lotions, medicines, remote controls, cards, and various plastic bags full of knick-knacks.
This past year had been particularly difficult for George, not only had he lost Mary, but he had also become estranged from her sister who lived in the same neighborhood.
However, he found a supportive network of neighbors who had moved in around the same time and called themselves First Street.
A couple of them had even organized a memorial service in honor of Mary at their fire pit and a lot of First Streeters attended. He had been contemplating relocating to Laguna Hills, but the community he had built with his new friends had made him feel at home.
George ultimately decided to keep Mary’s ashes in a round, pinkish-silver urn on a windowsill that overlooked Pikes Peak. “That way she can still enjoy the view,” he said.
The Bohatches, who were friends with George, resided in a 399-square-foot cabin-style house.
This family of four consisted of Julie, a stay-at-home mother and former Montessori teacher; her husband, Mike, a search engine optimization specialist; Brynn, their fifteen-year-old daughter; and Nova, their three-year-old granddaughter, whom they had adopted from an older daughter.
Four years ago, while watching tiny-living TV in their rented house in Michigan, Julie and Mike jokingly discussed buying a tiny house of their own.
In the end, the couple decided to move back to Colorado, the birthplace of Brynn and the setting of some of their most cherished memories.
Mike then mentioned a tiny-home park in Woodland Park.
Though Julie hesitated due to her king-size bed and their complex parenting situation, they decided to make the move since the majority of the families they had seen on TV were younger and smaller.
Mike was serious about the situation–their last experience as homeowners had not gone well. During the housing bust, they had to use their retirement savings in an effort to stay in their 3,000-square-foot house in Colorado Springs, but it was still foreclosed.
He said to Julie, “We could either put down three hundred thousand dollars on a home, or we could do it for under one hundred thousand dollars.
We wouldn’t have to be stuck in the same situation we were before, where we had to constantly worry about the mortgage payment for the next thirty years.” Julie had been dreaming of getting a log cabin. She began researching tiny houses that had a rustic look.
In the autumn of 2015, Mike and Julie visited Peak View.
It was not very picturesque–just a large, sloped expanse of reddish-brown terrain, with only two small dwellings, including the Caleys’–but LaBarre and Fredell articulated their intent to turn it into a residential area with handsome landscaping.
Julie chose a log-exterior house from a builder in Alabama, which cost her $87,000 plus an extra $8,000 for the shipment.
To prepare for the relocation, she cordoned off a one hundred square feet area within the living room in their Michigan residence and made everyone part with their things until all that was left, together with the four of them, fit inside the marked off space. The following June, the family packed up and moved.
Mike and Julie sleep in a lofted bedroom located on the upper level of their new house.
The main floor is occupied by their two daughters, Brynn and Nova, who share a room. Brynn has decorated the top half of the space with manga-style drawings, while Nova fills the bottom portion with stuffed animals.
To create a sense of privacy, the family has adapted to their small space. For example, when Nova needs a break, she sits on the stairs with her hands in her lap.
Additionally, Julie retreats to her loft, puts on headphones, and listens to meditation music when she wants some solitary time. Julie explains, “You just have to make your own room. Mentally, go to your happy place.”
Julie’s mother, Sandra, moved to Peak View last year. For years prior, she had lived in San Jose in a mobile-home community for those fifty-five and above.
She possessed a double-wide trailer, but her rent for the land underneath it kept getting higher–it had gone up to $1,000 a month–and the region was getting more dangerous; a neighbor she was familiar with had been murdered.
Under Julie’s persuasion, Sandra sold her trailer and used $74,000 in cash to purchase a house on a lot up the hill. While I was there, Sandra was staying at various locations on First Street while her utilities and insulation were being installed.
Julie cautioned Sandra to simplify her possessions. She proposed that Sandra should restrict her items to fifteen plastic containers; however, to Julie’s amazement, Sandra showed up with fifteen hundred.
“I’ll just be standing there shaking my head in disbelief when it comes to taking things out of storage,” Julie declared to her mother one day, while we were seated in her living room. Her face was full of mock disappointment.
At a national level, the rate of homeownership is the lowest it has been since 1965, and the main contributing factors are financial.
Prices of homes are too high, credit requirements are stringent, and young adults are weighed down with student loans. Despite this, Fannie Mae reports that 82% of renters aspire to own a home in the future.
Owning a home is still perceived as a path to success. A lot of the people I encountered who live in tiny houses had been renting before, and those who had come from owning a home had downsized for financial reasons.
Out of the different solutions, they chose tiny houses because they represent positive qualities such as freedom, individuality, and sustainability. “Mary didn’t like it when I called it a trailer”, George said.
“I told her that if there was a tornado, the frame would be the only thing left. She just didn’t want it to be called a trailer. She said, ‘It’s a tiny home.'” The tiny home has become a type of affordable housing that is also seen as a sign of prosperity.
It is one version of the American dream that appears to be attainable.
The tiny house movement may be a solution to the lack of affordable housing in the United States. To address the issue of homelessness, affordable-housing advocates in some cities have established tiny-house villages.
Cole Chandler, a leader of the effort in Denver, related how the city’s ban on “urban camping” had left those without homes unable to construct makeshift shelters.
He explained that the reason was that cities prioritize the generation of wealth over the social good, so indigent people lower surrounding property values.
However, the trendy nature of tiny houses allowed Chandler and his partners to spin the project positively and reduce their expenses. Builders donated materials, volunteers offered their time to build the homes, and a local nonprofit allowed the use of its land free of charge.
Developers have proposed that tiny-house neighborhoods such as Peak View could offer a more upscale version of trailer parks while at the same time attempting to address homelessness.
They believe that these dwellings are less likely to stir up negative sentiment than other forms of affordable housing.
As poverty has now spread to smaller cities and suburbs, traditional large apartment buildings may not be the best solution to the housing crisis; hence, tiny houses might be a more suitable alternative in those areas.
Several tiny-house communities have already been established in states including Florida, Texas, and California. For example, Spur, Texas, with a population of 1,318, proclaimed itself America’s first tiny-house-friendly town, offering to sell plots of land for $500 each.
Even New York City mayor Bill de Blasio touched on the potential of tiny houses in a housing plan debuting in 2017.
Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, who studies manufactured housing, mentioned that mobile homes are the biggest provider of affordable housing not subsidized by the government, but that many parks are being closed down and the residents are being evicted.
I questioned her if tiny houses could become a common form of affordable housing and perhaps fill in the void left by the shut-down mobile-home communities.
Sullivan was doubtful. She pointed out that mobile homes usually come in around 1,000 square feet, and are about the same price as a tiny house.
Rather than persuading people to opt for smaller living spaces due to their limited income, she said that we should eliminate the stigma surrounding mobile homes: “It is not just to ask those with a lower income to settle for living in a space that is below 800 square feet, when the rest of us have houses that are becoming much bigger in size every decade.”
George, Julie and Sandra, like many of the individuals they had observed on television, felt that they had made a freeing decision. They had no desire for renting an apartment; rather, they wished to own a place of their own.
The acquisition of these small houses had removed the financial worries associated with a bigger residence, as well as the stigma and apprehension that came with living in a trailer park.
Julie wanted to become a full-time mother, whereas Sandra appreciated the opportunity to take weekend getaways to the mountains without being concerned about the cost of fuel. By taking matters into their own hands, they felt powerful and even honorable.
The First Streeters were not waiting around for a world in which people earned enough money and housing was inexpensive enough to enable them to live in a house larger than 399 square feet without being anxious about their future.
On a certain afternoon, Sandra and I drove up the hill to see how the work was going on at her house; unfortunately, it was taking longer than she expected, and she feared it wouldn’t be done before the New Year. She was uneasy and frustrated.
When we reached the house, we observed the handyman readying to leave without having put in the insulation. He consoled her that she could still move in, saying, “You won’t die from the cold or anything.”
When people rent somebody else’s land, as they do at Pike View, they must rely on the landlords for certain maintenance tasks, such as LaBarre and Fredell’s rule that they are responsible for everything below the ground, while tenants are responsible for all the rest.
Additionally, the monthly rent can differ from a fixed-rate mortgage, as it can and likely will increase over time.
Furthermore, tiny houses do not offer the same benefits as real estate investments, as banks do not provide mortgages for them, requiring loan takers to pay a much higher interest rate.
Moreover, since tiny houses have no land, they have no property value and thus, as investments, they are more like cars than houses, since they depreciate in value.
For many, purchasing a home is not only about making money. It also symbolizes protection, autonomy, stability, and a sense of belonging.
Courtney Cunard, the aesthetician, shared her joy at being able to paint the walls any color she wanted; soon, she would marry her boyfriend–the one who crafted her wine shelf–and he would move to the park and purchase another small house, where his children could stay during visits.
Anna Lawler, the retiree raising her granddaughter, expressed relief at being free from having to live next to untrustworthy people.
April Drake, who lives with her partner, Michelle, down the street from the Hatches, sent a group text one evening.
She was preparing a meal and lighting their bonfire. By six, the regular group had congregated around the hot, hissing fire, munching popcorn.
They chatted about Sandra’s move, a vacation they had all gone on together, remodeling plans, political issues, and local gossip.
They saw themselves as an extended family. When George was ailing, they would each take turns stocking his refrigerator and, when Sandra was waiting for her house to be made ready, they would offer her a place to stay.
During the past month, the neighbors had formed an informal neighborhood association to approach LaBarre and Fredell with collective troubles. After the bonfire had sparked and started to die, April and Michelle welcomed me to see their home.
Even though it was small, it was cozy: the temperature was up, the soup was heating on the stove, and the couch was inviting.
“Considering all that is happening in the world,” Michelle commented–earlier, they had all been expressing their disappointment in Trump–“we are truly fortunate here.”
In October, LaBarre informed me that, after their success in Peak View, they had plans to start a new construction project nearby.
They would build 500-square-foot homes and label them as “small houses”, with a price tag of $115,000, including the land. Although some of the original residents of Peak View had to relocate due to personal reasons, George, Julie, and Sandra were still there.
Jay Shafer, the creator of the tiny house movement, ended up investing $5,000 in his fifty-square-foot house, and labeled it as “much cleaner than the pigpen”.
The competition for the market he started is getting higher as Clayton and Cavco, two of the largest manufacturers of manufactured homes, launched a tiny house line.
The Clayton Saltbox, which is 452 square feet, sells for $130,000 and includes quartz countertops and 9.5-foot-high ceilings.
Additionally, an RV dealer recently acquired a majority stake in Tumbleweed, the company Jay Shafer founded.
Despite the high-profile popularity of the tiny house trend, it’s uncertain whether or not it will become an accessible form of housing.
The highest revenue streams for tiny houses appear to come from resorts and wealthy customers who purchase them as guest cottages or second dwellings.
Evidently, those seeking a brief respite from a larger lifestyle find living tiny the most alluring option.
My spouse and I took a journey to WeeCasa in Lyons, Colorado last winter. This destination is known as the “world’s largest tiny house resort.”
After we moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, we purchased a house on a quarter-acre lot that was about 2,500 square feet.
We were curious to see if living in a much smaller space could work for us, so we booked two nights in the Boulder, which was 135-square-feet and had a couch made from a recycled door.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, the resort was in a state of distress due to freezing temperatures, which had caused pipes to freeze beneath the houses, including our reservation.
We were shown some other accommodation options through the WeeCasa website and I inquired about a 240-square-footer with a full-size refrigerator and a bathtub.
The employee responded with “Oh, this one’s toast. I watched the hot water heater explode before my eyes.”
He appeared unfazed; small houses are prone to regular malfunctions. As they are often built on wheels and lack an insulated undercarriage, the pipes are at risk of freezing unless the houses are encased in skirting.
(Most of the abodes at Peak View have this protection.)
My husband and I stayed in one of the basic lodgings, a small dwelling with walls of pine, a feeble heater, a single hot plate, a mini-fridge, and so little storage space that the dishes were kept beside the trash can beneath the sink.
The only way to go from one side of the living room to the other was to crawl over the bed; we figured we could prop the bed up against the wall, but then there would be nowhere to sit.
That night, my spouse was on the ladder that led to the second loft bed – there was no room to stand anywhere else – and mumbled, in a quiet, dull tone, “This is our holiday.”
We hadn’t taken into consideration how troublesome a house this size could be on a physical level: all these ladder-climbing, bending and intertwining of limbs just to get through a few hours without any twists.
However, the following morning, WeeCasa upgraded us to a larger unit, including a functioning heater, a tiny couch and a more practical kitchen.
We sat at the dining counter with takeaway burritos; we all squeezed onto the couch, side-by-side, with our magazines; we snuggled into bed with Better Call Saul. It all seemed quite pleasant and cozy.
But then, there was much we were able to bypass, as well, during a two-night stay: cooking, washing clothes, chasing our toddler. “Look, we wouldn’t have any trouble living like this,” my husband said in the morning, and then, since we could, we went back home.
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