Step into an alleyway in the Northeast Washington, D.C., neighborhood known as Stronghold, and you will see a vegetable patch, a campfire, a view of the Capitol and a cluster of what neighbors call “those tiny people, building their tiny houses.”
The people aren’t really tiny, but their homes are: 150 to 200 square feet of living space, some with gabled roofs, others with bright cedar walls, compact bathrooms and cozy sleeping lofts that add up to living spaces that are smaller than the walk-in closets in a suburban McMansion.
These affordable homes — which maximize every inch of interior space and look a little like well-constructed playhouses — represent a radically fresh version of what it takes to make Americans happy.
Tiny homes first drew national attention when the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., now based in Santa Rosa, Calif., launched the concept in 2000.
The idea gained visibility when it was featured in several national magazines and, in 2007, became the focus of the Tiny House Blog, established by Kent Griswold, a self-proclaimed “lover of tiny spaces.”
The small homes, some on wheels, don’t warrant many trips to the Container Store.
There are no kitchen islands, three-car garages or living rooms that are never lived in. In fact, their increasing popularity could be seen as a denunciation of conspicuous consumption and a rejection of the idea that more is, well, more.
Although the diminutive homes are made of high-quality materials, they are priced for a flagging economy. They sell for $20,000 to $50,000, less than the down payment on a two-bedroom condo in a trendy neighborhood.
“They’re a statement that no one needs to be trapped in a mortgage they can’t afford in a house that’s too big for them anyway,” said Amy Lynch, a consultant with BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis-based company that studies generational trends.
Lynch says tiny houses signal the end of America’s love affair with enormous homes.
“The baby boomers raised their children,” Lynch said. “Now, they’re looking at all this stuff they have and thinking, ‘What has meaning for me now?’ Plus, these tiny houses are small enough that you can clean — actually clean them!”
From 1950 to 2000, the size of the average American house increased by 230 percent, but home sizes have been declining since 2007, according to “The Small Spaces Trend,” a March 2011 report by the Atlanta-based marketing firm Kleber and Associates.
It’s hard to say how many tiny houses have been built nationally, but Jay Shafer, founder of the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., says he sold more than 1,500 sets of plans. Shafer’s self-published “Small House Book” has sold steadily since it came out four years ago. (Shafer sold Tumbleweed in September and started the Four Lights Tiny House Co., headquartered in Graton, Calif.)
During his first five years, Shafer said, he sold 10 sets of plans per year. But tiny houses’ popularity took off after the housing bust and economic downturn in 2008. “Americans still like our stuff big and cheap, so a 100-square-foot house is not for everyone or big families. But people in tiny homes save a ton of money on heating and AC,” Shafer said.
Despite the fact that tiny houses are, well, tiny, affordable-housing advocates are researching the possibility that attractive micro homes could one day complement or replace stigmatized trailer parks and low-income housing.
There are no micro loans for micro houses, because most tiny homes don’t qualify for mortgages. Some banks do commonly offer personal, unsecured lines of credit, and some tiny-home owners get significant lines of credit from places such as Home Depot.
“I like the concept, and I’m intrigued. But it’s so small that it’s only good for a single person or a very-much-in-love couple,” said George Rothman, president of Manna, a nonprofit affordable-housing builder and developer.
“There’s also the issue of land and zoning, and those are huge issues.”