Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Tiny Houses: A Salve for Tomorrow's Housing Shortages?

By Jan Lee

Let's face it: Tiny houses are cute. For many of us, they may seem reminiscent of that secret tree house or play home that Dad tucked away at the back of the property, a place where everything seemed simple, comfortable and above all, was yours.

These days, they are more than endearing memories. In many cities they offer answers for complex problems, from housing options for homeless families in high-rent or low-availability areas, to quick, do-it-yourself residences for on-the-move couples who want the flexibility of keeping their environmental footprint small and their expenses light.

And the tiny home concept doesn't fit  every housing code. Many municipalities have struggled to set clear, fair guidelines for putting a teeny house on a city lot:

  • The city of Fresno, the first  in California to amend its codes to allow for tiny houses allows the structure to be on wheels. Some areas in the county have stricter requirements.

  • Walsenburg Colo. will permit a house if it is on a permanent foundation, which of course, ups the cost of that tiny living space (and decreases the chance of a temporary structure)

  • While some cities prefer to draw lines between the definition of an RV (recreational vehicle) and a tiny home for permitting purposes, others make less fuss about the distinction. And in some RV parks, a tiny home is an accepted "recreational" domicile, opening the opportunity to residents renting long-term.

  • Some cities have realized that small can be not only elegant but a true money-maker. In a growing number of states around the U.S. tiny home communities offer the chic answer to minimalist living and going green at the same time.

  • And then there are cities that, well, haven't quite caught on to the idea of a do-it-yourself mini pad that limits both footprint and cost. The city of Vancouver, BC Canada recently charged a landlord with bylaw violations for renting to a couple with a tiny home. It's a surprising turn of events for a city best known for its postage-stamp apartment dwellings and its burgeoning housing problem.

In the decade or so of living in tiny environments (first on small vessels off shore and later in RVs), my husband and I have come to appreciate a few truisms about the less-than-300 square-feet lifestyle.

The most important is, it's not for everyone.

Living small is a state of mind, much like living green. As Gene Tempest points out about a 492 square-foot apartment, you learn patience with your environment. A lot of patience.

It demands  boundaries far stricter than permitting restrictions imposed by city codes. That extra box of books may find its home on your one laundry/storage shelf, but the second box of expensive dinnerware becomes extraneous or relegated to the storage unit 20 miles away. Grocery shopping is defined by space as well. You may really want that family size bag of chips but where do you put it?

You become schooled in green living 101 instantly. Reuse makes sense. Allocating space for recycling is a cumbersome challenge. Minimizing water usage becomes a functional necessity.

And as two researchers currently investigating tiny house communities point out, there's not just environmental benefits to downsizing your living environment, but health benefits as well. Kansas State University researchers, Brandon Irwin and Julia Day believe that there may be an argument for promoting the social benefits of tiny home communities in today's ever crowded cities. Irwin is an assistant professor in kinesiology and Day is an assistant professor in interior design.

"We think [living in tiny home villages] does a few things for one's health," said Irwin, "including creating a better sense of community, satisfying people's basic needs for relationships, offering affordable housing options and encouraging physical activity through community gardens and walking to urban establishments."

Will minimalist living really become a fad? It's hard to imagine. But cities are already feeling the pressure to address the needs of residents willing to settle for a smaller footprint, a tinier floor plan and the peace of mind of an even smaller cost of city living.


Flickr images: Nicolas Bullosa; MIKI Yoshihito; Nicolas Bullosa

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee