By Jeeni Criscenzo
No question about it—being involved in a coalition to build a tiny village of tiny shelters for people who are without a place to live, is damn exciting! I can’t put my finger on exactly why this is taking over my brain activity—from waking up in the morning ready to get online and share ideas, to dreaming about it at night. Maybe it’s what someone at our community meeting last week said about it—tiny homes are sexy!
I can equate this to 1984 when I was part of the team at Linotype introducing the concept of desktop publishing to the world. And look how far we’ve come with that sexy idea! Thirty years from now, I’m certain the idea of tiny homes will no longer be sexy, it will just be what is.
Being a skeptic, I have considered the possibility that we are being lured into this “less is more” concept because as the wealth keeps draining upward into the fraction of the one percent, we are being conditioned to prefer having less and less of everything, including housing space. On the other hand, considering the devastation that the opposite attitude of unrelenting consumerism has had on our planet and possibly our future as a species, the lure of tiny homes could be one of hope—that people have seen the error of their ways. The day of the McMansion is over. People flaunting their participation in the destruction of Mother Earth will be ostracized and shamed.
I went to see two local tiny homes in El Cajon as part of the Tiny Home Enthusiasts Meet-up. The owners were both young and smart and as enthusiastic about their lifestyle choices as the Meet-up folks taking turns doing the 1-cent tours of their tiny abodes. Danielle answered questions with bubbly frankness. Why did she use a shed roof design rather than the typical A-frame? Well, because she couldn’t imagine having sex in the loft of the A-frame, she need more… ah… wiggle room!
It took Danielle a year to construct the house and cost close to $30,000. Danielle shares the 266 sq. ft space with her 11 year old daughter. It has a loft on each end with separate ladders and privacy ingeniously created with Ikea shelf units. She showed us her composting toilet and it smelled fine—or more accurately, it didn’t smell at all. The toilet uses fine wood shavings and coconut coir in a bucket to collect your outgoing stuff. It seemed to be an elegant and simple solution to a necessity absent to so many people without housing. Her home is connected to water and electricity from her landlord’s house, which wouldn’t be an option for most. She started with a fancy propane stove/oven but sold it in favor of hanging space to hang business clothes she needs for her job. She says that the double hot plate suits her cooking needs just fine. Even with the shed style roof, her home measures 13’ in height, just under the national limit of 13.5’.
Ryan and his fiancé showed us their tiny house that is still under construction. At 126 sq. ft., this home is considerably smaller and was designed and finished to look like a miniature Craftsman house. This home also makes use of two loft areas, albeit no mention was made of concerns about the low ceiling hampering their love life. When complete, this house will have a propane oven/stove, sink and shower and composting toilet, all for about $20,000.
What both of these homes have in common with the tiny shelters we are planning to build on our Homeless to Housed Tiny Village is a great deal of confusion and difficulty on where they can legally be parked. As these “sexy” new residences catch on, municipalities are scrambling to make adjustments to codes to either accommodate them or build barriers to prevent them from happening in their territory.
But like any idea whose time has come, tiny homes are going to happen. If not for ecological reasons, certainly for economic realities. While those who can still afford their 4,000 sq. ft. homes with triple garages may cringe at the thought of pruning their possession down to fit in a space less than 1/3 of their garage, the fact that their adult kids and their kids are unable to afford a home of their own might make the thought of a tiny home in the back yard sound like the answer to their prayers.
The concern that adding these residences to our suburban landscape might not look too pretty can be overcome with careful thought put into new codes. The City of Fresno just passed a zoning bylaw that bans variances but sets limits on maximum and minimum size and architectural design that may prove too cumbersome to meet in a housing revolution that’s still trying to determine what works. Going back to my desktop publishing analogy, it would be like setting a standard that desktop computers had to be a certain size. Just look at the variety of variations that have come about since that first 512K Macintosh. Some flourished and most were tried and improved in ways we couldn’t even imagine 30 years ago.
One variation of the tiny house is the tiny shelter that we plan to use for Homeless to Housed. These bare-bones shelters will not have running water and could have just enough electricity from a mini solar panel to light a LED fixture and run a fan. We would love to have a composting toilet in each unit to afford privacy and convenience and to save on the expense and unsavoriness of porta-potties, but something tells me the outcry from people who think this is the equivalent of a latrine might not be worth it.
We’re looking at a form of construction using molded I-wood that practically snaps together like Legos, but how this highly practical building process fits into building codes is unknown. Of course, the whole tiny shelter is a code nightmare and our only hope right now is that the site we are planning to build on falls within areas designated for Emergency Shelter and would not require a permit.
Even if a magician (or brilliant attorney) were to make all of the construction variables disappear, there is the whole question of how a tiny village should be “run”. We can look at several ongoing efforts throughout the country, including O M Village in Madison Wisconsin and Dignity Village in Portland Oregon that were examined in a recent MIT thesis, “Tiny House Villages for the Homeless: A Comparative Case Study,” by Cate Mingoya.
The Homeless to Housed coalition is discussing issues such as governance, financing and sanitation in addition to construction design and selection of our first residents. One possibility being considered is to use this first tiny village as an incubator, training the residents to be the seeds for new villages, where they can put their experience to work in organizing villages that meet the unique needs of veterans or families or people with mental challenges. It’s all in the discussion stages and that’s what’s really getting me excited. We are part of a housing revolution, and just like desktop publishing, this opportunity to shape the future and make life better for so many people is so damn sexy!