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Lessons Learned From the Tiny House Movement

Photograph Source: Ben Chun – CC BY 2.0

What is the most surprising thing I’ve learned about the tiny house movement? My answer might surprise folks who get a daily dose of tiny houses through social media and reality television.

These representations often convey aspects of the movement that are individualistic, such as people building a house by themselves or hankering to live off grid in the middle of the woods. Such stories are consistent with neoliberal ideals of self-sufficiency and isolating oneself from the larger world.

While these may be some people’s experiences with tiny house building and living, they are not the only, or the most important ones. Instead, what I’ve learned from tiny house residents, builders, advocates and leaders, as well as trying out tiny house living with my family, is that what really matters is what a tiny house can help facilitate.

On an individual level, that can mean downsizing (moving from a larger space to a much smaller one), debt reduction, increased savings, downshifting (the ability to work fewer hours in unfulfilling work in order to take part in meaningful work and activities), and creating meaning outside of shopping and consuming.  But, on a more collective and structure-challenging level, tiny houses can champion community-building, counter poverty and housing insecurity, and even offer a challenge to capitalist industries that threaten peoples communities and way of life.

Community building

Tiny houses necessitate interdependence with others and champion novel community building exercises. A tiny house cannot be all things to its inhabitants. And this, I would argue, is actually a good thing! Big houses with only a few inhabitants often have all sorts of bells and whistles— home gyms, home theatres, extensive libraries—so there is no need to be out in community.

We have a culture that celebrates independence and likens needing others to a personal flaw or weakness.  But going to our local YMCA, cinema, or public library, means that we are out in our communities, breaking down walls and building relationships with others. This is an important way to counter feelings of isolation, alienation, fear of strangers, and all sorts of other feelings common as people retreat deeper into their own private dwellings.

Countering poverty and housing insecurity

Tiny houses are also countering poverty and housing insecurity. Just look at Detroit, Michigan and what executive director Reverend Faith Fowler and the folks at CASS Community Social Services have achieved in a city with major issues with poverty and a lack of decent affordable housing. They are building tiny houses and offering them to people with low incomes and those who were formerly homeless.

More than building houses, they are creating community as they offer residents an important way out of housing insecurity and poverty. The CASS Tiny Homes Program builds small houses on foundations.  The decision to build the tiny houses on foundations rather than wheels was deliberate. Many of the residents have faced severe housing insecurity and may have had themselves and all their belongings thrown from a home they’ve lost.  A foundation speaks to permanence and the chance to be a part of a community. After seven years of paying the bills associated with the house (at a rate $1 per square foot per month), the resident owns their home outright. Imagine the power of home ownership for people who have lived with housing insecurity, sometimes for their entire lives. This program, and the tiny homes in it, are providing the possibility of a pathway out of poverty.

Tiny houses as social protest

The Secwepemc Nation in British Columbia has taken the idea of tiny houses built on wheels and are using them to create a peaceful and physical barrier to the proposed Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline through their territory. The pipeline is to carry crude oil from Edmonton, Alberta, to Burnaby, British Columbia and threatens the waterways, fish and animals, as well as the land that is the ancestral home of the Secwepemc peoples.

Thinking about necessities of life, such as safe drinking water, a clean environment, and decent housing should take priority over building more pipelines that will simply continue to fuel overproduction, overconsumption, and waste. More than simply a physical barrier, the tiny houses and the solar panels that power them demonstrate that we need to create opportunities for living sustainably.

For the Secwepemc people, clean water and protecting home, in the broadest sense possible, takes precedent over unsustainable energy production and transportation and clearly relates to reimaging community in its broadest sense.

Tiny Homes = Big Changes

We have a myriad of social problems that we currently face: alienation, housing insecurity and homelessness, extractive industries threatening indigenous communities, and climate change threatening our very existence on the planet.  I’m not suggesting that tiny houses are going to fix all of the problems we face, but rather that we need to be searching for and be open to creative ways to challenge these problems.

The “tiny” solutions outlined above challenge us to live lives that are rich in meaning and experiences, and help promote community-building and the very survival of our planet. Ultimately, they are demonstrating how we can champion home in its broadest and most significant sense.

Tracey Harris is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the author of The Tiny House Movement: Challenging Our Consumer Culture (Lexington Books: 2018).

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Tracey Harris is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is also a co-founder of the Animal Ethics Project.

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