Tiny houses are cool — un­less they go up next door


DES MOINES, IOWA — As he tows a 96-square-foot house around Des Moines, Joe Stevens is over­whelmed by the in­tense, some­times tear­ful sup­port he re­ceives from churches, schools and ser­vice groups for his plan to use the trendy lit­tle struc­tures to help home­less peo­ple.

But when Stevens ac­tu­ally tried to cre­ate a vil­lage of the homes in Iowa’s largest city, the re­sponse was far dif­fer­ent.

“We got shot down,” said Stevens, who leads a group that pro­posed erect­ing 50 tiny homes on a 5-acre in­dus­trial site north of down­town Des Moines. “It was a sense of fear, un­cer­tainty and doubt, a knee-jerk sit­u­a­tion.”

Tiny homes have been pro­moted as the so­lu­tion to all kinds of hous­ing needs — shel­ter for the home­less, an af­ford­able op­tion for ex­pen­sive big cities and sim­plic­ity for peo­ple who want to de­clut­ter their lives. But the same pop­u­lar­ity that in­spired at least six na­tional TV shows about the homes of­ten fails to trans­late into ac­cep­tance when de­vel­op­ers try to build them next door.

In at least a dozen cases across the

na­tion, neigh­bors or­ga­nized to stop tiny house projects, in­clud­ing in Tulsa; Char­lotte, North Carolina; Nashville, Ten­nessee; San Jose, Cal­i­for­nia; Tal­la­has­see, Florida; and Bend, Ore­gon. Some­times the ef­forts moved ahead de­spite ob­jec­tions, but in many cases, the com­mu­ni­ties were blocked.

The pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Tiny House As­so­ci­a­tion said op­po­si­tion arises even among peo­ple who feel an affin­ity for the homes.

“Peo­ple say, ‘Tiny homes are great and cool, and you can put that vil­lage any­where but right across the street from my sub­di­vi­sion,’” said Chris Galusha, who is also a builder in the Fort Worth, Texas, area.

The cur­rent in­ter­est in small houses fol­lows a steady growth in the me­dian size of homes, from 1,200 square feet in the 1940s to about 1,860 square feet in this decade.

As home sizes spi­raled up, tiny house

pi­o­neers in the 1990s be­gan pro­mot­ing the aus­ter­ity and fru­gal­ity of spa­ces smaller than most garages. The idea cap­ti­vated mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, even those who re­main in more spa­cious ac­com­mo­da­tions.

“It’s an as­pi­ra­tional life­style, and it’s fun to watch peo­ple try to do some­thing dif­fi­cult, which is to live con­trary to the gen­eral trend, which is more space,” said Ben Keys, a real es­tate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s Whar­ton School.

The op­po­si­tion is of­ten fo­cused on de­vel­op­ments for home­less peo­ple, as in Des Moines. But in many cases, it also ex­tends to tiny home com­mu­ni­ties de­signed for the open mar­ket.

That’s what hap­pened in Char­lotte, North Carolina, where a de­vel­oper had hoped to build 56 tiny homes near a neigh­bor­hood filled with ranch houses and split-lev­els.

Op­po­nents ar­gued that the tiny homes would clash with ex­ist­ing hous­ing, cause traf­fic prob­lems and fail fi­nan­cially due to the cost of the 500-square­foot

homes, which would be priced about $90,000.

“The tiny houses, we feel they’re a fad,” said Robert Wil­son, who helped lead the op­po­si­tion. “It’s a niche mar­ket, and we think it is not less ex­pen­sive.”

A sim­i­lar story un­folded in the high­desert re­sort city of Bend, Ore­gon, where own­ers of a de­vel­op­ment in­spired by au­thor J.R.R. Tolkien’s vi­sion of a Mid­dle Earth par­adise were shocked when they learned of plans for a 22-lot tiny home de­vel­op­ment that would wrap around many ex­ist­ing houses.

“I think tiny homes are great and peo­ple can en­joy them if they like, but please don’t put them in our neigh­bor­hood,” said Joanna White Wolff, who fears ex­ist­ing home val­ues could drop by $100,000 if the tiny de­vel­op­ment pro­ceeds. “My home is my sanc­tu­ary, and it’s go­ing to be de­stroyed by dif­fer­ent think­ing.”

Wolff and her neigh­bors are con­sid­er­ing le­gal ac­tion to block the de­vel­op­ment if city lead­ers ap­prove the plan, she said.


ABOVE: A res­i­dent walks past a row of tiny houses at a home­less en­camp­ment in Seat­tle. LEFT: Eva Stough opens the door to her tiny house, where she lives with her part­ner and baby, at the en­camp­ment.

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