TINY, TRENDY, UNWELCOME
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.