Micro-houses, sustainable urban development, and affordable housing

My office has a view of low-cost housing, old East German prefabricated apartment buildings. It isn’t an attractive view, but it’s very helpful, because it reminds me to ask myself, whenever there is a decision to be made, whether the people who live there can afford our decisions.
~Sigmar Gabriel

The tiny house movement has a large number of detractors. My answer to them is usually “Don’t live in a tiny house, then.” In this case, Kriston Capps is critical of the notion that tiny houses are more sustainable and/or financially more suitable. The description of a tiny house on a large plot of land as being a “fetish object” is itself missing the point. Tiny houses, if built correctly, require fewer resources, produce less waste, and require less energy to heat and cool. It doesn’t matter if the house sits on 500 square feet or 500 acres, the ecological cost of construction and upkeep isn’t significantly different.

Capps is spot-on with their criticism of tiny houses as the solution to urban housing. We already have relatively sustainable urban homes that allow for people to live both densely and comfortably…they’re called “apartments.” Unfortunately, new construction is limited to building high-end apartment buildings and complexes, letting the older ones naturally fall in price as they fall in desirability. This isn’t helpful when demand exceeds supply, but I can’t imagine someone building a new complex of affordable micro-apartments. Not because it isn’t possible, but simply because I’ve never seen anyone do anything remotely close. The closest new apartment construction comes to “affordable” is cramming multiple people in one unit and charging them separately.

On the other hand, tiny homes would be much more suitable for people who prefer the sprawl of the suburban lifestyle, and would allow for a greater density of single-family homes and thus cut down on both land use and distance needed to reach anywhere useful. Unfortunately, the suburban demographic is the one least likely to acknowledge the useless space and even more useless crap they’ve cluttered their lives with.

But I think what Capps really misses is that some of us, myself included, don’t want to live large. I was hoping to snag one of the older, 500-750 square foot two bedroom homes in town. Instead, the market pushed me into an over-large 1200 square foot two bedroom duplex. It doesn’t matter if I live in town or out of it, I don’t need 1200 square feet of living space, especially not when most of my previous 600 square foot apartment went unneeded. That’s not a “fetish,” that’s “living in a size-appropriate dwelling.”

But perhaps I should cut Capps some slack. They’re probably speaking only of those for whom the tiny house is a fashion statement or trend, to be loved for now and discarded later. So as to their title, I can only say that, yes, there are times when micro-housing misses the point.

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