The Dark Secret Behind Tiny Houses

Laura Head

Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash

I see a lot of articles get posted in my social media feeds parading the novelty and excitement of tiny home installations. A lot of these probably come from an algorithm that has been curated for my tastes (I guess I’m a sucker for clickbait?), but it does evidence that there is a lot of media attention on tiny homes right now in a positive light.

I’ve seen a news bit lauding Home Depot for producing a line of “Tuff Sheds” which can be doubled up into affordable tiny homes.

I’ve also been advertised the video that celebrates the tiny home access that homeless veterans will have in Kansas City, as they get back up on their feet.

I’ve given consideration to the laundry list of couples and small families that have ditched their normal homes for teeny versions.

The article that finally prompted me to write this piece was another article about a community of tiny houses in St. Louis, Missouri that’s starting to come together.

The tiny house movement has taken America by storm. All over the media, people and non-profits are being congratulated for their resourcefulness, their ingenuity, their resilience, and their creativity in putting up a tiny home.

And nobody is talking about the dark reality of tiny houses.

But I like tiny houses!

There’s a lot to like about tiny houses.

As a friend of the environment, I personally like that they have a reduced carbon footprint. Tiny home dwellers reduce their energy consumption by 45%. Apparently the same people, in acclimating to their smaller life, also adopt more biking and more sustainable dietary habits. And in a very Marie Kondo spirit, having less space means you’ll probably own only the things that bring you joy, reducing your materialism and making you a friend of mother nature.

In terms of human behavior, tiny houses aren’t so bad, either.

According to one study that ended in 2017, people don’t need a lot of space. UCLA tracked foot traffic and found that most families use less than 40% of their floor plan regularly. We frequent the kitchen, family room, and bedroom, but ignore other living areas - some theorize that dining rooms are about to be a thing of the past.

For that matter, tiny houses even compensate for the fact that houses have (unsurprisingly) gotten bigger in recent years. Homes are 1,000 square feet bigger than they were 50 years ago. In an average nuclear family, each member has twice the living space they used to. This is just silly considering that we evidently just don’t use that much of it. So tiny homes have the conscience that other homes don’t.

The Elephant in the Room

Tiny houses are practical, environmentally sound, and there’s no correlation between amount of space and happiness, meaning that tiny living could make us perfectly happy. So what exactly is the problem?

The problem is that tiny houses are the only option left anymore for a lot of us.

In 1950, the median home value was $7,400, and in 2010, the median home value was $221,800. But the cost of homes has increased disproportionately to median incomes - had they been rising at the same rate, a house in 2010 would have only cost $122,372.

For a little further insight, the median wage today is $50,000. Had it kept up with inflation, the median wage would be $100,000.

Let’s combine the two: median wages have increased 29% since the 1960s - housing costs have increased 121%.

So, we can’t afford houses like before.

And rent’s not much better - it’s also going up. An average apartment costs almost $1,200 a month. Remember that the general rule of thumb is to spend no more than 30% of your annual expendable income on housing. If you’re spending $1,200 a month on your home, you need to be making $48,000 net a year - that’s roughly $65,000 before taxes cut in. As evidenced by median figures above, the majority of Americans are not making enough to pay the average rent without being “cost burdened.”

Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

Today, 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck (mind you, that was before COVID-19). Almost 70% of Americans are trapped in debt. Millennials are earning an average of 20% less than did their Baby Boomer counterparts at the same age. When Baby Boomers were our age, they owned 21% of the national wealth, and now Millennials own 5% (in case you’re wondering, the same Boomers now own over 56%).

We have no money.

Which is exactly why tiny homes piss me off.

Tiny Houses are a Lie

We’ve been offered tiny houses as an apparently brilliant solution to our financial strain, but the truth is that by buying into them, we’re only agreeing to be further cornered into economic shortchange.

Tiny homes are your consent to the idea that commiting your livelihood to 400 square feet, storing your clothes under the couch, and sleeping on the mattress above your kitchen unit is the only way to reach financial freedom.

The monetary breadcrumbs we’ve been left with should be sounding the alarm bells and catalyzing an economic restructuring so that Americans can afford real houses like they could less than a century ago, not bumping us into increasingly tiny houses.

But we’re being distracted from the cause with promises of joy sparked and environmental betterment (here is your friendly reminder that 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of industrial emissions. No matter how tiny your house, the environment will still be facing serious destruction).

How about instead of buying Tuff Sheds from Home Depot, we fix the minimum wage that’s limiting us to this as our only option? How about instead of making tiny homes for veterans, we talk about the fact that for every homeless person there are 59 empty apartments in this country?

I suppose in the last place, I haven't really got a problem with tiny houses - Tiny houses are the symptom of a bigger problem. Still, there are many ways to address our stark economic problems, and the idea that tiny houses is the best one is a lie.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY

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