Tiny houses: why more people are living in miniature
Tiny houses have been heralded as a radical
and creative way to address a lack of affordable housing, as well as reducing
living costs and shrinking our carbon footprint.
My PhD research looks at the tiny house
movement in the UK. I am interested in who lives in them and why, and in the
barriers that people face to living in this way. I am also building my own tiny
house at the same time. I am excited by the idea that people could build their
own houses and halve their living costs at the end. Yet my research is also
highlighting that for many people, living in a tiny home is an act of
necessity. It’s not that they want to live in a 5 metre by 5 metre timber box,
it’s that they can’t afford to do anything else. And for others, even this is
out of reach.
Tiny houses are homes usually 40 square metres or
less. A popular construction style is to build them on a trailer base.
This allows them to be classified as road-towable vehicles and avoids many of
the complications of building a permanent home with foundations. Others
are log-cabin style or shed homes, and some are even
built underground. They are much cheaper than traditional housing – the
average tiny house price tends to be around £35,000 – and result in
much cheaper living costs. This can free up time from the obligation
to work to pay rent or a mortgage.
Research has suggested that people who live in tiny
houses spend more time outside or with friends and family, which can make them
happier than their overworked counterparts. However, building a tiny house
still requires thousands of pounds and, importantly, somewhere to build. This
means these projects seem mostly to be done by people who do have some savings,
access to personal loans, and friends or family who own land. It’s just that
they don’t have enough savings to buy a “real” house.
This also means that although tiny houses are
considerably more affordable than conventional houses, they are out of the
reach of the people who are in most dire need of housing. If somebody is unable
to save up the average deposit for a brick house, they are not likely
to be able to summon this amount for a tiny house either. What’s more, you
can’t borrow money through conventional mortgages to build tiny houses because
they are not attached to land, which is the real asset that appreciates in
value over time.
Instead, tiny houses must be financed via private
loans, just like if you wanted to buy a car. A typical interest rate on a
mortgage loan in the UK right now is roughly 2%. Compare this to the
interest you would have to pay on a personal loan to build your tiny house, an average
of 7%, and it becomes clear how unfavourable the financial landscape is for
this type of project.
Of course, tiny homes can be built for significantly
less than the average price. A participant in my research study built a 10
square metre tiny house for just £900. He loves this home and spends a lot of
time in it. However, it is built on land that he already owns, another hurdle
to overcome which is eased by material capital.
The UK has the longest average working hours in
Europe, and a significant proportion of earnings go towards housing costs. My
participants have described tiny houses as a way to reduce living costs in such
a way that they can either work much less, or work in more fulfilling jobs for
a lower salary. People have expressed to me how they found it strange that they
used to work 40 hours per week to pay for a home that were seldom in. People I
have spoken to who build tiny homes also cite a desire for simplicity and a
move away from a life focused on spending and buying. Some have described the
work-to-spend attitude of society as unfulfilling and harmful.
It seems counter-intuitive that people would prefer
less space to more and that people would volunteer to live in a shed on wheels
if there were enough affordable homes. Yet I have encountered people who do
have the money to live in a conventionally sized house but would prefer to live
tiny and find their goals obstructed by planning permission and access to land.
Another way to look at the tiny house movement is that
it sums up the failures of adequate distribution of resources and access to
opportunity. It can be seen to be romanticising poverty and ignoring
structural inequality. The movement is known to be fairly white and
middle-class, which suggests its radical potential is being overstated.
Source: The Conversation. Author: Alice Elizabeth Wilson