Housing costs spur spread of tiny homes
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, tiny cottages—not all of them permitted—dot the forested landscape. One property houses a yurt, a circular dwelling held together by stilts, on a hillside. Another property owner, who’d rather just go by Bob, constructed a 244-square-foot cottage on a dusty plateau overlooking redwood forests and, on a clear day, a shimmering Monterey Bay.
“I had this trailer, then I got a wild hair and decided to build a house on it,” says Bob, trekking up to the place in his brown work boots, faded Wranglers and pine-green plaid shirt with sleeves torn at the elbows.
Wide windows—the bulk of which he got for free from contractors—fill the cottage with natural light, giving it a roomy feel, despite the limited dimensions. A former mechanical engineer, Bob crafted the place from ruddy cuts of ancient heart redwood. The logs had been lying around for a century or so before he decided to slice them to size with a sawmill he built out of an old boat trailer.
Sixteen solar panels cover the patio. Inside, a wood-burning stove fashioned from an old water tank stands in one corner, a kitchen fills up the other, a cupboard and, overhead, a sleeping loft. The only separate room in the house is the full bathroom, with a bathtub and toilet that drains into a 1,500-gallon septic tank with a proper leach field. In all: $5,000 to build, about another $6,000 for the solar panels, Bob says.
Whether Bob realizes it or not, he’s part of a trend—one of people making ends meet in smaller housing units, sometimes called tiny homes.
Over the hill, Tim McCormick is in a one-car garage tinkering with a 64-square-foot cube he hopes will “hack the housing crisis.”
As he envisions it, an 8-foot-square skeleton of perforated square steel tubes, small enough to fit in a parking spot, could become an “erector set” suitable home or workspace. From there, one could build up or out—as spartan as a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter or as elaborate as a several-story dwelling. Modules could be separate or stacked, side panels swapped, dimensions complementing existing urban spaces, like a small yard or a garage.
“It’s about creating systems to solve a very wide set of potential needs in the built environment,” he says.
People are having discussions all over, including in Santa Cruz, about what tiny homes could do for a community’s needs.
As housing prices climb, Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane would like the City Council to have a study session about affordable housing in the coming months, one that will cover a range of topics. “I intend to have tiny houses be part of that discussion,” he says. “Is that something we want to pursue? What are the obstacles?”
Lane wonders, for instance, if rules that govern accessory dwelling units could be changed to accommodate smaller units—making a space for tiny homes. And in an online forum, City Councilmember Pamela Comstock recently floated the idea of a tiny home community and asked others if it was something they would be interested in.
Activist and grant writer Steve Pleich says he and others are looking at building properties that could provide a tiny house community in Santa Cruz County. He imagines a pilot program that could start with about five homes in a half-acre. Elsewhere, tiny homes are already housing people in need. Kendall Ronzano, a 20-year-old college student from Santa Cruz, recently built a tiny 117-square-foot tiny home and shipped it off to an organization in Austin, Texas, that houses the homeless.
McCormick calls his low-cost, open-source units Knight Houses, a reinvention of the home as a product that consumers could order online or build themselves. Under the aegis of Houslets, the alternative housing research effort he’s spearheading, McCormick is one of nine San Jose finalists vying for a slice of $5 million in grant money being distributed across Santa Clara County by the Knight Cities Challenge. “If we do this right,” McCormick says, “we can transform Silicon Valley’s urban ecosystem.”
McCormick is a relative newcomer to the tiny home movement. Early pioneers in the 1970s advocated for scaled-back homes in reaction to widespread suburbanization that normalized excessive living spaces. The average size of a single-family home four decades ago hovered around 1,780 square feet. Each new U.S. Census Bureau count broke another record, the latest in 2013 when the average home size stopped just shy of 2,600 square feet, despite a concurrent decrease in the size of the average family. The housing market’s freefall in 2007 galvanized McCormick and others’ push for smaller living quarters.
“We had this huge breakdown, where the housing system is stammering,” he says. “All of a sudden regular middle-class people can’t find housing. It became a first-world problem, so to speak.”
McCormick has lived in plenty of small, sometimes improbable spaces. Growing up in London, his parents lived in a 1,000-square-foot home. His bedroom, called a “box room,” was no more than 48 square feet—intended as a storage space, really. His father’s job as an architect moved the family to various urban hubs, always settling into economical living quarters. “That was a key, informative influence,” he says. “As long as I could remember, I was going to building sites, low-income housing projects.”
McCormick wants to see more of that self-sufficient ingenuity applied to housing in urban spaces. Given that he plans to work with pre-assembled modules, he thinks he could work within an even tighter budget.
The pushback often comes from neighbors who worry about parking supply and property values. Other issues: how to hook up units to plumbing and comply with zoning rules. McCormick says one way to make the idea of incorporating tiny homes within the urban landscape palatable to the public is to incentivize property owners. One model he’s looking at is a fairly new state law that gives tax breaks to property owners who lease to an urban farm. McCormick suggests the same idea could be applied for micro-homes.
“Fearing people encroaching on you is human, but so is building, adapting, being able to change your environment,” McCormick says. “It’s all in how you present it.”
Additional reporting contributed by Jacob Pierce and Anne-Marie Harrison. PHOTO: Bob, who preferred not to give his last name, has become an expert on small housing by building his own 244-square foot cottage. JENNIFER WADSWORTH