Tiny House, Tiny Living, The Tiny Life.

Should We Even Be Building Tiny Houses?

Today I came upon this little graphic and it struck me that maybe even Tiny Houses are too high impact.  As you can see from the graphic below, there are so many empty houses in America and so many homeless people.  Now this is certainly an over simplification of our homelessness issue, but it does beg the question: Should we be building new houses at all?

To me there a few reasons that I can think of why we don’t you existing houses and build new ones.  That houses aren’t in the location we want, for many people it is they aren’t big enough, we didn’t know about them, they don’t have the features we want.  These are many of the rationalizations we a society make when it comes to not utilizing an existing home and instead build a new one.  But the worst one of all is the fact that the vast majority of homes made in America today are cheaply made, lack aesthetic appeal, and there is no pride put into them.

One would have hopped that we would have learned our lesson with the market crashing and bad home loans, but in the past few years we have seen the emergence of the 40 year home mortgage.  Couple this with poorly made houses by the 10’s of thousands and I have spoken with several realtors saying people are taking 40 years out and the loan will outlast the house.

The other consideration to be made is are tiny houses that much more efficient to offset the impact you create by building one (however small) when compared to a larger house.  Heating and cooling are two things that I think you could make up the difference possibly.

What do you think, should we be build new houses?

16 Comments
  1. Good points. If we could use those empty homes for good causes, that would be great. What if we transformed them into community centers? Or got the neighborhood or (God-forbid HOA) to optimize their yards for garden space? Or turned it into a convenience store of sorts? It would create jobs/local community/a safe place for kids to get together…that’s one idea.
    Or instead of demolishing, we could deconstruct and repurpose. A company could make a living off that alone.
    Take the usable parts and make 3 or more tiny homes.

    We could create communites based off the waste.

    But these are just ideas, one would have to implement them, of course.

    It would require creativity, but hey nothing wrong with that.

    Anyway, good post!

  2. I love tiny homes, and I think they’re the right solution for some people, but we’re buying a small house (750 square feet). Our heating and cooling bills will be greater, but we’ll also be reusing what exists. It would be nice if it was easy to find the financial and ecological differences between building a tiny home and buying an older small home. Hmm. And it would be nice to compare condos with stand-alone homes, of course.

  3. The reality is, these empty home are owned by banks. The unemployment rate is much higher then the government will admit to, much higher. Those of us left don’t make enouph mone or poor credit history, no $25-40K down payment available. The career market is dead…there are few jobs available. Banks all over the country are tearing down homes and selling the property’s.

  4. Not sure it’s an apples to apples comparison. Tiny houses typically don’t come with a mortgage and typically cost less than previously mortgaged houses that carry that debt baggage. Tiny houses are smaller so the cost to own/maintain is less than an existing larger home. Tiny houses are also typically mobile providing them an added benefit.

    But with all that said I agree it’s a sad state the world of housing is in. This may be a bit deep but I personally think we’re in the middle of a lifestyle paradigm shift where people are waking up to the root problems of excessive debt, consumption, etc. The empty houses out there are probably more a reflection of that shift, empty because the old paradigm can’t support them and the new paradigm hasn’t taken hold.

    I wonder if they will just fall apart on their own or if people will begin dismantling them for parts. This has already started to happen in places where copper pipe and wire is being stolen from abandoned homes. I also wonder if people will transform these abandoned homes into smaller more economically heated/cooled homes. But for that to take place a driver, like skyrocketing energy prices, would need to be in place pushing the need.

    So… in short, I wouldn’t worry too much about those empty houses and encourage people to do what’s best for themselves for now to live as safely and comfortably while we go through these transformation pains.

  5. A tiny house is still just a single family dwelling and as such contributes to urban sprawl and needless energy consumption. We need to focus more on high-density walkable neighborhoods that don’t require people to drive everywhere. Apartments and rowhouses also share walls and floors/ceilings, minimizing heat loss and gain.

  6. The vast majority of these unoccupied houses are in such undesirable and far flung locations even if you gave them away most homeless people probably wouldn’t want them. They are so far from job centers and social services, and so expensive to maintain, many would be liabilities, not assets, to struggling individuals without a home.

    I do believe we need more of our society’s investment going into efficient multifamily and row house construction around walkable distances, but I think tiny homes have a role to play in cheaply adding housing to existing under utilized lots. I don’t see it as an either or proposition as the previous commenter does.

    • Mr. Kavanagh, a homeless person will take just about anything for shelter, including a cardboard box. I live in New Orleans, where many of the flooded homes from Katrina have not been torn down because the owners are gone and couldn’t afford to pay the tear-down costs, let alone the rebuilding costs. We have the highest percentage of homeless people in the country, and a lot of it is the attraction of these abandoned homes, even without heat, cooling, or running water. Clean it out, hose it out, and it’s at least a roof and four walls, protection from the elements. So trust me: if you gave unoccupied houses away, the line of people who would want them would be very long. It’s the economics of giving them away that doesn’t work.

  7. Of course what your infographic doesnt say is that a lot of these homes are mc mansions built in dead suburbs which could never be sustainable even with plentiful fossil fuels. Much less with our coming energy crisis.

    building tiny homes as infill to increase density where services are easily reachable by bike, public transit, and especially walking is a no-brainer of a good idea.

    If those homes were in desireable, sustainable areas, they would be occupied.

    I defy you to find a homeless person in los angeles who would go live in the middle of nowhere where you cant get anywhere without spending 8000 per year on a car (AAA’s estimate of annual auto cost)

  8. I think they are two different issues, but I do believe there are some ways we could make this work to the advantage of the tiny house. Many of these vacant homes come with massive mortgages. The real value is not the house but the land. Looking at Detroit, for instance, I think it would be a great place to plan a tiny house development for low-income individuals. There are already groups doing urban farming reclaimation there, Tiny Houses seem to be the next logical step. I also believe that tiny houses can work well in collaborative communities – build 6 or 10 of them on one large parcel of land and let the owners create a sustainable community model.

  9. I think most people hold onto the memory of that day as a child where we glued macaroni to a paper plate and realized the power of creating something uniquely ours. I want a custom house with a layout that suits my life just right. I don’t want someone else’s idea of what would work for me. I’ve got a long list of rationalizations I’ll probably never use!
    There are several legitimate reasons for wanting to build from scratch: health issues involved with older homes(mold/infestations/chemicals), expense of maintenance or updating older homes, and portability even if you don’t build on a trailer. Tiny homes can usually be hauled to a new location cheaper and with less impact than building again.
    The vast majority of empty homes are NOT is far flung locations. My brother in Jacksonville, NC is on a street with a 50% empty house rate. He is a mere 1 mile from groceries and doctors. It’s a wonderful area. My brother outside of Detroit is in the same situation. The area we’re moving to in CO has dozens of empty houses per square mile.
    When people say location is an issue, I would remind them that there aren’t too many places with an urgent housing needed population that don’t have community facilities every 10 miles or so. 10 miles is completely doable and frugal with an amazing contraption called a bicycle. And besides that point is that it’s approaching the problem from the wrong angle. Instead of focusing on the housing requirements of individuals, we should be focusing on building communities. If there are McMansions empty on a street and a car is “needed” to get to services, the services should be brought into the neighborhood to eliminate the “need” for cars. Turn one empty home into a market. Turn another into a clinic and community center and another into a school. Yes, it will cost a bit more at your local market but you will save 10X that much in transportation. In many ways, we need to regress to fix this cultural problem.
    And AAA’s car ownership figures are ludicrous. Our two cars cost $9000 a year to own and operate. We live in NJ so much of that is outrageous mandatory insurance.

  10. You are preaching to the choir. Most of us who read this and other similar blogs know that you are right.

    HOW DO WE GET THAT MESSAGE OUT TO ALL THE OTHERS – THAT IS VERY IMPORTANT.

  11. I get the distinct impression many builders of tiny houses are in it for the aesthetic and the cost as much as any environmental footprint considerations. The blogs/articles you feature are often of single people building small houses with an artistic bent. Not people know for large amounts of savings or high pay packets!

    I agree with the comments about many of these vacant houses being unrealistic to live in if you are either financially or environmentally aware/frugal. A small/tiny house addresses both those functions.

    I’d be keen to see some tiny house that is high density living – chinese factory dormitories, indian communal multi generational homes etc – moving away from the twee for a few moments to see what it’s really like living in these small spaces in high numbers – because that could well be the way of the future if people want to continue to live close to each other.

  12. I’m in Western Australia and in many of the suburbs built in the 60s, 70s and 80s we have the small shopping centre tossed into the middle of the suburb – a post office, a newsagency, a small supermarkets, a chemist and a hairdresser usually. Unfortunately many people in the surrounding suburb usually choose to drive in their cars to the big mega shopping centres (where there is virtually no parking and they drive around and around in the baking heat) rather than support their local.

    It’s not enough to have these facilities locally (including houses used as dentists, medical offices etc) – people have to want to use them. We need to work on the community’s attitude to resources as a whole – and maybe having a tiny house on a trailer in the carpark at one of the mega shopping centres and setting up your BBQ outside and handing out sausages and letting people look through and explaining over a sausage sanger (sausage sandwich) why you live so frugally would be an engaging way to start!

  13. I definitely agree with Michael Janzen about the unfair comparison. Tiny homes are just part of the solution; another is building unique homes that are fully functional in the 400-900 square ft range. Downsizing but still having a broad appeal to those people losing their McMansions and seeking alternatives. Most importantly would be the mortgage, probably much less than what most people would pay in rent, then higher quality materials… more efficient insulation such as spray foam or SIP’s… and individual home customization at a fraction of the cost due to the overall size. This creates the unique opportunity for higher density but keeps us living the American dream of home ownership.

  14. I always saw RVs as the simple answer to small, portable homes. What is the advantage to a stickbuilt home on a trailer?

  15. Karen – I’m not sure it’s just the economics of giving the houses away, it’s the wider economic issue of social services etc that long term homeless often need to access – and the provision of these in areas with high levels of home vacancy.

    Then there’s the other elements around why a person is homeless in the first instance, and identifying ways to help ensure that they remain engaged in society in a way that doesn’t either add to the reasons they were homeless, or make it very difficult for them to remain a ‘normal’ part of our community. Giving them a house isn’t necessarily going to cut it – it might help a number, but many of them will have other needs too that will also need to be addressed, and the cost of maintaining, fixing up or even just living in a run down house might be too much for them – so further support is also required.

    Give them homes for sure, but give them also what they need to make the whole thing a success.

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