Alright this post is inevitably going to ruffle some feathers and bring much disagreement. However I still feel like I need to share my thoughts on this topic. So if folks disagree, let’s try to keep the conversation civil and productive even if we disagree. Also please read the full post before commenting, because without doing so, I don’t get to finish my point, which may address your comment. So into the fire we go…
I guess a good place to start is what I think tiny houses are good for and a little of my background. Before I took the leap to my current career, I worked directly with homeless and in other non profit capacities where I came face to face with the realities of homelessness, drug use, child abuse, systemic generational poverty and a whole host of other major social issues. It was both inspiring to see the unsung heroes like single mothers trying to keep a stable home and the tragic realities of drug use tearing families apart at all income levels.
I share this because unlike most, I’ve had to grapple with the issues first hand. More importantly I worked on some of the most progressive programs in the country to tackle these issues. I’ve seen what actually makes a difference, what makes an impact, and what doesn’t work; because I’ve been there, basically what I’m saying is I feel I’m more informed on this topic than most folks out there.
So what are tiny houses good for? I believe they are a great way for people to reclaim the future, a future without debt, a future with possibilities and opportunities. I see tiny houses as a major activator for people. It is a way that people can be their most actualized self’s. This is a really important point that I want to make for this entire post, most of what I’m going to say is predicated on this single notion.
I believe that tiny houses should be built, designed and lived in for one to achieve self actualization, not just for basic needs. I think that anything short of that is a failure. In some cases it could be of the person or of society, its support services and general functions; realistically its a mix of both at varying degrees. At this point I will generally say across the board, we all can do better. I believe a person should work hard, do their best, and carry their fair share, but I also know we as a society have challenges in enabling people to be the best we can be and we can do better. Imagine a society where every person is brought to their maximum potential, I’m not sure it will ever be possible, but even getting close would be awe inspiring.
So now what I think tiny houses aren’t for. I feel that if a person chooses a tiny house because the are financially left with no other option then they should not live in a tiny house. That is not because I don’t think low income folks shouldn’t live in tiny houses or I’m trying to maintain some status quo; it is because I feel that if someone chooses a tiny house because that’s the only thing they can afford then we as a society have failed. I also know in order to live in such a tiny space, if your motivation isn’t 100% because you have come to the determination that a tiny house is for your best life, it won’t work out; you’ll end up moving out soon after and trying to get back you money through selling it.
Let’s be clear, I’m not against this because of the person, but because somewhere along the way, that person was put into that compromising situation. Let’s not get into the potential political implications here of socialization, “entitlement programs” and other way society can support individuals. Instead let us agree that if someone is forced into a tiny house because they financially have no other choice, something went wrong: in reality that person could have done things differently, our community and neighbors could have done things differently and our society/government could have done better too; let’s skip specifically how they could have done better, because it will just muddle the issue we are discussing here.
So who should live in a tiny house? I believe that a person should live in a tiny house when the first four levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs (the image above) are fulfilled. This means that the person has all their basic needs met, they are secure, they have a support system, and are in good esteem about themselves. Note in that I don’t tie that to any financial status, but the realities of this world mean that these things are intrinsically tied to money. Right now it takes money to put a roof over your head, to put food on the table and keep you healthy, warm and clean.
It is true that a tiny house can equate to a roof over your head and the money situation changes in favor of food, warmth, etc. But I feel like we should not just leave it there. Tiny houses should be beautiful and well designed homes, not a budget utilitarian structure. The reason being is that if its just a house built with the cheapest materials possible, with only utility in mind, with choices made because of budget, we again are failing because one can not achieve their maximum potential in a poorly executed tiny house.
I believe that a well designed space that has good materiality and quality craftsmanship is the only way to be actualized. So in general I don’t like the notion that “I’m going to build the cheapest house possible because that’s all I can afford.” It is not that cheap materials can’t be used to achieve great things, that unique can’t be beautiful, that quirky can’t be fun, but again, you should choose them because you have the choice of whatever is best for you. And studies support this notion: studies have shown a better designed and appointed environment will make us happier, learn more, be more vibrant and think better.
Basically what I’m saying is that a person must first attain a level of quality of life, of inner peace and essentially prosperity before I think they should live in a tiny house. Now I unquestionably understand there is a bit of the chicken or the egg paradox going on here, there are many that need a tiny house to change the game so they can achieve that prosperity, but I argue against this not because it’s the person’s fault – not necessarily, of course there are exceptions -, but that situation signals a failure somewhere in the system. Again, lets not try to place a finger on where or who, because it will take us off topic here.
To take this a bit further I believe that a person should only make a choice to live in a tiny house when they have the option to live in a larger home and that choice would be a relatively easy one for them to execute on financially. The reason being that by being in that situation of having options, you can then choose what is best for you. That could be a tiny house, a small house, an sail boat or possibly even a larger home.
The truth is if you can’t meet your basic needs (food, water, shelter), if you are always worrying about money, if you massively in debt, or some other compromising situation for whatever reason, you are operating in survival mode or from crisis to crisis. In this state it forces a person to operate at a more basic level because you’re constantly worried about making rent/bills/etc that month, even though you are capable of a much higher level of being.
I think this is particularly true and important to note because many of the folks, though exceptions certainly exist, who started the movement and now tell the stories of tiny living (the main bloggers) were in a place where they had a choice. So when we read the blog posts we need to be able to differentiate the difference between their life of having those first four levels addressed and what actually stems from the tiny house. I assert that a lot of the desirable traits of tiny houses are more so from being fulfilled not the house itself.
Thus getting into a tiny house is a poor way to achieve these things. If you are at an economic disadvantage, if your health isn’t good, if you job doesn’t pay you enough, you have huge debt, or your stuck in a compromising position, a tiny house doesn’t fix that. It may ease these burdens, but we should instead focus on the core issue, the root of the problem. To not address these things and still live in a tiny house will not help and possibly make things worse if say the city comes and says you can’t live there. Then you’re out all the money and no better off, in fact you’d be much worse off.
I want to illustrate having a house does not equal happiness, most often it merely amplifies the good or bad things that were already there. The notion that most people who first came to the movement had options to live in most any way they wanted weighs out, particularly when the movement first started. It is getting less this way, which I think is a good thing.
Back in 2010 we conducted a survey of 4,000 tiny house folks, most people who lived in tiny houses made an average individual income of $48,000 (if two income earns: ~$80,000) which is way more than the average household in the US. What this means is the people who were the first to build and live in tiny homes on wheels had enough to make those choices freely. Of course exceptions exists, but I also know they are the minority and little indication of the majority.
Again this is not to equate money with happiness, quality of life, or similar things, but the reality is that if you do have enough money (maybe not a lot) you can attain things which help towards this cause. You can keep a roof over your head, you have health insurance that keeps you healthy, you don’t stress about paying bills which is the number one cause of divorce and stress today. These things set the stage to be happy, but don’t necessarily cause or bring happiness.
One study that does tie in here: A recent Princeton study of 450,000 Americans found that people who make $75,000 annually seems to be the sweet spot. At that level the person can have all the things they need, they can save for a rainy day, and they have some extra for entertainment. Now that also doesn’t jive with the reality of most Americans, because the average median household income is about $43,000.
It is also certainly true that anyone at any level of economic status can be happy, but its also true that if you get sick and have no way to see a doctor, if you go to bed hungry, if you don’t get a good sleep consistently because you worry about bills, it’s going to put a damper on things quickly.
Along these lines, if you live in a utilitarian house that is not beautiful, just ok craftsmanship, and cheap materiality you cannot attain your highest level of being. I see folks living in home depot sheds with no insulation, they used T1-11 for siding, or things of that nature and I can’t see how they can meet their full potential in that space. I see people who live full time in RV’s, mobile homes, and the like which again, you can certainly have a decent life, but I don’t think you’ll find your full potential in those spaces.
To live in these spaces, I am not convinced that those folks can be their best selves in that structure. Can they be pretty happy and doing fine, sure. However I don’t want to see people do just “ok” or to scrape by, I want to see people grow to their best self.
Now I think there are certainly exceptions to everything and I think the tiny house movement has proved that breaking the norms is a powerful thing. So I’d like to mention some exceptions that come to mind, but certainly are not limited to just these.
In all this it’s obvious that I don’t think tiny houses should be used as a tool to end homelessness. That is because those who are homeless do not have their basic needs met and thus cannot have an actualized life until they are met. I don’t believe that someone should live in a tiny house because they can’t do anything else. If someone doesn’t come to the decision of tiny houses because they have come to that decision on an actualized state, it most likely will not work for them long term, tiny houses only really work out for those that intrinsically desire to live in such a small space.
What role I do see tiny houses in for the homeless is in a temporary housing option where we can stabilize them and get them into services to reintegrate them into a normal life. In general the time they live in a tiny house should be used to get them healthy, feeling secure, start any mental health treatments or rehab services if needed, then get them into an employment opportunity and an apartment/group home. In general I think they should be transitioned out of a tiny house in 6 months to a year at most. At which point we focus on stability, treatment, mitigating negative behaviors, establishing new behaviors, and establishing healthy relationships.
In terms of lower income folks who are semi stable, but still living pay check to pay check, I feel like we need to focus not on a tiny house, but increasing that person’s economic prosperity, boosting income, getting out of debt and building a rainy day fund. This could be achieved though pursuing further education, seeking higher paying jobs, support services of various kinds and a variety of other things. Again lets not get into politics here and also please don’t read this as “poor people should just work harder or get a better job” because I disagree with that statement vehemently. I do believe that people should have the opportunity to live a quality life that is productive and happy.
It is from there that I think that lower income folks can transition to a highly stable and actualized place, then make the decision to live in a tiny house or not. Though many will argue that a tiny house will get people there sooner or might be the only way it would be possible to do so. I agree and disagree with parts of that notion. Again I feel that if someone is in this place its at least partly a systemic issue that needs be addressed. Because again, a tiny house won’t fix the problem, it may just ease it’s outcomes, but its toxicity still exists.
Finally, to be fair, I should pick on those who do have the financial means to choose, because money doesn’t equal happiness and the pursuit of income can bring about negative behaviors that are counter to hierarchy of needs we are trying to achieve. If you are one that earns, say $75,000 a year, there is very few situations that you should not be living your most actualized life. You want to ensure you meet your needs, but also do things that will ensure you continue to live that way in the future.
With any career, it can be easy to spend too much time at work; a work life balance is notoriously difficult to achieve, but vital to your happiness. You need to balance your work demands with the people in your life and self care. Make sure you’re doing what makes you most happy. Spend time with family, with your kids and friends. Be a good partner to your significant other, communicate your needs, honor their needs, and be a giving lover.
In most situations you should be saving a sizable portion of your income for three things: retirement, rainy day fund, and upcoming big expenditures to avoid debt. With this you are able to pay for today, save for tomorrow and weather the ups and downs in life. A great quote that I’ve come to know as true is “there is no dollar sign on peace of mind, this I’ve come to know”.
So that was a lot, but I feel much better sharing my thoughts on this topic, even if it will cause some disagreements. At this point I guess I should reiterate that disagreements are fine, but let’s keep it civil, let’s have productive conversations that bring two viewpoints to a place where we move forward. As with most of my musings, I share these ideas in this post as where I am currently in my thinking, but that is not a static thing; I certainly can be wrong and that’s okay because I learn from it.
- What role should tiny houses play with homelessness and affordable housing?
- How would you solve the issue of someone not being fully actualize, but considering a tiny house?