Op-ed: Too cute to fail? A critical look at tiny houses

Berkeley mayoral candidate Mike Lee is part of a local effort to explore tiny houses as part of a solution to homelessness. Misconceptions about tiny houses seem to surround such efforts and are difficult to swat. And I think I know why.

I know what tiny houses do: they hit you square in the cute. In the nebulous background of tiny house presentations is something which seems to make even the most intelligent go weak in the knees because they just can’t wait to put the tiny curtains up in the tiny house.

What issue does the miniaturization of housing solve for anyone except developers, whose are the more obvious voice pressuring planning departments into accepting more density with less living space and amenities?

I love the tiny houses same way I once loved the Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven. But with due respect to the people who have created small, portable houses of recycled materials such as buffalo hides for centuries, one 264 square foot micro unit hit the San Francisco market this past December for the “affordable” price of $425,000. Developers are better than any of us at capitalizing on the housing crisis, and are no more likely to be motivated by honest human needs and long-term community planning than the enthusiastic college students who compete for annual prizes with tiny house designs in which they have no plans to actually live

The suggestions that tiny houses are part of the solution to homelessness seem bizarre. Focusing on the cunning curtains on the adorable windows of the tiny house without first securing the human rights many cities increasingly subtract from the poor strikes me as short-sighted. The issue isn’t the size of the house or tent, it’s the unwillingness of your town, city, land owner or public official to allow you to be there at all. The seduction of miniaturization shouldn’t distract from the call for a right to rest and for housing based on the needs of minimum wage workers, people with disabilities, veterans, and low-income seniors who can’t compete in a market designed by and for the one percent.

Tiny houses fall suspiciously into the basket of misconceptions one often hears at planning meetings most people don’t attend:

The misconception that there is not enough land, resources, money to address the housing crisis. This is nonsense. We are a wealthy nation capable of housing the poor. One should never confuse an absence of resources with an absence of political will.

The misconception that tiny houses’ “cute quotient” will overpower obstacles of planning and zoning and the necessary square footage will just magically manifest. Again, this is nonsense, with all due respect to pet developers’ projects’ peculiar success on politically packed citizen commissions.

The misconception that poor people (and apparently nobody else) should start living their lives in miniature. This is not just nonsense, it is offensive.

Do poor people somehow need less room to cook, less need to have bookshelves, friends over for a meal? Do people who have survived grinding poverty need less light, less space, less access to computers, art supplies, pianos, companionship, room for their children? I would argue the opposite.

Live in a teacup if you like, I would say to tiny house proponents, those who aren’t frankly capitalizing on the human need for shelter or jousting enthusiastically for some academic design prize. But think deeply before requesting the miniaturization of someone else’s life.

There’s something cynical about arranging for companionship-free living for others while developers, happily living in a large suburban houses, periodically dust the environmental prize hanging by the mantel.

Tiny houses don’t solve human-rights issues, create square footage, address the need for public bathrooms, campgrounds, low-income housing, or end the corrosive prejudice against the sight of poverty often linked to criminalization campaigns. And many of us, especially people already doubled up in studio apartments intended for single individuals and families of five trying to make do in one-bedroom apartments, have been living in miniature for decades.

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Carol Denney is a singer, writer, and veteran activist of social justice movements.