Like cute puppies, micro-living taps into our innate fascination for the miniature, and strangely tends to appeal to those who can afford something bigger, writes Priya Khanchandani
The trend for tiny homes reminds me of the fascination for shabby chic: it is mainly appreciated by those who actually have a choice as to how small or how shabby their home is.
If you live close to a slum in Mumbai and there is an infrastructure breakdown that means you struggle to get from A to B, then you can see why walls that have blotches that mimic stains painted onto them may simply be considered shabby and not exactly chic. Similarly, a pocket-sized home is only really a trendy lifestyle choice for the privileged.
Tiny homes are in fashion. They are the creatures of glossy magazine articles with headlines like ‘71 best tiny houses in 2018’ featuring off-the-grid summer escapes and luxury cabins. They are to be found on TV programmes like Tiny House Nation, which relates the tales of people who decide to declutter and opt for minimalist living. The term refers to glamorised small spaces such as those shown in the MINI Living series – a research project exploring small urban habitats – which purports that homes cut from disused water pipes could feasibly be living spaces in congested cities. It does not generally refer to a shanty home or a squatter settlement that are small out of necessity.
The notion of the tiny home has become not just a practicality but also a pseudo-philosophical statement about how one chooses to live. The so-called Tiny House movement even has a Wikipedia entry in which it is described as an ‘architectural and social movement that advocates living simply in small homes’. It defines tiny as generally being under 500sq ft or 6sq m and asserts that such a mode of living is inspired by ideas like: ‘financial prudence, eco-friendly choices, shared community experiences, and a shift in consumerism-driven mind-sets’.
The ideology behind the movement appears to do no harm. Like cute puppies, tiny homes tap into our innate fascination for the miniature and make for great TV shows when we witness an entire bedroom, living room and kitchen being skilfully designed into a space the size of a large box. But in reality, the way in which they are portrayed obscures a dark truth, which is that there is a crisis of land ownership in our cities in which the majority of land is owned by an affluent minority, while the rest of us are gradually squeezed out of the housing market.
The appeal of and philosophy behind tiny homes is one way in which the escalating cost and falling availability of housing is being glossed over. Tiny homes have been appropriated by luxury hotels and aggrandised as glamorous holiday cottages or as homes for those devoted to minimalism, when actually they don’t meet regulatory standards expected of housing that were imposed for a reason.
Earlier this year, Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects raised controversy when he said that hotel-room-sized studios without living rooms are ideal for young people with busy lives to inhabit. This was akin to telling young people to simply accept the housing crisis rather than nudging the government to come up with an affordable housing solution. Bedsits that are smaller than regulations stipulate aren’t good enough. New homes in the UK are already smaller than in any other country in Europe and it is perverse to expect them to shrink further.
So-called tiny homes are often little different from trailers; and living in trailers is closely linked with low income. In the US, where 5.6 per cent of the population live in trailers or mobile homes, the median income for those living in such homes is 43 per cent lower than for households in traditional real estate. There is credible research behind the theory that living with a lack of space can be detrimental to one’s wellbeing: it can degrade family relationships, affect people’s quality of life and in extreme cases cause anxiety or stress and impact on the social and emotional development of children.
There are limited situations in which below regulation-sized homes could be used to alleviate homelessness on a temporary basis. In certain parts of the US, such as Austin, Texas, smaller units have been made available to renters who are on very limited budgets and another initiative in LA kicked off by resident Elvis Sumners could result in hundreds of so-called tiny homes for the homeless. Since the units have no plumbing or running water, they should only be considered a temporary measure or they would risk turning into legitimised shantytowns, which couldn’t be further from the coffee-table-book dream where tiny homes are more conventionally found.
We would more easily see through the illusion of the tiny home being a miniature paradise if we did away with the fantasy of minimalism and simply called them something else. Terms like luxury cabins, below-regulation-sized homes or social housing, for instance, would account for the shades of grey that the tiny home comes in, rather than assuming that all small spaces we inhabit are cut from the same brick.