Have we reached peak tiny house? These days you can hardly turn your head without bumping into some kind of micro dwelling. A slew of reality shows like Tiny House Hunters, Tiny House, Big Life, and Tiny House Nation are documenting the joys and trials of the downsized life. Last year a Portlandia skit poked fun at the micro home trend (their tiny house featured a fold-up kitty litter box and a mini-library for “alone time”). There’s even a thing called “tiny house regret” for those who convert to the micro life only to realize they can’t quite swing it.
Between the pop culture takeover and the realities of downsizing, some are wondering if the tiny house is close to joining MySpace and Crocs in the land where trends go to die.
But even if the whimsical HGTV tiny home does have an expiration date, there’s evidence that the current tiny renaissance is just the first wave in a much broader micro movement.
That’s because the surge of interest in micro homes is rooted in socioeconomic trends that go far beyond a passing fascination with clever design and fold-up furniture. Mortgages and rent consume an ever-greater proportion of income; quality, attainable housing is dwindling; urban populations are growing; half the US population is single; a quarter of the population lives alone; and younger generations want flexibility instead of 30-year mortgages.
Small living can offer more financial freedom, more mobility, a lower environmental footprint, and an emphasis on experience over stuff. Frankly, those are attractive offerings—especially for recent college grads, single professionals, and retirees.
The problem with the tiny home trend—as many a tiny-blogger will attest—comes down to critical mass. Building a tiny home isn’t realistic for the average person. For those who have one, finding a legal place to put it is often a nightmare (the cost savings aren’t as attractive if you have to shell out for property to put it on). Coding is almost never designed to accommodate smaller dwellings and neither is city planning.
Experience from those who’ve lived in micro homes has also shown that the smaller the dwelling, the bigger the balancing need from the community. Micro dwellers often describe their surrounding environment as an extended living room and kitchen, but these sorts of communal spaces don’t organically sprout on their own. Creating a micro-friendly community requires careful planning, walkability, and dedicated public spaces.
For the full potential of micro living to be realized, cities, legislators, urban planners, developers, and community organizers will have to collaborate on a scale far beyond the individual tiny home owner. We’re talking societal shifts—not trends.
And the shift is already happening. We’re in a unique housing moment. Whether it’s in cosmopolitan centers, suburban cul-de-sacs, or rural outskirts—the way we think about “home” is primed for change and well-designed small dwellings are a critical part of the shift.
Here’s where we see the micro movement headed:
CITIES: In other parts of the world, small homes in dense, urban areas have long been standard operating procedure (as opposed to a novelty). Average new home size in the UK is 818 square feet. In Hong Kong, it’s 484 square feet and in Sweden, 893 square feet. It’s only recently—with a dwindling urban housing supply—that U.S. cities have begun to rethink the “bigger is better” mantra.
Take New York City, where the mayor relaxed minimum unit size and maximum density rules for Carmel Place, the city’s first modular micro apartment building—featuring a blend of both affordable and market rate studios, plus a variety of shared communal spaces. Earlier this year the development received a staggering 60,000 applications for 14 affordable micro-units.
BACKYARDS: Urban cores may be the hardest hit for space, but they aren’t the only environments with a rising interest in living small. Accessory dwelling units—also known as ADUs, granny flats, in-law units, and laneway houses—are making a big comeback after going out of fashion in the mid-20th century. For many homeowners, installing a small home in the backyard is an ideal way to gain income (via rent) or house an aging family member.
NOT JUST MILLENNIALS: That last point—housing a family member—is especially noteworthy. By 2029, nearly 71.4 million people in the United States will be age 65 or older. As the baby boomer population ages, we’re already seeing growing interest in housing that allows retirees to maintain a sense of independence and privacy while also lowering cost of living and providing closer access to support. Micro homes hit almost all these notes (and as a recent retired visitor to the KASITA noted, “the bedroom is that much closer to the bathroom.”)
COMMUNITIES: In unity there is strength, goes the proverb. Tiny home villages are beginning to pop up all over the place, including rural and less densely populated area like Spur, Texas, a small town that recently loosened housing regulations in a bid for renewal and population growth. The tiny village model has an obvious precedent in the form of mobile home parks and manufactured home communities, which have always been based on low-cost, downsized living and shared services.
Tiny homes in master-planned communities are also being piloted as a potential solution for homelessness in several programs across the country, including the Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington and the Community First! Village right here in Austin.
Stay tuned. The tiny house isn’t dead—it’s just getting started.
American spending on rent (CNN)
Lack of affordable housing (NPR)
Metropolitan population growth (Washington Post)
Half of US population is single (Forbes)
Quarter of population lives alone (Washington Post)
Young people don’t want to be homeowners (Fortune)
Average global new home size
Carmel Place stats
Accessory dwelling units info
Baby boomer population stats
Examples of tiny home villages
Spur, Texas adjusts regulations for tiny homes
Quixote Tiny Home Village (NYT)
Community First Village