The case against tiny houses

By: Dylan Matthews

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I love tiny houses. My own apartment is a little over 300 square feet, most of which is taken up by a Murphy bed. The idea of building an entire free-standing structure where every appliance and piece of furniture can fold into something else is very appealing.

And for decades now, that's what the tiny house movement has been doing.

Typically, the houses are pre-made by some place like the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and then, to circumvent minimum house size rules present in many jurisdictions' zoning codes, are placed on wheels and parked in a backyard or trailer park.

Videos detailing the houses' clever space-saving tricks are a reliably effective genre of lifestyle porn:

But the real reason tiny houses have taken off is the allure of affordability. Jenny Xie at Curbed recently profiled five different models from as low as $22,000 for an unfurnished house to $79,000 for a "bespoke luxury tiny house" with granite countertops, wood or bamboo floors, stainless steel appliances, and a washer/dryer combo. (For comparison, the median price of a new home in the US is nearly $300,000.)

"The rhetoric of modern tiny-house living begins with the assertion that big houses, aside from being wasteful and environmentally noxious, are debtors' prisons," the New Yorker's Alec Wilkinson explains in a great 2011 profile of the movement. "Tiny houses are luxurious, because they are easier to take care of and allow their (presumably debt-free) owners to spend more money on pleasures."

But this premise is a fantasy.

It ignores the real reason that housing is unaffordable — at least in the coastal urban centers where fantasies of tiny housing are most potent. The problem, simply put, is that 1) land in cities where you'd want to live is expensive and 2) many cities don't let developers use that land efficiently.

The growth of tiny houses has been held back considerably because there's just nowhere to put them. That's partially due to minimum house size zoning regulations, and partially due to bans on "camping" on otherwise unoccupied land or the driveway/parking space of an existing house, like one recently adopted in DC. But even the most tiny-house-friendly zoning code in the world wouldn't necessarily render tiny houses viable.

Suppose it suddenly became legal to just park a tiny house in an ordinary parking space indefinitely and live there. This might work for people with friends willing to spot them a space. But if you actually need to buy the land you're parked on, well, that becomes tricky.

Here in DC, you can get a $35,000 parking space in Columbia Heights or a $20,000 one in Petworth. Back in 2011, there was one in the Dupont Circle neighborhood selling for $100,000.

The situation's the same in other high-priced coastal cities. According to the Wall Street Journal's Candace Jackson, prime San Francisco neighborhoods feature parking spaces costing as much as $125,000, and there are several $1 million spots in New York City.

The point is simple: What you're paying for in high-productivity, desirable cities like San Francisco, New York, and DC is the location. That is, the proximity to other workers, which enhances all of your productivity and leads to these areas' high incomes relative to the rest of the country.

You're not paying for your overlarge apartments. No one in these cities is overwhelmed by how gigantic all their housing options are.

Construction is the cheap part. Land is the expensive part.

And not only do tiny houses not make land cheaper, they're a really inefficient use of it. If you have a given piece of land and want to produce the most affordable housing possible out of it, you don't stick a tiny house on there. You build a many-stories-tall residential skyscraper with hundreds of apartments inside it.

The answer is density, which tiny houses don't help. As Arielle Milkman notes in her excellent assessment of tiny houses in Jacobin magazine, "Tiny houses generally do nothing to increase urban density in cities like Washington, DC, which is already concentrated with people and has little open space."

Not only that, but dense housing is greener, too. People in dense cities just emit less carbon dioxide than people living in sprawl

As Brad Plumer notes, "The average person in the city of San Francisco emits just 6.7 metric tons of CO2 per year. By contrast, the average person who lives in the Bay Area emits 14.6 metric tons of CO2 per year."

Microunits — small units, some under 200 square feet, in large, dense housing structures — are a good idea indeed. But tiny houses are ultimately a dead end in the search for affordable homes.

This story is part of The new new economy, a series on what the 21st century holds for how we live, travel, and work.