It is a new freedom strategy: liberating the human need for shelter from the state and the cronies called financial institutions. Small (or tiny) house pioneer Jay Shafer considers it to be a form of civil disobedience.
The small house movement advocates for architecturally compact houses in which people can live simply and inexpensively. The small houses vary widely in size but 300 sq. ft. is common with anything above 500 sq. ft. being rare except for family dwellings that serve several people.
How much do small houses cost? Shafer sells a variety of house plans that range from $400 to $1,000 apiece. Then there is the cost of materials. Small house designer and builder Brian Tomlinson explains, “In the US the average cost of new home construction [materials and labor] runs from $70-130 per square foot depending in large part on which state you are in.” By contrast, for a small house “you can expect to spend under $10 per square foot for materials. As most of these homes are owner-built, this is your final cost.”
Purchasing an unencumbered house liberates the average person from sinking into debt or working themselves to death to pay off a mortgage. And depending upon the location and the zoning loophole employed, it is possible to live without the largest part of property taxes; for example, some local governments categorize the structures as sheds even though they are comfortable and complete homes. Indeed, some of the houses are beautiful. The 925 sq. ft. family structure designed by the Japanese architect Takaharu Tezuka in Toyko is exquisite; it is called House to Catch the Sky.
Making the state irrelevant
Small houses provide a free market escape from the housing scams of government and financial institutions. The state has made a dog’s breakfast out of the housing market through laws and policies that create malinvestment. For example, in the 1990s, a booming market in subprime mortgage loans was virtually ensured by Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s requirement that the lending institutions with which they dealt discard redlining; this is the practice of refusing home loans in neighborhoods considered high risk for default. Faced with a quota of minority and high-risk loans, lenders lowered their standards and raised their interest rates. Then they opted out of the risk by selling the mortgages to Fannie Mae and grabbing a loan origination fee. The artificial subprime market was a powerful factor in creating the housing bubble that peaked around 2006. The subsequent ‘pop’ led to massive delinquencies and foreclosures which left many Americans either homeless or renters for life.
When the housing bubble blew up in 2008, the small house movement exploded as well…but in the good sense. It reversed a trend in the American lifestyle. According to a 2009 Financial Times article entitled “Small but perfectly formed” the average size of a new single family home increased from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,479 in 2007. Housing costs soared as well, and not merely due to increasing size. Tomlinson commented on the additional expenses tacked onto the sq. ft. cost of traditional homes. “When you factor in the cost of a mortgage to the price per square foot on the average home, that figure doubles or triples to as much as almost $400 per square foot.” And, then, there are “the additional costs of the additional taxes collected on the additional income necessary to afford the standard American home”; property taxes depend in part upon the square footage of a house. Of course, there are also increased repair and maintenance costs. For some people, large houses become debtors’ prisons from which there is no exit.
Small Houses as Civil Disobedience
Henry David Thoreau of “On Civil Disobedience” fame moved into what may be America’s first famous small house when he withdrew from society to live on Walden Pond. He wanted to live simply and be free.
In a YouTube interview, Shafer identified the main motive he had for building small: civil disobedience. He stated, “When I heard it was illegal to live in a small house was the day I decided I had to live in a small house.” He views current zoning and building codes as “mandatory consumption laws” that dictate what people can do on their own property, what they must buy. This may well constitute a violation of the 5th Amendment guarantee that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation” because restricting property use is a form of “taking.” It may also violate the 14th Amendment guarantee that no “State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Nevertheless, in the name of safety, building codes require houses to be a specific size and form even though there is no clear connection between safety and the square footage of a room. The real beneficiary of such codes is the housing industry which is able to squeeze out small competitors and dictate details of homes people can buy or build.
As a blow against mandatory consumer laws, Shafer exploits building code loopholes. For example, his home is built on a trailer base which makes the house stable or mobile at his discretion. It also means the house is categorized as an RV and does not fall under the far stricter building codes which have been developed to serve the housing industry.
The idea has caught on. The Fair Companies site, which is devoted to sustainable communities, reported on an entrepreneur who sells small houses on the side of a road in Petaluma, California. Stephen Marshall keeps his houses under 400 square feet to make them qualify as recreational trailers which do not require building permits. Marshall explains, “Everything we’re building here is outside the envelope of conventional planning, building permits. It’s an end run around that whole world that leads to unsustainable, unaffordable housing.” He acknowledges that the houses are not legally recognized as full-time homes but the recognition only prompts another act of civil disobedience: people live quietly within them on their own land.
Especially for those retiring on fixed incomes and for the young who bear the brunt of economic harip, small houses offer security of shelter, freedom from want, and the ability to shed a lifestyle that forces more upon consumers than they value or use. It is an amazing freedom strategy. As Tomlinson states, “I could spend the next thirty years working to pay off the state and the bank, or I could spend that time living the life I love.”
[Note: a small (or tiny) house expert will be dropping by the Daily Anarchist commentary section of this article to answer specific questions. Take advantage. Pick his brain and experience.]