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'Tiny houses' no solution to the unaffordability crisis

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Image: Nelson Tiny Houses

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Tiny houses are all the rage in British Columbia nowadays. Nelson Tiny Houses calls them a "political movement" and "as much a work of art as they are a place to live." It's the latest iteration of a "smaller living" trajectory that began with laneway housing in Vancouver, moved on to Gastown microlofts and now settles on 300 square-foot luxury homes on the back of a trailer.

There is something disturbing about the way local media continues  to laud people for moving into smaller and smaller spaces simply because they can't afford anything else. How long until we can expect a CBC feature celebrating an "innovative" student who has opted to live in a repurposed hollowed-out refrigerator?

Let me begin by saying that there are several very admirable things about the decision to live smaller that are arguably epitomized by the tiny house movement. First, the architectural ingenuity necessary to make smaller spaces feasible: from floor hatches to convertible furniture to efficient lofts. Second, there is something commendable in adopting a personal ethos at odds with the dominant worldview: consume less, resist sprawl, embrace community.

But there is also something deeply troubling about holding up a rarefied, consumer-driven living experience as some kind of "solution" to a deep-seated social problem. Henry David Thoreau tried as much when he hoed all kinds of beans on Walden Pond during the pinnacle of American transcendentalism, hoping his example would elevate his compatriots to new spiritual heights. He didn't like emphasizing that his mum did his laundry every week or that he bought his cabin boards and roof on the cheap from a destitute Irish immigrant forced out of town with his entire family.

Consider the "dream" scenario of the Lukow family, the "tiny house" disciples featured in a recent CBC story: "we love being outdoors so it would be fantastic if we could find a space on an acreage or a small hobby farm." Within biking distance to work, natch. A lovely idea, but this is literally fantasy -- and there is nothing wrong with that. But clearly this fantasy is only feasible in the world of a family with some means (buoyed by a feature by a public broadcaster). Yet it is billed by mainstream media, like microlofts and laneway houses, as a bootstrap "solution" to the housing crisis. It worked for them, it could work for everyone. No, CBC, it couldn't.

All of these tiny-fications are fantasies, in fact. People live "with less" all over the world in ingenious and innovative ways using only the space and materials at hand. But we usually just call them poor. Romanticizing shack-dwelling -- replete with high-spec wood and stainless finishes -- does not subvert the status quo. It merely shrinks it to a size you can hold in the palm of your hand, like a Littlest Pet Shop.

West Van transplants buying up microlofts on West Hastings aren't trying to "be happy with less," they are trying to break off a manageable piece of the Good Life that everything they see, hear and feel tells them involves living in Gastown. They may not sleep soundly on their Murphy bed but they take comfort from their proximity to that fantasy. 

All of these conversations take for granted the "unaffordability crisis" as if it is as unchangeable as the weather. As if the facts that young people are buried in debt, that real estate prices are astronomical, that communities have been gutted and depersonalized -- are somehow accidental and writ in stone, rather than deliberate acts of public policy that can be changed. Not to mention that many of these so-called smaller living solutions are themselves leveraged by new-landlord homeowners so that they can afford their ludicrous mortgages.

I don't want to be defeatist here, because I do admire people who refuse to accept that the world is given to us as is -- and instead choose to live as if the maxim of their actions should become a universal truth. It's what remains so attractive about Thoreau's Walden experiment. But we can't laud tiny houses for their innovation without beginning by saying that the economic realities that necessitate it are a huge fucking problem that won't go away with vintage marine lightbulb cages or marble countertops. And we can't treat tiny houses squatting on hobby farms as the latest trend for the well-heeled lumbersexual set.

Stories like these spread the falsehood that consumers have a say in how their neighbourhoods, communities and cities are planned -- while the evidence repeatedly shows that our urban agendas are set by developers. Laneway houses, microlofts, tiny houses -- these are individuated solutions to social problems that require social fixes. Why can't we see the ingenuity and innovation so evident on this "tiny" scale at macro levels? Because building a wee home on a trailer and towing it out to Sooke just isn't an option for a struggling daycare professional or recently laid-off Target worker -- and they shouldn't be promised that it is.


Image: Nelson Tiny Houses

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