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San Diego's wishful world of tiny houses

Cottage industry

“I want to live in a nice environment, not in a trailer park with a bunch of meth-heads.”

Like many others with whom I spoke, Lauren Thomas, a forensic psychologist who rents an 1800-square-foot home in Encinitas, has been tiny-house shopping online but still hasn’t made the move. “I’ve been looking into it for two years, but I don’t want to buy a tiny house until I have a place to put it.” The dilemma, opines Thomas, is that unless one opts to erect a tiny house on a foundation, which entails going through a municipal permit process, there are few if any places in the county where it’s legal to situate one’s pint-sized abode on a long-term basis.

Thomas, who at 60 is nearing retirement after decades evaluating state prison inmates, says that zoning restrictions, along with RV parks’ typical six-month occupancy limits, pose a formidable barrier. As a consequence, most tiny housers, she claims, live off the grid (at least officially), hooking up water and electricity lines surreptitiously. “A lot of younger people are willing to live beneath the radar, but I’m not. She’d prefer to own a house at the beach, but it’s not feasible. So, Thomas, who has budgeted up to $75,000 for a tiny house plus $650 a month to park it, muses in the alternative, “I’d like a really cherried-out tiny house.”

Online, it’s easy enough to window-shop for tiny houses. “Here’s a cute restroom with a shower that totally works!” A comely middle-aged woman, accompanied by her daughter, is conducting a video tour of a 172- square-foot home. Next, she scrambles up a steep wooden ladder to a loft where she ducks on hands and knees to avoid being crowned by the rustic pine ceiling. She gushes, “You know, it’s equipped with a queen-sized mattress but it’s big enough for a king!”

And so it goes in the wishful world of the tiny-house movement, where television shows, websites and discussion forums incessantly promote and proselytize. But while it’s one thing to extol the virtues of “living small,” it’s quite another to live full-time (on a voluntary basis) in claustrophobic quarters.

Jill Dickens

Jill Dickens

Architectural model of Jill Dickens’s tiny house. It is currently under construction in Northern California.

Architectural model of Jill Dickens’s tiny house. It is currently under construction in Northern California.

Jill Dickens, a graphic designer who rents an 800-square-foot bungalow near the intersection of Florida and Madison in University Heights, is determined to make it happen, to go smaller still, to go tiny. “It all depends on what you want out of life. If I spend $1350 a month to live here, it puts me in a great area but it’s not going to give me a whole lot of extra money to spend on things I enjoy, such as travel.”

As with many nascent tiny housers, Dickens’s leitmotif centers around change and adaptability. “For years, I lived in my parents’ home, which was 2500 square feet, five bedrooms. I was taking care of my mom, who had Alzheimer’s. I thought I’d always live there, but it didn’t turn out that way; my daughter and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment. I’d been in my parents’ house so long that I had no idea how much crap I had. That first move, I did a lot of shedding of excess stuff and it felt fantastic. When my daughter moved out, I thought, I don’t need this much space, so I found this cottage.”

Jill Dickens settled on a tiny house from Liberty Cabins of Crescent City, CA.

Jill Dickens settled on a tiny house from Liberty Cabins of Crescent City, CA.

libertycabins.com

“About the time I moved in, I started hearing about tiny houses and thought, Oh, my God. I’d love to do that maybe five years down the road. I consider myself a minimalist (not that I’ve always been) but as I get older, it makes me feel better to not have as many things. It’s about spending less energy on things and more energy on how I spend my time. For my goals in life, it’s all about mobility. My plan is to sit on someone else’s land, whether it’s my landlord’s or someone else’s, put the money I was gonna put in rent into savings — and buy a lot myself to put my tiny house on. You can take a tiny house on wheels to a campground, but they charge you almost as much as renting an apartment, so that’s the downside.”

Dickens admits there are other logistical hurdles.

“You can’t finance a tiny home like a conventional house; you have to get an RV loan or a personal loan. Also, in my case, I can’t borrow against my retirement as a first-time home-buyer because it’s not considered a home; when they’re on wheels, they’re legally considered RVs.”

Claustrophobics need not apply?

“Well, yeah,” laughs Dickens. “But it’s pretty big for a tiny house.” Big enough for her needs? “Yes, definitely. I’ve paced it out on the floor where I’m living now, and I don’t see a problem at all.”

While Dickens has a concrete idea about how small her dream tiny house will be, she still hasn’t figured out where to buy it.

“I’ve looked online at SoCal Cottages in Del Mar. My plan was to go up to Del Mar and do a little tour of their establishment, but their houses are just so ugly.”

(As it turns out, SoCal Cottages is nothing more than a sales office in a small suite on Camino Del Mar in Del Mar; there’s nary a tiny house at the site.)

Mark Silva

Mark Silva

I used to quip, “mobile homes are neither mobile nor homes.” But what about a minuscule house, mobile or not? Is it really a “home” in the grand American tradition of four walls, a man’s castle, and a refuge from the teeming hordes? I queried Mark Silva, of Silva Studios in Clairemont, for his take.

“It’s interesting that you ask that. There’s a bunch of stuff on the internet, like, ‘Do it yourself tiny homes on wheels.’ To me that’s not a tiny home, it’s a mobile home, which is really nothing new. It’s on wheels, it’s not permanent. I’m an architect and maybe I’m swayed by that, but to me, anything on wheels is just a mobile home, and they’ve been around forever.”

Floor plan and artistic renderings for a 512-square-foot tiny home by Mark Silva

Floor plan and artistic renderings for a 512-square-foot tiny home by Mark Silva

Wheeled configurations aside, Silva is high on the tiny house concept, 600 to 760 square feet, renderings of which beckon from an elegant website: “I’ve designed a line of small houses that are designed to be as sustainable as you can get. For example, we have insulation crafted from old blue jeans. These aren’t DYI little houses on trailer wheels; these are real houses with improvement in a smart direction.”

I posed the “RV question” to Jill Dickens.

“The difference is quality materials,” she says. “The typical motor home is built to travel all the time, so they have to use light, flexible stuff, but materials used in a tiny house are much better, the same as in any regular house. It feels a heck of a lot more solid. When you walk into a mobile home, you can hear it — it feels like you’re walking above ground. But when you walk into a tiny home, it feels like you’re on the ground, even though the house is sitting on a truck bed. I would not take my 8-foot-wide, 29-foot-long tiny house and travel all over the country; I move it once every year or two, at most.”

The Mica, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s “perfectly modern” 172-square-foot home

The Mica, Tumbleweed Tiny House Company’s “perfectly modern” 172-square-foot home

tumbleweedhouses.com

As I look at Silva’s crisp sketches, as well as the much smaller, funkier models hawked by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, SoCal Cottages, and others online, I go back to the question: “But what about all my stuff?”

“If you have large things,” Dickens says, “you can store them with relatives or friends, but I don’t think you’re a ‘tiny house person’ if you’re going to rent a storage locker. I’ve taken pictures of some of the stuff I’ve given to relatives or friends or sold at garage sales; I have the memories but I don’t have to have the physical object.”

She concedes that it’s not always so easy: “I lost a thousand LPs in a divorce, but if I still had them…. I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Will you have to cut down on clothes?

“Yeah, because there’s no closet space.”

Like most prospective tiny housers, Dickens eschews the RV image. “The coolness factor is off the charts. It’s very similar to a studio apartment with a loft, but it’s a cool studio; for me, it’s space to be inspired, a space to create.”

But, admits Dickens, with coolness comes the need for parsimony.

“In a tiny house, you have to be very strategic about where you put things, such as in the kitchen, so it doesn’t look like a hot mess. I could get by without a cook top or oven as long as I had a microwave. Also, I’m fine with a small (but not college-dorm size) refrigerator; I don’t need a family-size ginormous one. For some people, the priority is a functional kitchen, so they’ll put more square feet there versus another place. Others will say, ‘I have to have a bathtub,’ but I don’t; I can get by with a little shower.” As for the composting toilet? “It doesn’t gross me out; it’s earth-friendly, and I like that. You can make a tiny house as ‘green’ as you want, but personally, although I’d like to be environmentally friendly and not poison anything, I don’t want to go nutty over it.”

The consensus among tiny-house boosters is that extra-small dwellings are best-suited for people who don’t spend a lot of time at home.

“In my present place,” notes Dickens, “I only use my bedroom to sleep in; I don’t even have a TV there. A tiny house will force me to focus time on activities. It’s ideal for a single person or a really solid couple. If I had a partner, I don’t know if I’d go tiny because you can’t get away from each other. You’re in the same room 24/7; it would drive me insane. I’d never go from my honeymoon to a tiny house; that’s asking for a divorce. But if you’re fresh from a divorce…”

Is there a lower limit to what’s livable? Mark Silva says, “The homeless live in boxes, right? And that’s full-time for them. It all depends on what you are willing to live with, and without. Some people like to live like they’re camping.” Silva refers to his daughter’s first apartment in Manhattan. “What they do over there is find old buildings and build what they call ‘train car apartments.’ Each window in the façade has a tubular apartment behind it. She was sharing a part of it with two other people and had a corner that was curtained off; that was her ‘apartment.’ She said something interesting: ‘The people my age who live in Manhattan consider their apartments the place where they sleep and dress, but their living room is the city.’”

But self-consciously rootless urban hipsters aside — can a jail cell-sized “house” work for many? Applying some context and scale, I note that the largest single-family dwelling in San Diego County, presided over by financial wheeler-dealer Charles Brandes in Rancho Santa Fe, punishes the tape measure at 54,000 square feet. And way, way down at the tiny end of the continuum? Perhaps the Small House Society can help.

From 2003 to 2009, Greg Johnson, president of the society, lived off the grid in a seven-by-ten-foot micro-house.

“I was trying to make a point. I’d founded the [Small House Society] as a humorous idea, but when I saw it was really taking off, I thought, I really should have a tiny house of my own. Mine was the smallest I’d ever heard of; it was like a walk-in closet. I didn’t have running water or a shower. I’d get up, do yoga at the gym, and take a shower there.”

I asked Johnson, who views the tiny-house movement through the lens of environmental activism, how small is a “tiny” house?

Johnson muses, “It all depends. What about five people living in a 1000-square-foot house? Does that qualify? There are terms — micro, miniature, compact, small, and tiny. Something under 400 square feet is definitely part of the small-house movement, as defined by housing laws. It’s not like everybody got up one day and said, ‘I’d like to have a house on wheels.’ Put a tiny house on a foundation in many places, you’re breaking the law. Put the same house on wheels and everyone’s happy.”

Speaking of “happy,” I ask Johnson the 399-square-foot question: absent exigent circumstances (i.e., lack of funds), who would do this?

“Folks who choose to live a minimalist lifestyle. “

Citing an apocryphal case of a “millionaire who lives in a VW camper van,” Johnson claims that said lifestyle appeals to the affluent.

“When you have that kind of money, you’re more able to have technology that shrinks down stuff like music and books into your phone or laptop computer.”

But, he concedes, it’s not a lot of bang for the buck.

“Tiny homes can run $300 per square [foot] for fancy ones, so that’s 250K for something that’s like a garden shed, although it’s a nice garden shed.”

Johnson rejects claustrophobia as an inherent tiny house hazard.

“Actually, it’s the opposite of what you might think. In a lot of standard homes, the bedrooms are the smallest size legally allowed, almost like walk-in closets, You get at most one window, maybe two if you’re lucky enough to have a corner room, but with a tiny house you get windows potentially on all four walls, so you don’t feel like you’re boxed in.”

If money isn’t a constraint, won’t most people go for largest house possible?

Johnson maintains, “Even if a house were free, most people wouldn’t want the overhead. Property taxes, the responsibility of upkeep and maintenance, the time and stress. There’s ‘just one more thing to break down’ in a larger home. And, personally, I think there’s no sense rattling around in a large home you can’t utilize.”

But, he concedes, one’s background can lead to a different view of what might constitute livable space.

“If you grew up in a family of five kids living in a small bungalow, you might say, ‘I’m never doing that again.’”

Pipe dreams and internet browsing aside, how many Americans reside in tiny homes? Johnson doesn’t have a good fix on the tally.

“We’re doing an assessment, but it’s difficult. People are out there, if not ‘off the [power] grid,’ then off the ‘social grid.’ They’re not connecting on social media. They’re independently buying plans, designing and building their own tiny houses. It’s almost like you have to drive down the street to find them.”

“It’s concentrated in places like Florida, Texas, and California, where you combine weather plus a progressive mindset. It’s the new urbanism focusing on sustainability, with walkable communities, public transit, and bicycles versus cars. It would work well in a place like Iowa City, a college town where everything is built around the idea of thousands of students living in dorms, which are the equivalent of thousands of tiny houses.”

Johnson cites neighborhood amenities as such as coin laundries, coffeehouses, and restaurants to support his proposition that tiny-house dwellers will “hang out and meet people.” Although he maintains that tiny-house communities may be feasible on a large scale, he concedes that it will occur only where tiny-house dwellers can rely on the surrounding community’s resources.

As for his own experiment, he says, “I couldn’t have done this in the middle of nowhere such as rural Montana, because you’d need a large pantry, a backup power generator, a four-wheel-drive truck, freezers, and so on.” He says that housing laws would have prevented him from being on the grid with his micro-abode. “It would have been illegal for me to hook up electricity, running water, and a sanitary sewer system, so I had to live in third-world standards....

“What you’ll find is that people who put houses on wheels to get around housing codes aren’t supposed to be hooking up services, but if you talk to municipalities who are policing this stuff, they’ll say, ‘Hey, look, we’re not running around doing bed checks to see who’s got people sleeping in the tiny house; we’re just going to assume that it’s a garden shed or a guest house or a studio. We’re not keeping track of who’s using electricity or water.’ Most people in tiny houses aren’t living this sort of off-the-grid life. A lot of them have standard RV hookups, things they’re doing to make them pretty habitable.”

On the other hand, says Johnson, some denizens of puny abodes “sleep, eat, entertain in a tiny house — but use the bathroom in a nearby main house.”

To wheel or not? Johnson acknowledges a schism within the movement: “The wheel people don’t accept the foundation people and vice versa. There are 15,000 people on the Facebook page going back and forth, saying things like, ‘Don’t post things with wheels — those are campers,’ and the opposite. A lot of people believe the tiny-house movement is exclusively about houses on wheels and don’t even realize why, that it’s the law that’s determined that. It’s not that they want to move around a lot; many will stay in the same place for years.”

Johnson estimates that 60 to 70 percent of tiny houses are on wheels, with the rest on foundations “in places like Wyoming where there are no city codes to deal with.”

Bill Cavanaugh

Bill Cavanaugh

To get a home builder’s perspective, I spoke with Bill Cavanaugh, whose company, US Modular, builds manufactured homes, including the small variety. Cavanaugh, who lives in Carlsbad, tells me about a tiny-house village in the works.

“Right now, I’m looking at a six-acre parcel in East County. We’re planning to build 90 under-400-square-foot homes that will cost $40k apiece. There will be very small yards, common meeting hall, possibly a pool. My vision is of a healthy senior who wants to be independent but also wants a sense of community, instead of grandma living in the home where she’s lived for 30 years and has a hard time getting up and down the stairs. There will 90 people all in similar situations. Every night, there’s bingo and a potluck supper goin’ on. You know your neighbors, but it’s not like an apartment where you can hear your neighbor snore. You have four walls, a bedroom, a bathroom, a little tiny kitchen, a place for TV and a porch....

“But there are infrastructure hurdles. If I do it the traditional build way, it could be cost prohibitive. For example, if I have to bring in water meters for each unit versus shared, it just gets to the point where it defeats the purpose of what I’m trying to do. I’m negotiating with agencies so I can provide affordable housing for the market I’m going for, but if I have to spend $60,000 on infrastructure costs, I’ll end up with a $150,000 400-square-foot house.

What will East County oldsters get for $40,000?

“When you get down to that price point, it’s a pretty basic, bare bones, entry-level house, and it’s gonna look it. A simple roof, a little porch, maybe, simple flooring.”

Cavanaugh says that most of his inquiries are for “granny flats,” accessory units in backyards.

“What can we do to bring somebody home? The term I use is ‘multigenerational.’ The numbers are staggering: something like 50 to 60 million families in America are living in a multigenerational situation — more so than ever before. That’s either Grandma movin’ back in with the family or the college kid who can’t afford to live on his own. People are starting to realize that it doesn’t make sense to go out there and try to live on your own when you can do it for a fraction of the cost on an existing property. It doesn’t matter what you call it; you still have independent living and your own private space, taking advantage of infrastructure in place.”

The US Modular website has models ranging down to as small as “Cottage Series 300.” “I can build smaller than that,” says Cavanaugh, “but then you’re really building a shed. I can put a model like that in someone’s backyard, but it has to be attached to a permanent foundation. As far as the upper end of what you can build as a secondary unit, city codes limit you to 600 to 750 square feet.”

Cavanaugh, who says he built a half dozen small houses in 2014, predicts that 30 percent of his business will be in granny flats.

“I’ve built around a hundred in total, and just did a 900-square-foot house in Vista, but nothing really tiny.”

Cavanaugh opines that if tiny-home clusters have a future in San Diego County, it’s going to be on the outskirts.

“Fallbrook, Escondido, places where there’s more land. You’re not going to find opportunities for tiny-home villages in San Diego proper because everything’s built up and raw land is hard to find.”

Cost?

“From start to finish, a 657-square-foot house, for example, runs in the $100,000 range with permitting, or about $150 per square foot. When you start building smaller homes, cost per square foot goes up because you have to amortize things like septic, sewer fees etc. when you’re building to a modular code, which is same as site-built code. But if I were to build down to a HUD code [used for mobile homes] that’s a lower code; it has a steel chassis underneath. You can build that on a private property as long as there’s a permanent foundation, and I can even build two stories, which brings the cost per square foot down to low 100s.”

What’s the livable minimum?

He laughs, “I guess it all depends how big you are. I was actually surprised looking at some of the 399-square-foot homes, the ‘park models.’ You can build them to be livable because you incorporate the outdoors into your home. You can add a porch for indoor/outdoor living, especially in Southern California, and now you’ve added another 100–200 square feet to your living area.”

Regarding the tiny-house philosophy, Cavanaugh notes, “Although I talk to people who are into that tiny-house movement who say that it frees them up from their worldly possessions, I haven’t run into a lot of people like that. Most people want extra square footage for a family member — the maximum allowable by city code in lieu of adding to the main structure. I’ve watched those TV shows, and that’s a different group, with a mindset where they’re hell bent on living in 400 square feet.”

What motivates someone to live in a tiny home? Affordability is the most frequent spur, although some folks are attracted to the notion that size limitations force one to simplify life by, among other things, shedding possessions. Tied into the latter mindset is the theory, embraced by some, that choosing to “live small” has a salubrious effect on the larger world, presumably by using fewer resources.

“Earline,” an unemployed woman who lives in a 2000-square-foot house in Santee, says she and her husband are planning to live in a 344-square-foot cabin in Big Bear three quarters of the year. However, she admits that, to date, it’s been no more than an occasional get-away, with the longest uninterrupted span lasting two weeks.

“Last year we used it a total of two or three months, but before that, as little as two or three days a year. We bought it in January 1990 for $50,000; the lot is 25´x100´.” She disclaims claustrophobia. “We’ve had as many as 16 people stay there at once, but there’s so much to do outside that when you come home, you’re just thankful to have it.”

A chubby, churlish South Dakotan, she says she plans to live in the mountain cabin year-round, excluding winter. But she waffles about leaving her much larger full-time home.

“We have property in two resort towns, so that’s a hard decision to make.” Ambivalence about forsaking one “resort town” aside, she extols the ostensible virtues of cramped quarters.

“The best thing is that you have to work out your problems, your disagreements, your arguments. You have to solve them. You can’t run away to another room and leave; you’re there. Everything is intensified and you have to make it work. You have nowhere to go so you have to get along.”

What do you do with all your stuff? Do you just decide that you don’t need a lot of things?

Puzzled, seemingly nonplussed, Earline answers, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘lots of stuff.’ We have everything we need. We have a stove, a refrigerator…”

But without a lot of storage space, don’t you have to limit the amount of clothes or other things?

She replies, “Never thought of it that way; we have more than enough.”

But in your case, you have a main house which is much larger.

“No, no,” she protests. “You think differently.”

But once you’re living just in the little house, won’t you have a problem getting rid of things?

“No,” she insists, “you have to think differently. You think differently when you buy food, when you buy furniture, when you buy clothing. It’s a different lifestyle altogether.”

But it’s not for those who collect things, right? Isn’t it difficult to decide what to toss and what to keep?

Earline, who denies being uninterested in possessions, sounds a mantra: “You just keep what’s important. Actually, last summer, I went in and cleared out all the junk from 25 years. It’s amazing, even in that little house, how much junk you can collect. There was so much junk we didn’t need, didn’t want, stored away in cabinets.”

Are there people ill-suited to live in a tiny house?

“I’m sure there are people who can’t live in a big house. When I come home, I walk in, look around, and say to myself, This place is huge. It’s an interesting feeling, hard to describe; I can’t explain it. Then everybody dissipates into their own little rooms.”

She seems conflicted when I ask if she prefers a small environment.

“No, I’m not gonna say that either.”

What about people who have books, records, or other things but are interested in a tiny home? How do they come to terms with living in a very small space?

“I don’t know,” says Earline. “You just keep what’s important to you.”

Mark Silva views the tiny-house movement as part of a larger trend.

“The essence of it is that people are realizing that more isn’t always better, and it’s a backlash against the idea of having to impress everyone else with how much house you have, the McMansion where you spend thousands of dollars on a water bill and electricity every month. I have a lot of clients who are downsizing from 8000-square-foot homes to 2000 square feet. That doesn’t qualify as a tiny house, but it’s a reflection of a fundamental change. The tiny-house thing is an extreme version of that.”

Silva says that the City of San Diego is poised to embrace the trend.

“San Diego is right at the cusp. I just got a draft of the city’s proposed new Small Subdivision Ordinance to allow smaller lot sizes. Lot-size minimums have been a barrier, and if the city is trying to find ways to increase density, this is an opportunity to do that. If you have a standard 100´-by-60´ lot, you’ll now be able to divide that into four lots. With this new ordinance, a housing developer who buys a big piece of property can build more, smaller homes with the same amount of acreage.

Silva notes, “Some TV channel has been watching the trend and is trying to capitalize on it. I’ve seen a couple of episodes, but I don’t know how long people live in or try to live in those 150–200-square-foot houses. I would suspect that there are at least one or two builders who are contemplating erecting them....

“I haven’t had one built yet, but I’ve had a couple of inquiries. I’m considering tearing down my house in Clairemont and building one for my wife and myself and another for my studio, which would serve as a showcase for my small-house designs.”

Although the tiny-house movement has its share of zealots driven by environmental obsessions, Lauren Thomas notes that it’s far from monolithic. However, she concedes, “There are some purists who criticize others for not going to the extremes that they do; for example, living off the grid with a friggin’ composting toilet.”

Advocacy aside, Greg Johnson admits, “People would visit my 10´x7´ house and say, ‘That’s beautiful.’ But then there’d be a pause, and they’d say, “But I don’t think we could live here.’ What I’m interested in now are homes that people can look at and say, “We could actually do that.”

Bill Cavanaugh jokes, “To live in a tiny house, you’ve really gotta love your wife.”

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Anyone in San Diego interested in tiny houses, I have a meetup group with at least 5 of us building and many others dreaming and planning. Check it out!

http://www.meetup.com/Tiny-Home-Enthusiasts/

Is it possible to stack them? Like they do in a mausoleum.

If they built them with extra large Lego bricks, they could!

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