The Great Promise of Tiny Homes

“Life started feeling very much like a double-edged sword – to be working so much to pay for a house we don’t own, are never at, and don’t have time to enjoy because all our time is spent working to pay for the place.”

– Joshua Engberg and Shelley Engberg, ‘Tiny House Basics: Living the Good Life in Small Spaces’

Far too many Mainers struggle to meet housing expenses with work that does not pay a living wage. In Cumberland County, 61 percent of households cannot afford the median home price. That percentage climbs even higher in some coastal communities, like Stonington (89 percent) and Camden (80 percent).

Unable to make the numbers work, more than 6,000 Mainers found themselves homeless in 2016. Shelters struggle to keep up with demand. “We can only offer shelter to about 20 percent of the 100 to 150 area residents who need homes,” notes Stephanie Primm, executive director of the Knox County Homeless Coalition and Hospitality House shelter in Rockport. More than half of the 23 people staying at Hospitality House hold jobs, she adds, but cannot “break the cycle of poverty” due to high housing costs and low-paying, seasonal work.

Helping shelter residents back to an independent and stable situation, Primm says, keeps getting harder – especially with funds dwindling for the federal housing choice voucher program: “If we can’t find housing and move people, then our whole program is a 16-car pileup.”

In search of creative solutions, Primm and her staff teamed up with Tia Anderson, executive director of Midcoast Habitat for Humanity. They found inspiration in a South Carolina project called Opportunity Village, where volunteers built two dozen tiny houses for homeless community members. The village relies on a common building for cooking and recreation.

The midcoast partners began to envision a cluster of 10 to 14 tiny homes on the land behind Hospitality House that could extend the shelter’s supportive community while offering residents more privacy. Given the acute sense of loss endured by those who are homeless, a tiny home base might provide some solace.

That promise helped propel a similar project, Cabin in the Woods, at the Togus Veterans Administration campus in Chelsea. To meet the needs of homeless veterans, Volunteers of America Northern New England recently began constructing this community of 16 one-bedroom cabins, five two-bedroom cabins and a community cabin, all of them energy-efficient and accessible to those with disabilities.

Cabin in the Woods took more than five years to reach groundbreaking, but the midcoast partners hope to be on a faster track. Habitat for Humanity volunteers have already finished the first tiny home at Hospitality House. What Primm jestingly calls their “little house billboard” – the prototype set temporarily by the road – is capturing attention. “This little house has gotten us more press than three years of helping homeless people,” Primm says.

Tiny homes hold undeniable charm, and there’s a thriving international movement of people convinced they can “live bigger” without the weight of rental or mortgage payments, expensive utilities and time-consuming home upkeep. Proponents claim that small-scale living is paradoxically freeing, giving them more work and travel options, and deepening their ties with the natural world and their community. Small houses are also gentler on the environment – using less electricity, heat and water than conventional homes.

Tiny houses (typically under 400 square feet) hold great potential to address affordable housing challenges as they are within financial reach of minimum-wage workers. In Detroit, for example, an innovative rent-to-own model now gives low-income residents who would not qualify for a mortgage an opportunity to own a tiny house, potentially paying it off in just seven years and getting $40,000 in equity.

Tiny houses can face challenges with zoning ordinances and building codes, but the regulatory landscape is starting to change. Rockport planner James Francomano says he was receptive to the Hospitality House project because its leaders were “smart and flexible in thinking ahead and reaching out.” They made a “clear and convincing case,” he said, that the new units could comply with the code for accessory structures because they will rely on a common dining and living area.

The Maine Uniform Building and Energy Code will soon add language concerning tiny houses, making it easier for municipalities to review small structures that are self-contained dwelling units.

While acknowledging that their timeline is “aspirational,” Primm and Anderson say they hope to have the cluster of tiny homes in Rockport ready by the fall of 2018. Each house will cost about $15,000, and they are seeking individual, business and community group sponsors.

Hospitality House’s director of development Becca Gildred sees the project as meeting a broader cultural need. Tiny home villages, she believes, offer a way to recreate “real community the way it used to be – with all generations, all classes, all viewpoints.”

That trend is underway, Anderson affirms, as Mainers seek out ways to stretch their dollars, lighten their environmental impact and feel more connected to neighbors. Midcoast Habitat for Humanity recently acquired land where it plans to construct 10 to 14 small homes primarily designed for single, middle-aged residents struggling to find year-round housing. Anderson expects to see a growing focus on building small and fostering community. “It’s really (about) creating a sustainable solution.”

© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.