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Tiny housing...BIG PROBLEM

As rents become unaffordable and property ownership becomes a luxury, tiny houses are being advocated as a way of addressing the housing crisis both here in Aotearoa and elsewhere.

In the April 3rd, 2018, article “With rents on rise, city makes room for ‘tiny homes’ on land it owns” USA Today gushed over how people could get onto the property owning ladder by buying a tiny house for $140,000 or less if they live in Tempe, Arizona.

Reality TV shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters have both fuelled the current craze for tiny house living.

But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Having lived in a tiny house for twelve years and a caravan for eight months I have found they are not a solution.

Perhaps you’ve heard how such housing has a very small carbon footprint on the environment and they are so economical.

Let me know how environmentally friendly the chemicals used in those tiny house or caravan toilets are – or how cheap that stuff is. You can’t just use your favourite eco-friendly cleaner in such toilets. They require bleach-free chemicals that can be as much as $15 to $30 a litre. On top of that it has to be emptied out so there’s a good chance you will be polluting the local environment anyway. Many places have areas you can dump the waste but getting to and from those places isn’t easy and they are often located in inconvenient locations. That is assuming you can find them.

Of course you can always pee or shit in the bushes but that’s causing a whole series of problems by itself with so-called freedom campers leaving their human waste in parks and on beaches. This has created such a stink (both literally and figuratively) that restrictions have been placed on how long people can park a caravan or tiny house on wheels in a particular area. In the article “The freedom camper who wants to ban freedom camping” (Stuff 4/2/19), local people are said to be growing tired of the human waste and rubbish being left behind by caravan, motorhome and tiny home owners and the pressure being put on local facilities as the result of the sheer numbers of people now using caravans and other wheeled accommodation. Much of this is due to one big problem: tiny homes, especially those on wheels, need to be parked somewhere.

Motor camps have been closed down in many parts of the country. The ones that are still open are now increasingly full year round as they have become homes for people who have nowhere else to live.

There have always been small numbers of people who live permanently in motor camps. These people provided a steady income for owners during quiet periods when there were fewer tourists passing through. With fewer motor camps and most of them being booked out year round there’s often nowhere for people who have caravans or tiny homes to go. This is why they park in a car park and stay there for days on end.

The notion that living in a tiny home or caravan is economical is laughable. The housing crisis doesn’t just apply to the lack of apartments or housing. It’s also causing a critical shortage of motor camp places, motel and hotel rooms and places where people can park or set up house. This is driving up the costs of all these things as demand outstrips supply. Thus, rather than saving money, caravan and tiny house living usually ends up costing more. Among other things tiny houses and caravans involves paying (often hefty) rents to a land owner or a motor camp owner.

In addition to the cost of finding a place to park or stay there are other costs. Batteries need to be recharged, engines need fuel, gas bottles need filling and power has to be supplied. Also, virtually all motor camps have coin operated facilities. The need to have a constant supply of coins to feed showers, washing machines, dryers and other utilities becomes tiresome after a while, not to mention expensive.

For those of us without a vehicle replacing the fuel for the power generator or LPG gas bottle is difficult, if not impossible, without having to rely on others.

Most tiny homes and caravans do come with solar power, which is useful in summer but not so good in winter when the amount of daylight is limited and there may be very little heat. Get used to short showers.

Actually, you will need to get used to short showers anyway. Waste water tanks fill up very quickly and water tanks, especially in caravans, are exceptionally small. The former have to be emptied, the latter have to be filled a lot.

And it’s not just waste water and water tanks that are small.
Everything is small.

Food storage? Your pantry has half the space of the average sized supermarket trolley.
Clothing? A few drawers and a microscopic wardrobe. Great if you have only a few items. Not so great if you have more items or thick items. A single thick jersey for those cold winter nights leave little space in either a drawer or wardrobe.

Of course you can use overhead storage space but caravans and tiny houses aren’t noted for putting storage cupboards where they can be easily reached without clambering over a bed or bending down to get to drawers under the bed or couch.

Having such small spaces does have the benefit that you can’t hoard anything but even the essential stuff you do need takes up a lot of space.

For example even the smallest models of vacuum cleaners take up a lot of space and it’s very hard to use them in confined spaces unless you want to carry the wretched thing. Don’t even get me started on the hassles with finding somewhere to put them afterwards.

Washing clothes indoors is not an option.

There’s no room for a washing machine or dryer so if you don’t want to use a laundromat or feed a coin operated washing machine and dryer you’d better get used to hand washing or using a hand cranked washing machine. In a place like Wellington it can take days before washing becomes dry, if the wind doesn’t tear it off the line and send it down the road.

One good thing about tiny homes and caravans is a good fan heater can make them crispy warm during the winter and nice and cool during summer…while they eat up your electric, diesel or gas power more efficiently than a politician smiles.

Perhaps the biggest problem with using caravans and tiny housing as a solution to addressing a housing shortage is that such accommodation does not address the impracticalities for both families with children and disabled people. A statistically average household of two adults and three children would make a tiny home or caravan overcrowded, unmanageable and a perfect breeding ground for diseases. The tiny space in such places would make wheelchair use impractical.

Maybe some of you are remembering how great it was living in a caravan or tiny house (such as a cabin) when you were young? There is a big difference between living in such accommodation while on holiday and because there is no alternative if you want a roof over your head.
There’s nothing romantic, counter-cultural, environmentally friendly or inexpensive about living in caravans or tiny housing. It is something that is largely driven by necessity. It is pushed by a system that allows an elite of property owners to dictate who can live where and how much they have to pay to live there. A necessity created by a system that discriminates against people by a complex interaction of factors such as class, social status, race and familyetc. A necessity driven by the lack of housing where the demand for housing is greatest.

While news media may have human interest stories that highlight how tiny housing could be the solution to the housing crisis those of us who live in such accommodation have no delusions. It can only be a temporary solution.

The only long term solution is for people to be able to decide for themselves what type of housing they live in while taking into account environmental and safety considerations. What type of housing we live in should not be dictated by bureaucratic whims of local or central governments and those who serve them. It should not be determined by wealthy property and land owning elites regardless of whether they are state, corporate, family, trust, tribal or individual.

Appropriate housing must not become a luxury reserved for a few.


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