Why I Hate Living In My Tiny House

by on April 26, 2021 · 8 comments

in Environment

Small backyard houses get a lot of attention as a solution to the housing crisis, but it’s a different idea in theory than it is when you try to put it into practice.

By Adele Peters / Fast Company

When I moved from Brooklyn back to the Bay Area a few years ago, I thought, at first, that the apartment I found was charming. It’s also very small: At the end of a long driveway, inside a former garage, it’s 240 square feet, or roughly the size of one and a half parking spaces.

I still live there— partly because rents in Oakland have surged more than 50% in less than a decade, and in a neighborhood where a typical one-bedroom now goes for more than $2,800, I can’t afford to move. I recognize the value of this type of tiny house, called an accessory dwelling unit or ADU, in theory. In built-up cities with little extra land and residents who fight development, adding tiny cottages in backyards is one way to help address the housing shortage. The small size saves energy and curbs my shopping habits, since there literally isn’t any room for, say, another pair of shoes. But I also question how well tiny homes make sense as a solution for long-term housing—and in some cases, as in the even tinier houses sometimes used as housing for people experiencing homelessness, I wonder if they can sometimes distract from other, more systemic solutions that are necessary.

As tiny houses go, mine is larger than some. One nearby shed-like cottage currently for rent on Craigslist is 120 square feet; another, which rents for $1,600 a month, is 200 square feet. A few miles away from me, a village of 8-by-10-foot tiny houses on wheels is under construction for homeless youth, with a separate communal kitchen and communal bathrooms. Hundreds of others are currently living on the street in much tighter quarters in vehicles or tents. While there’s no official definition for a tiny house, they’re generally said to be around 500 or fewer square feet, making my place somewhat medium-size as far as tiny houses go. (The average size of a new apartment in the U.S., as of 2018, is 941 square feet.)

It’s small enough that doing anything—getting the vacuum from a tiny closet or something out of a drawer in the kitchen—often involves a Tetris-like game of moving multiple other things out of the way. Right now, because I have one chair too many, lowering my Murphy bed from the wall means moving the chair, which then blocks something else.

I can relate to a moment in a Portlandia episode about a tiny house village when Fred Armisen tries to open the fridge and the door bangs into a ladder from the loft. (Armisen’s character, like me, works from home, and in another scene he sits on the toilet with a fold-down desk and his laptop, explaining that the bathroom doubles as a home office as he hands Carrie Brownstein shower gel.) My bathroom, a 3-by-6-foot “wet room” with a walk-in shower, is so small that it doesn’t have a sink, and I have to use the nearby kitchen sink to brush my teeth. Though the apartment is fast to clean, it gets messy equally quickly. Invariably, I meet friends elsewhere, since there aren’t enough places to sit. Even as a minimalist who once happily lived with an ex-boyfriend in a space that was only a little larger, I think it’s too small.

To be fair, the house is beautifully designed, with huge windows and a full, if diminutive, kitchen. For a few days or a couple of weeks, it would be a very comfortable place to stay. With some tweaks, it could be a better fit for long-term living; if the ceiling in the loft was a couple of inches higher, for example, I wouldn’t hit my head when I sat up and it could be used for sleeping, freeing up space on the main level for a more normal-size living room. For someone who spends long hours at an office and only comes home to sleep, the tiny size might be manageable. But for anyone not making a tech industry salary, the main problem with living in a tiny house is feeling like there isn’t another option: The tiniest apartment might be cheap, but there’s little available at a larger size that’s still affordable. Like friends who’ve lived in the same rent-controlled apartment for several years, I feel like I have nowhere to move.

There’s a clearer case for larger ADUs, which can be as big as 1,200 square feet under California law. One study suggests that the average size is around 600 square feet, which seems spacious from my perspective now. And there are so many underused backyards in the Bay Area—and in many other overpriced parts of the country—that building more ADUs could make a meaningful difference.

“There’s no silver bullet to solving the housing crisis,” says Michelle Frey, executive director of the nonprofit Urban Land Institute San Francisco. “It’s similar to climate change, in that it’s going to take all kinds of approaches to help deal with the problem. But there is a lot of potential around ADUs. There are about a million single-family homes in the Bay Area. If 10% of homes had ADUs, we’d have 100,000 units of housing. It wouldn’t solve the problem, considering there’s a several hundred thousand unit gap, but it could go a long way.”

The state of California has worked to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units, passing laws that block cities from charging homeowners excessive fees to set up utilities, waiving requirements for extra parking when homes are near transit stops, and streamlining permitting. In Los Angeles, the city pushed to speed up backyard home construction by going through the process of building a tiny house itself, learning what could be improved. Startups have also tried to speed up adoption, from Cover, which makes custom designs affordable, to Node, which builds tiny homes in factories to reduce construction cost, to Rent the Backyard, which gives homeowners a free tiny house in exchange for a cut of the rent.

Frey argues that in some cases even small ADUs can make sense; a quarter of Americans live alone, and don’t necessarily need much room, especially as many cities work to improve public space and there are an increasing number of places to spend time away from home. But every time I trip over a pile of books in my “living room,” I wonder about the larger picture. In the 1960s, the average homebuyer in the Bay Area paid around twice their annual income for a house. Today, it takes around nine times the median household income (in the area, that income is around $100,000). I’ve watched countless friends move away, from nonprofit managers to preschool teachers, because of the cost of housing. Even in less expensive parts of the country, the cost of housing is still unaffordable for many people. One report found earlier this year that renting a two-bedroom apartment is unaffordable for minimum wage workers in every state. We need more solutions, including different housing tech that can lower construction costs, new housing policies, including policies designed to spur more construction, and salaries that are in line with the cost of living; tiny houses, while cute, can’t fix those issues alone. Being able to pay for an adequate amount of housing—not huge, but larger than a tiny house or apartment—shouldn’t be so far out of reach.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 12:59 pm

This is the part I have trouble with:

“And there are so many underused backyards in the Bay Area—and in many other overpriced parts of the country—that building more ADUs could make a meaningful difference.”

What is an “underused” backyard? It is open space, a place to breathe, a break from all the buildings. Back yards are precious and they are disappearing every day. This “housing crisis” is killing single family neighborhoods as more and more people look at that empty back yard with $ signs in their eyes. They forget that their kids played there and their dogs had some outside to roam in.

I think back yards make a “meaningful difference.”


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman April 26, 2021 at 3:33 pm

Yesterday I scrolled through NYT ads for apartments in Manhattan. They cost upwards of $900,000 to buy and came with monthly tariffs of $5000+. They were miniscule and dark and jerry-rigged and astronomically expensive.
Ditto in spades for “tiny houses.” Filling in backyards with “tiny houses” is aberrant, and living in “tiny houses” diminishes the dweller. To have a house and a backyard with grass and garden with sun and shade is artfully represented as privilege these days, but it is undeniably a better way to live. People will fight to protect that hard-won privilege rather than let it be legislated away.


Geoff Page April 26, 2021 at 3:58 pm

I like that turn of a phrase, “artfully represented as privilege these days, but it is undeniably a better way to live.” Very well put.


kh April 27, 2021 at 1:15 am

More people are choosing to leave large cities. And the telecommuting options has made that more possible than ever. And yes it is always a choice.


Shannon May 24, 2021 at 5:32 am

Good Morning, I also live in a tiny home! I agree that there are many benefits that these homes offer to people at large as an alternative housing solution. Our home is probably about 450 square feet- on wheels. I think potentially many of the issues that are being experienced here is that the space is just not suited for you or that the builder has designed it poorly (based on the description is seems like there could have been better attention to the use of space to make it less inconvenient)- but I do appreciate that this is about tour experience in this home. In general, tiny homes are so unique and often designed for the inhabitant to go along with what works best for them, however, there is obviously a cost to having a a custom home. I am going to shy away from space or design as an issue and say that I think some of the larger scale issues are: zoning (specifically being able to place them after built), builder certification (many are not required to hold certifications which is an issue for homeowner who end up with poorly built homes or safety concerns), and barriers to entry financially (as traditional mortgages are not typically an option).


Yosef June 6, 2021 at 3:17 am

Sorry the solution is for the environmental regulations to be nixed. For the city and the state to fight residents who love whining about new developments to go to court if necessary and fight the knot in my backyard crowd. The solution is in the state banning huge corporations from buying and throwing money into the housing market so they can jack up the prices and make profit. The solution is in the government building more housing despite those who keep fighting the idea. that must happen otherwise people are going to be priced out of every neighborhood in every city.. the system protects corporations at the expense of the average person. What you’re proposing is not going to bring down the housing cost because any homeowner who is going to invest in a dwelling in their backyard is going to do it for profit not to help the housing shortage and that’s the problem with your idea. More government controlled housing and to do away with the environmental regulations that destroyed the housing market in California and to prevent corporations from buying excess amounts of properties and jacking up the prices.


Halena Green March 14, 2022 at 1:06 am

Report says, the minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom rental in 2020 is $23.96 per hour and $19.56 for a one-bedroom rental. Yes, the average minimum wage worker has to work more than 2 full-time jobs to afford a 2-bedroom rental in any state in the US.


Eva Alana June 27, 2022 at 10:22 pm

Nice post
Startup with food delivery app ubereats clone


Leave a Comment

Older Article:

Newer Article: