Can tiny homes solve the affordable housing crisis?

Given the extremely high cost of housing in some of the major metropolitan areas in the US, there has been a spurt in the tiny house movement, where very small available parcels of land are being used to build tiny homes, some as small as 120 square feet. There are even TV shows that feature these homes. These houses are quite ingenious in how they maximize the use of space.

On the surface, this option looks appealing for people who like to live a minimalist lifestyle. But it does have its drawbacks, as this person recounts about her own experience in living in a 240 square foot one. She was forced into this option because of high rents rather than it being a lifestyle choice.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Tiny houses are being offered as a solution to the crisis in affordable housing and even as an option for the homeless. The crisis is only going to get worse as housing prices in these areas rapidly outstrip incomes.

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).

One report found earlier this year that renting a two-bedroom apartment is unaffordable for minimum wage workers in every state.

This bit from the sketch comedy show Portlandia looks at tiny houses.

Portlandia-TinyHouse from Will Cate on Vimeo.


  1. invivoMark says

    According to physics, they are a terrible idea. The surface-area-to-volume ratio increases the smaller an object is, and heat flow is proportional to area. The smaller a house is, the more quickly it will lose heat in winter or trap heat in summer.

  2. cartomancer says

    You Americans’ idea of a tiny house would be considered normal sized elsewhere in the world.

  3. says

    Land speculators (jacking up prices) and the construction industry (building only mcmansions) made tiny homes necessary. So naturally, both have tried to bribe…I mean lobby politicians against tiny homes. Detroit and other cities have allowed tiny home neighborhood development because of declining tax bases. It was the only way to bring people back into the cities. Detroit’s homes are affordable to people making minimum wage, and eventual home ownership.

    Tiny homes are also a possible answer to redlining of the past, allowing people to own homes and stop wasting money on rent and start wealth accumulation. If the US government really wanted to make reparations to Black people for slavery, giving them ownership of small plots and 400 sq. ft. homes (2 bdrrm, kitchen, bath) would do better than giving cash.

    “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”

    As for the complaint about tiny homes, living in one requires planning and living with less. Her own words make it clear that she didn’t -- WHY does she own a vacuum instead of using a broom?

    My apartment in Taipei is barely 220 sq. ft. -- I own more than I’d like, and I still have plenty of space. Many people live in smaller apartments.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    invivoMark @1: You’re not fully considering the physics. Yes, the rate of heat loss/gain would go as d², where d is a linear dimension of the house, so the temperature in a smaller house would change faster (since heat content goes like d³) without energy input (heating or cooling). But the cost of maintaining temperature also goes like d². So the smaller house still costs less to maintain a temperature.

  5. Sam N says

    @1,6 Yes, it would be one thing if invivoMark had pointed out that it would be more efficient to have small apartments so that energy to cool/heat can build off of shared surface area (and would also have added advantages of pooling resources for common areas). But simply criticizing a reduced floor plan per capita on the basis of greater surface area / volume is a real problem was an asinine analysis.

    There are reasons some my find shared living spaces to be undesirable. I have no problem with shared spaces and wish more such housing units were available in US cities.

  6. Mano Singham says


    I don’t think we can pin the blame on all landlords. When the cost of buying homes go up, the owners have to increase the rent to pay for the increased mortgage, taxes, etc.

  7. lochaber says

    I feel like the tiny-home thing is a bit of a backlash against this trend of sprawling suburban mcmansions.
    But I don’t think it’s going to do anything significant for housing. For that, you need large apartment buildings in urban centers that are affordable. Even a 2-story building is likely going to house more people than that same lot jammed full of tiny homes. And then there is the efficiency issue brought up by invivoMark -- on a large apartment building, only one wall of each apartment is exposed to the elements, whilst the floor, ceiling, and other walls are adjoining other apartments with pretty similar temperatures.
    Not an expert, but one of the problems I’ve heard brought up is that there are large swaths of San Francisco that consist of ~2 story houses, and due to regulations and such, it’s almost impossible to build anything taller than that.

    I don’t think the problem is solely housing, but the combination of ever-increasing costs of housing, combined with stagnated wages. I think any effective solution is going to have to address both. We need to be paying people more, and have housing available that people can afford on minimum wage.
    According to google, U.S. median wage is ~31000. Where I live, a market rate studio is ~2.5K/month. So, about half the U.S. populace can not even afford rent before taxes here, let alone the other costs associated with living.

    gotta love capitalism…

  8. says

    Short answer: no

    Long answer: The current crisis, whether in Europe or the US isn’t housing but affordable housing. The rent in cities does in no way reflect the cost of building or maintaining the flats. I live pretty “rural”, though your definition of “rural” will vary, which means that both rent and housing prices are moderate, also because we have a big public housing company that provides lots of affordable housing. We used to live in one of their flats (not rent controlled) for 10 years. It got freshly insulated shortly after we moved in and our rent, including utilities except electricity was around 700€ for 83m2 (900ish square foot).
    This gets me to the first problem with tiny houses: land usage. This lady has about as much space as each person had in our old flat. Only that our flat was on the 13th floor so the same surface area had 13 times 83m2. Even if each flat was lived in by just one person, they’d still take up less space than the tiny house.
    The second argument I don’t buy, no pun intended, is that it curbs consumerism. She has absolutely no storage space. Where does she store food? Probably not at all, which means that she has to constantly buy small amounts, thus creating a lot more waste and also spending a lot more money. Everybody who’s ever run a household knows that you can save a lot of money by having a little extra money that allows you to buy bulk or things that are on offer. No cheap toothpaste for her, I guess. Not having space to store your off season clothing and shoes probably means that she’ll “donate” her stuff by the end of the season and buy new things, though I guess you could do with very little. Same goes for things like tools and shit. I suppose she’s using what you can either call the smug hipster or the Walden Pond solution, depending on which you prefer: You outsource all that shit. Starts with the washing machine, includes the kitchen, goes to your dad’s/mum’s tool shed (you put the thing into your parents’ garden anyway). It’s like my friend (who is absolutely NOT smug about it) not needing a car because she can always count on us to get her where she needs/wants to go.
    Conclusion: tiny houses use too much surface area and are rich kids’ toys that depend on having a lot of privilege (putting some up to shelter homeless people is a good emergency solution, but not a solution to homelessness).

    WMD Kitty

    That “high cost” is entirely artificial, though. We could easily provide affordable housing for everyone in the US if we wanted to, but landlords are fucking greedy.

    This. If more houses were built, even the fucking market would drive prices down. It’s much more profitable to let the land sit unused, or even complete flats sit empty, than to build more housing. Not to mention my favourite solution, which is publicly owned housing companies providing quality affordable housing for all. I would even *grasp* pay taxes to subsidize that, despite being a homeowner with a proper mortgage and shit.


    So the smaller house still costs less to maintain a temperature.

    What about insulation? How’s that tiny cabin going to be insulated so it won’t basically heat the garden. I have some sincere doubts that it will be able to match my brick and mortar house with additional styrofoam insulation and triple glass windows…

  9. Dauphni says

    Others here in the comment thread here have touched on it already, but let me say it explicitly: the problem of affordable housing is only a problem when you let people with a profit motive control access to basic human necessities.

    In that sense it’s no different than access to affordable healthcare, education, or even clean water. If people can make more money by providing a substandard service or even deny you service altogether they will, and that’s why you can’t leave basic necessities up to the market.

  10. invivoMark says

    @Rob Grigjanis 6, Sam N 7:

    Yes, if we assume that I meant it would be better to have large houses than small houses, then my point would have been “asinine” and would have been a misinterpretation of physics. It would also have been incredibly stupid, so I thought that readers would assume that that wasn’t what I meant. But this is the Internet, where people like to just assume the worst about everyone….

    @lochaber 10:

    And thank you for not falling into that trap. Yes, apartment buildings, shared spaces, condominiums, townhouses -- these are all far more efficient uses of land, energy, and building materials. A tiny house is only superior to a large house, but then you’re setting the bar as low as you can possibly set it.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    Giliell @12: Good point. For simplicity, I assumed the external walls would have the same R-value as for a larger house. While I’m reasonably sure that can be achieved with lighter materials, the cost per square foot would almost certainly be greater. A balancing act…

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    invivoMark @14: I didn’t think I was assuming the worst about you, and your point wasn’t asinine. What it translates into is that, for a smaller house, the cost of maintaining temperature per cubic foot is greater, even if the external insulation is the same.

  13. invivoMark says

    @Rob Grigjanis 16:

    That is fair, and what you say is true. I’m sorry to have lumped your comment in with Sam N’s.

  14. says

    I think some “tiny house” architecture can be useful in rural areas. I think it can also be useful for persons trying to get the most out of existing private property in urban areas that are heavily built up with single-family homes already.

    But as Giliell says, the real savings come from building up and sharing walls (and floors and ceilings) with neighbors. For certain heights, it’s cheaper to build up and add units than it is to build separate, adjacent units. On top of that are the energy savings.

    I grew up being taught that everyone should want a detached single-family home. I was wrong.

    If tiny homes make any difference anywhere, it is in places where people need to live, but aren’t sufficiently populated to build multi-unit housing and/or as a “bleeding edge cool” thing which gets people in countries used to having more space than sense (Canada, USA, Australia) comfortable with the idea that small spaces can be good living spaces as a way of ultimately changing opinions in such countries about the viability and desirability of living in large condo/apartment buildings.

  15. komarov says

    I’ll second the critics, especially Giliell and the woman Mano quoted. I don’t think many would enjoy living in a minature shed long-term. And putting one of those in every backyard is the very definition of a stopgap solution, akin to piling sandbags on a broken dike. You don’t want to keep churning out hundreds of pre-fabricated miniatures. And what you need in their place is one tower block that’ll easily house as many people, while being more comfortable and more permanent. I don’t know what the life expectancy of these miniatures is but I doubt they can compete with a well-designed “heavy” building that can be renovated or refurbishd as needed.

    As for actual home ownership, is that still a sensible option for many people? (unless they’re planning to let the place) Depending on the industry you work in, between limited contracts and specialisation limiting employer options, many people can expect to move frequently. From one job, one short-term contract, to the next, every few years -- unless they’re lucky to get repeated extensions. That is certainly my expectation -- except for the lucky bit -- for the future, and buying a house for myself woud simply both bankrupt and immobilise me.

    But the housing crisis has many causes, not just greedy landlords and inflated prices. Why are more and more people being crammed into already overcrowded, ridiculously expensive areas? Because that’s where the jobs are. But then why do many companies insist on setting up shop in already these cities even when there’s no tangible benefit to the business being in that particular location.
    If it’s just about prestige, being able to say “We’re headquarted in [Overcrowded Capital] and have a locations in [Populous Hellhole] and [Permanent Traffic Jam]”, just because everybody is there or it has some famous landmarks, please resign and put someone with a lick of sense in charge.
    It can’t be about having an interesting location in order to attract employees. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine anyone choosing an employer with an hour-long commute despite living inside the same city, when both employee and employer could be sitting in the peaceful outskirts and take day trips to the city when desired. But is seems everyone has to work in the city, preferably really long way up so you don’t have to listen to the traffic all the time…

    Still, another way to reduce overcrowding and make rural areas more attractive would be for more employers to embrace tele-work.* There are plenty of office-type jobs that can be done remotely, if you only go to the trouble of setting it up. It wouldn’t even have to be exclusively remote. You could have days where everyone still comes in and does all the “interaction” and “team” stuff that’s easier to do in person. It would make long commutes less painful, allow employees more flexibility in their living arrangements and work in general. It might even reduce office upkeep, since you’re not housing lots of people day by day, who, for the most part, may just be sitting in their little cubicles and work on their own anyway.

    (As a weird aside that just crossed my mind: It might be an effective, albeit terrible and backwards approach of reducing some of the seemingly ever-present sexual harrassment in the workplace by virtue of keeping the perpetrators at a distance. It’s the workplace-equivalent of the drug-detecting drinks stirrer: It might work but it says a lot that someone felt the need to invent it. If your business has become that toxic you ought to set fire to it and leave it there.)

    *Caveat for Germany, which famously has borked or perhaps forgotten network upgrades to rural areas since forever. Apparently not the best place for that sort of thing, either outside the cities (no net) or the big cities (net overtaxed). Or the US, which I hear has rubbish internet provides thanks to the oh-so-efficient free market.

  16. Sam N says

    @14, you’re free to feel that way, but in response to a post about people reducing a housing footprint to save money, you alleged that reducing that footprint is less inefficient (one can only presume the default of a larger footprint, what other information was there to go on?). I reckon from your further posts that you meant that individual housing is inefficient compared to shared housing. Which makes your initial post a strange way of pointing that out. Shared housing has additional advantages beyond savings from surface area:volume. It just seems like an odd way to go about making the point I presume you intended based on further explanation.

    Still, I disagree with your overall judgement, in that I support instances of smaller housing in suburban and exurban environments as an acceptable mid-step for many people who would not want to share resources. A practical downsizing from wasting resources on unnecessary space--especially in temperate environments. If I lived west of Santa Barbara for example, I could see this as being an extremely useful option. Minimal need to heat or cool the place, and mostly I just need indoor spaces for storage and sleep anyway. Otherwise I prefer to utilize outdoor spaces as much as possible for activities.I could have been ‘charitable’ and just assumed that you meant shared resources, such as apartment living is the best way to go. But this is true of urban environments for many more reasons than the very specific physics factor you mention. That seems to be making an awful lot of assumptions about your thought process that does not in any way seem warranted by the information you provided. And as I said, I’m not even convinced that the issue you highlighted is even the most important one energetically--that case could be made if you had brought up any of the other factors that increased housing density makes more efficient (distribution of resources, primarily).

    That said, I acknowledge my way of addressing this was acting like an asshole. I could have done so in far less of a confrontational and judgmental manner, and my comment for that reason was not a constructive.

  17. chigau (違う) says

    WMDKitty #21
    The ones we’ve been looking at were all designed by the fully-abled.
    I bet you could come up with a few ideas…
    . park your outdoor chair in the charging bay and switch to your indoor chair
    . roll into your space where everything is at the height you need: stove, oven, table, drawers, toilet, etc.

  18. says

    #21 & #22 -- Tiny House does not equate to ableist. I have seen several on Tiny House Blog and elsewhere that were effectively bungalows, a rectangular single level home with a flat floor from bed to kitchen to bath. The trade off is that they’re usually larger and not easy to move. There are more than these:

    I don’t have a mobility-related disability, and I’m no fan of beds-in-lofts simply for safety. Half asleep down a ladder at 3AM for the toilet? No thanks.

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