Can you imagine another time period in history when someone actually made a living by writing books on how to organize or sort through all of your stuff? Amazon.com lists over 19,000 titles related to organizing the home in order to reduce stress, simplify your life, and bring you one step closer to that elusive state of contentedness when you finally plop down on your couch with a glass of wine and say, “It is done.” The problem is that after taking a sip and flipping on the TV you will find a barrage of reality shows about hoarding that are grotesquely mesmerizing and slightly depressing but hard to resist. It’s a fact—we have too much stuff in the United States and we could all do with less. The conundrum is complicated by the fact that some of those amassing “stuff” lived through some tight times themselves. Depression-era mindsets put great value on manufactured goods but when you consider the short shelf lives of technology today you are left with people saddling unnecessary monthly costs for storage units holding 1980s latest fashions, yellow-paged Janet Evanovich novels from that beach trip in ‘91, and a VHS collection that once drew the admiration of neighbors. This has become a serious sickness with which the mental health field now contends.
A simple solution that is slowly gaining in popularity and bubbling up through major media outlets is learning (or relearning for some generations) to inhabit smaller spaces. The idea is simple—smaller spaces necessitate better organization and more thoughtful design. The preferences of each generation ebb and flow, often acting as counterbalances to our parents’ desires as we seek to set ourselves apart and try something different. In the 1950s and 60s, an entire family with three children sharing one bathroom was the norm. Now, we need instructions on how to share a bathroom without spontaneously combusting or committing murder. My partner and I talk about living spaces a lot—what’s enough, what’s too much, how to pare down our belongings. She bought an RV and lived in it for her last semester of college in Miami, FL—talk about a lesson in organization and learning what’s necessary to live well.
So why has the American ideal of how much space is enough to live comfortably risen over the past few decades? The answer to this question is closely tied to the underlying functions that housing provides—security, an investment (for owners and a nagging money gobbler for renters) and a private respite from public life. Theories about the increase in housing size abound:
- “It’s all about context.” The achievement of considerable wealth by a number of Americans shifts the farm of reference, claims Robert Frank, professor of Management and Economics at Cornell.
- “Atomizing of the American family.” We have our fair share of distractions today. Many white collar jobs require long hours hunched at a desk clicking and responding to stimuli on a screen. Teenagers glue their faces to phones and shoot off 200 text messages in a day, easy. John Stilgoe, Landscape Architecture Professor at Harvard, sees massive house sizes as indicative of family members who no longer have to share space, interact in a meaningful way, or compromise.
- Purchasing larger homes seemed like a logical investment and a great way to build equity at a faster rate than the previous generation. “How the heck would you expect my family and our stuff to fit into THAT?!” The housing collapse over the past few years revealed shortcomings in that line of thinking, though.
The counterforce to the McMansion phenomenon that some have called dead with changing attitudes in the Great Recession is the Small Houses movement. Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House is credited with starting the Small Houses movement, but I think the movement derives much more from rationality and a number of people stepping away from widely-adopted middle class norms of living space and fruitless competition with neighbors to reexamine what they truly need in a living space. I actually found Susanka’s idea of a “not so big house” to be quite antithetical to the real small spaces movement. The Atlantic Cities recently had a great write-up by Emily Badger on the allure, practicality and even voyeuristic addiction of viewing small houses.
The small house movement still maintains a fringe status but has garnered some mainstream attention. Mimi Zeigler, who has written two books on small houses, seems more true to the essence of the small house movement and typifies the types most attracted to them:
- “First, she says, there are the people who are into tiny homes because they want to decrease their environmental footprint, to live smaller, with less stuff in less space. These are not your New York studio apartment-dwellers, people who live small because they have to. These are the Walden types.” They include DIYers (Do-it-yourself), homesteaders, and anyone with an interest in simplifying and streamlining their lives to avoid the negative health effects associated with material clutter, among many other valid reasons.
- “Next are the people who are tapping into kawaii, the Japanese concept that means, Zieger says, “more than cute – the quality of cuteness.”(Skip Wikipedia’s write-up and see ‘Coffee Land’ skit from Portlandia for insight into kawaii.)
The concept of kawaii honestly befuddles me. A more inclusive description would be those fans still in the nosebleed bleachers of the sideline—they’re interested in observing and maybe see the benefits of smaller living spaces but aren’t ready to give up their 2,000 sq. feet of living space just yet (or ever).
- Lastly, you have the puzzle people. They see a small space as a challenge in which to fit furniture, belongings, and appliances. They have no interest in reducing belongings but figuring out where to put them all. A number Americans could naturally fall into this category if they had the gumption to take on the challenge.
These are interesting typifications of people who are drawn to small houses, but how do these principles apply in a broader national context of an ongoing affordable housing crisis, thirty five years of stagnant wages, and an average, overworked American who has no time to coo over small space postings online but must choose from rental housing stock in her community or find herself on the street?
Shifting the collective psyche of a critical mass of people in America to embrace small spaces and reduced consumption will be no small task. These are some ways in which affordable housing in particular could benefit by embracing it:
- Lower construction and maintenance costs. To architect Dean Goodman, it’s simple mathematics. If you reduce the size of a home or apartment, it requires fewer materials and loses less energy traveling through wires and pipes. Habitat for Humanity specifies that a three-bedroom home in North America may be no larger than 1,050 sq. ft.—a reasonable standard sufficient for a 4-member family.
- Lower taxes paid on housing by affordable home builders and occupants. Property taxes in states like Texas are assessed based on property value, which is intertwined with square footage. Smaller homes=cheaper property taxes in some states.
- Health benefits to tenants. Kentin Waits suggested in his piece (see above link) that living in smaller spaces may encourage us to be outdoors more and presumably more likely to be engaged in physical activity. There’s no doubt that spending time outdoors has benefits to both adults and children, but it would be interesting to see data on the effects of smaller spaces on time spent outside by subsidized housing residents. It has already been shown that children living in public housing play outside more. More adult eyes and feet present on the street could embolden community policing efforts and combat widespread diabetes and obesity among low-income individuals.
- Mobility. With a selling prices as low as $20,000, tiny homes on wheels can be purchased. While this would probably fail to suit the needs of an entire family, low-income individuals or couples could benefit from the increased mobility. The biggest challenge may be finding a suitable place to park the units with appropriate hook-ups for water and. Additionally, there’s a need for zoning approvals for mobile residences and land to be acquired for infrastructural arrangements like RV parks to accommodate units. With the disinvestment and flight of employment opportunities from central cities and inner-ring suburbs over decades, the tiny mobile house could be a mechanism to quite literally chase those fleeing jobs. Although, this does not address the desire of most low-income individuals to remain within their communities. 15-20% of Americans already relocate once a year, with the majority of them being low-income individuals who rent, so this could still be a better alternative.
As with any ‘trend’, the staying power of the principles of this movement has been called into question and labeled a temporary response to the intense financial burn that so many Americans experienced in their housing investments over the past five years. The concept of shedding material belongings and adapting to more miniature spaces than we are currently accustomed to is not revolutionary. It’s where we’ve come from and could very well be where we’re headed. We shouldn’t fear or disparage it, but use it as an opportunity to pick our elder’s brains, ask them what it was like for them and take some cues from their formative experiences in living arrangements below the 2,000 sq. ft. mark. The next step is figuring out what to do with newfound time, money, and sanity not spent cleaning or maintaining a house or worrying about our neighbor's judgments.
Guest Contributor: Lucas Lyons