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Monday, October 24, 2016

Tiny homes-- the solution to Oregon's housing crisis?

There is a deeply held belief in Oregon that tiny homes are going to solve the affordable housing crisis. At a forum last week, the Pacific Green candidate for county commissioner proclaimed that “People are dying to live in tiny homes! They were lined up around the block at a trade show to see inside one.” I sighed. People love to look at tiny homes—and they are very cool--but do they know what it is like to live in one?

                When I was eight, my parents decided to sell the house they had built in Hampstead, New Hampshire and buy a camper so that we could travel around the United States. It was 1969. We spent a year visiting trade shows and RV lots, looking for our new home. I was in love—all of those tiny, well-designed spaces for living….We found the perfect camper; it was a couple of feet longer than the others so that it had a side door. The inside was a very modern harvest gold and tweedy brown. My parents promised that the space above the cab was mine, so I lined it with my books, packed my clothes in the overhead compartments, and settled in. Our new puppy found her space under the table. For a year, I ate dinner with my feet resting warmly on the dog.

                The trip was amazing. We drove across the northern U.S., camping in state parks and along the road. In Washington, we spent a week on the Olympic Peninsula while I roamed the empty foggy beaches with Honey. We camped one night by the side of 101, where my father said you could “spit a mile” straight down. It was cool and misty. My mother lit the gas lamp which provided both heat and light and cooked dinner. I walked down the road while I waited—the camper was a golden beacon in a dark world. We ran out of money in California, worked for a few weeks, stopped in Las Vegas (where I won over twenty dollars in the nickel slot machines), and drove quickly across Texas to Florida, where we had family.

                We spent the winter living in the camper. It was not a hardship. In Florida, you live outside. We set up a table, chairs, and pretend classroom on the space beside the camper. The showers were down the road a bit; the laundry room made a great hair drier.  One campground was set in the “Gardens of  Light” where colored lights lit up palm trees along boardwalks. There was even a swimming pond. My parents worked. I went to school. We were normal; several other families lived in the park with us. Florida schools were set up for transient students.  In the spring, we came home. By fall, we had a house. Even so, my mother and I spent summers in the camper in New Hampshire, settled in alongside my aunt’s house on the lake.  Twenty years later, I made the same trip, living in my VW vanagon for three months—and many smaller trips since then. I love living in small spaces.

                That being said, tiny houses are not the solution to an affordable housing crisis built upon the rising costs of land because of demand and an excellent, strong land use law. It would be far more efficient to build studio apartment complexes on the same land; apartments are less resource intensive and expensive than hand-built tiny homes and provide the same level of independence as well as protection from the rain.

 Tiny homes are, also, honestly, artisanal RVs. Would you be willing to have an RV park next door to your house? If so, I could support that. There are hundreds of dying RVs on the back roads of Oregon. I counted at least fifty one afternoon, driving from the Otis CafĂ© to the turn-off to Monmouth.  This was not a functional vehicle count, parked in driveways; these were the ones buried in blue tarps and blackberries. I’d be thrilled to haul them out, fix them up, settle them into a well-managed park, and rent them out for nominal rates to local house-less people. That seems like a win-win to me. However, it would not be a cool looking as a tiny home compound.

Finally, tiny homes are not practical in muddy, rainy climates, especially some of the smaller designs that do not have fully functional kitchens and bathrooms. They may work well in dry climates, where roommates can escape to the back yard for some space, but here, where we are often inside, they would be very difficult to endure. Walking to the bathroom is charming while camping in a yurt at Silver Falls or spending a night at Breittenbush Hot Springs; it grows old fast in a downpour when you track mud inside after every trip or when you do not feel well.  I challenge anyone who thinks that tiny homes are a serious solution to the housing crisis to try living in one for the month of January in Oregon, with their entire family and, perhaps, a wet dog thrown in for good measure.  
               

                

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