The big problem with tiny houses
They're big on Instagram, YouTube and Netflix, but in real life tiny houses are only a small part of the affordable housing puzzle.
Despite #tinyhouse on Instagram having in excess of 1.3 million global posts (and growing), the pint-sized property phenomenon in Australia is still more of a lifestyle trend than a housing solution, warns Dr Laura Crommelin from the UNSW City Futures Research Centre.
The urban and housing policy researcher said that while tiny houses are definitely cheaper to buy or build than a typical home, and look inviting on social media, it's a different story in reality.
The big snag in tiny house 'solution'
"The challenge with housing affordability is not just the cost or size of the [house] itself. The price is [mainly] in the land," Dr Crommelin said.
"If it's a [genuine] house, presumably, you need some land to put it on, and that has to come from somewhere and be paid for somehow. You don't solve the land problem by replacing a different type of house with a smaller, tiny house."
Dr Crommelin also argued that, realistically, apartments are a more economical use of space for the whole community rather than tiny houses.
"You can fit more apartments on a piece of land than you can tiny houses," she said.
She added that if the tiny house trend took off, communities would need to thoroughly consider all planning implications.
"Fragmented land ownership is something we already grapple with, so it would be risky to subdivide. And much like apartments too, if people are going to be living in tiny homes, they're going to need other infrastructure to support them as an add on to their smaller personal space like parks, shops, community spaces, libraries, and public services," she said.
As long as the great Australian dream is still to own one's own home (whatever the size), Dr Crommelin said tiny houses will not be a silver bullet solution. But they do provide food for thought in how we should plan the suburbs and cities of the future.
Finding their place
Heather Shearer, research fellow at Griffith University's Cities Research Institute, has interviewed several tiny house dwellers across the country to find out why they chose to minimise their lives.
She discovered that one of the greatest challenges is deciding where to put a tiny home (whether it's a fixed, or on wheels) as different council regulations can be ambiguous and confusing.
"I found that younger people don't really care if it's legal or not because if you're in your 20s or 30s it doesn't really matter if you've got to move on. It's like a stepping stone, they see their tiny home as a way of getting into the housing market," she explained.
"However, older people who may have invested all of their superannuation or savings into a tiny house are very concerned about the legality of it and where it is. It's also quite important to them to be closer to hospitals, their adult children, transport or other social services."
And while social media paints the trend as downsized designer "hipster homes" for young couples, Dr Shearer said it's not necessarily true.
"There's extreme interest in tiny houses from women over 50. There's a lot of research that says this demographic is at a high risk of becoming homeless, but it's not the traditional rough sleeping type of homelessness. They form what is called the hidden homeless living in converted garages, or they do pet-sitting or stay with friends from house to house. So tiny house living appeals to them."
It's not for everyone
In Dr Crommelin's assessment of the tiny house movement, the researcher also said she had concerns about the equity issues that come with tiny houses.
"If it's made such that a certain segment of the population … that's all they can aspire to: you're essentially saying that they don't deserve normal-sized housing like everyone else," she said.
"That's a real concern because there's no reason why we couldn't have decent-sized housing for everyone."
Dr Shearer said while she agreed with Dr Crommelin's viewpoint, her own research had dug up tiny house dwellers who are living little by design, not a last resort.
"They're extremely passionate. Many people say that it's their choice because they want to minimise, they don't want to be on a treadmill working two jobs to pay off a $600,000 mortgage. They tell me 'we want to live tiny, we want to be environmentally sustainable, we want to minimise our possessions'.
"I'm sure there are some people, for whatever reason, who feel they're forced into 'tiny living' but tiny houses are pretty expensive. If you've got a minimum of $50,000, or the time and space to build your own tiny house then you're probably not in that critical housing situation to begin with."
Streaming shows about tiny houses, or liking posts is one thing, but Dr Shearer said she can't see the online fad leading to an uptick in tiny house homeowners anytime soon.
"I don't think all those people who are into tiny house TV shows or social media actually go on to live in one. Think of Grand Designs, or any of those renovation shows.
You can love watching them and think your going to try those things at home, but do you actually ever do it?"
She said although the data is difficult to calculate, given that a "tiny house" can constitute anything from granny flats to garages, less than 200 Australians actually call a tiny house home.
"Tiny house living in reality is only suited to a very small group of people. But what this trend is doing is making people rethink their consumerism and the amount of space they take up. Do they really need that four-bedroom McMansion with two living areas for just two people? It does make them think, but it doesn't mean they're going straight from their big suburban house to a tiny house."
Originally published as The big problem with tiny houses