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What the VW Beetle Can Teach Us About Housing

Is it time to “think small” to be more innovative and sustainable in our urban developments?

tiny home
The concept of very small, detached residential structures or micro housing is finding new favor in cities across the U.S.
Tomas Quinones
I can still remember seeing my first VW Beetle at a traffic signal sometime in the 1950s. In the midst of the muscle car era, where cars continuously became larger and longer with each model year and the horsepower race was in full gallop, this was something very different. Along with the Beetle came the award-winning Think Small campaign launched by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency in 1959, which introduced a minimalist approach to personal transportation. Before the Mini or the Smart car, the Beetle demonstrated the small car was an innovation with merit and mass popular appeal. 

Today we might be witnessing a similar change in housing and the need for McMansions and other palatial properties as potential homeowners question the necessity of large amounts of space for shelter. Some people have come to the realization that the care and maintenance of large structures -- ith the inevitable collection of furnishings, clothes and various paraphernalia -- complicates life. Instead of owning their home, their home owns them.

The small house movement has been slowly gaining steam as changing lifestyles and evolving economic realities increasingly make the average American home unmanageable, financially unattainable or just plain unnecessary. The aging Baby Boomer generation is moving into retirement and emerging Millennials can have different priorities and visions of what life should look like. Often strapped with college loans, the younger generation is either unwilling or unable to take on the responsibility of conventional home ownership and the mortgage that comes with it.

The convergence of these trends presents another era that is ripe for innovation.

It is not a totally new idea. The concept of more efficient living arises from time to time. The compact development of Williamsburg, Va., at the dawning of our nation, the charming storybook atmosphere of the Hansel and Gretel houses and others in the Comstock collection at Carmel-by-the-Sea dating from the 1920s, and even some Levittown-style developments that featured very small structures for post-World War II veterans and their families are all examples of smaller thinking in terms of housing.

But today, even in existing older urban settings such as Bridgeport, Conn., the concept of very small, detached residential structures or micro housing is finding new favor. Nancy Von Euler, program director of the Fairfield County Community Foundation, has been working on a project seeking strategies for young people to become successful and independent by age 24. Called "Thrive by 25," the community planning effort used a crowdsourcing platform funded by Citi Foundation, which provides underwriting support to the City Accelerator, to reduce 48 ideas down to 12 “graduates.”

Interestingly, 4 of the 12 ideas selected for further study shared a housing theme and the winner for the entire crowdsourcing competition was focused on tiny homes. Von Euler says the emerging housing issue has two dimensions. "On the one hand is the older population squeezed by their 2 acres and 3,000 square foot house and at the other end of the spectrum is young people who can't afford an entry level house," Von Euler said. One possible solution under study to keep older people in their homes is for them to develop an auxiliary tiny home on their existing lot. The additional structure would open a number of options for rental income or housing of a caregiver as needed. A typical tiny home might be one tenth the size of a conventional home and a corresponding fraction of the cost.

An enthusiastic participant in the study is local graduate student Alison Riith who discovered the tiny home concept on the Internet while searching for innovative housing options. "I just thought it was the coolest thing ever," said Riith in a recent telephone interview. "And I think that somewhere in this county (Fairfield), we should find a way to do it." Riith would like to see a convening of local leaders and citizens, noting that some of the greatest housing needs are centered in our urban cores and tiny homes might just play a role in addressing part of the problem. She stressed that she is interested in being a part of a community of owners.

It is obvious from extensive media coverage that the concept of tiny homes or micro housing is a hotter topic today than it has been in decades. It is the subject of at least two popular television series: Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunting, which spread the word every evening to a broad national audience hungry for new ideas. It is an increasingly popular idea and even seems to be a potential solution to other troublesome circumstances such as homelessness. Accordingly, it is tempting to leap to the conclusion that nothing further is required. Just stop the planning and build it, some might say. But it’s really not that simple and it's time for government innovation to join the discussion to help move things along.

For example, Von Euler pointed to the lack of uniform planning guidelines in her community and, in doing so, she put her finger on what is likely to present the greatest universal stumbling block almost everywhere else. Tiny homes sharing a site with existing structures present legal and service-related questions. How will the structures fit within the community's zoning regulations? How will they tie on to utilities? How will they be defined and assessed for tax purposes? In more rural settings with no zoning regulations, how will tiny home developments be defined, regulated and maintained to retain the original concept?

At the risk of sounding like a tired old planner/politician, I must also note that, in many cases, shoehorning the tiny home concept into a developed urban environment will not be easy from a social acceptance standpoint.  I've been present at enough public hearings to know there will be detractors. But still, it should be attempted.

Tiny homes, micro housing developments -- it all sounds so easy and so desirable. And, like the Beetle, perhaps the time for mass appeal of tiny homes has come. But the real opportunity for local government engagement is just beginning. Finding a way to make it happen on a broad scale won’t be easy. Still, if the idea of a minimalist car introduced after World War II by our former enemies using the simplest of advertising campaigns could result in a transportation revolution, the same can happen again. Perhaps we just need to “think small” and unleash the forces of creativity and innovation.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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