Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Affordable Housing: How Small Is Too Small?

The movement to build tiny houses has gotten a lot of attention, but it hasn’t gained much traction in the market. Still, there may be some applications for homes of just a few hundred square feet.

A row of small homes in Elm Trails in San Antonio.
Elm Trails, a development of 661-square-foot homes in San Antonio. By this January, 96 of the houses, selling for around $150,000, had been built or were under construction. (Lennar Corp.)
A couple of years ago, I watched a documentary about the lives of millions of Chinese people who had moved from the countryside to work in big-city factories. All of it was illuminating, but what struck me most were the apartments these migrants were living in. They were about the size of one of our walk-in clothes closets. I wondered who could live that way.

Later I did some research and learned that tiny apartments were common in urban Japan as well. Residents of overcrowded Tokyo, some of them more middle-class than poor, were living for long stretches of time in “microhouses” on 3-meter lots, roughly comparable in size to a couple of parking spaces in an American city. The British diplomat Roy Denson, writing in the 1970s, referred to them as “rabbit warrens.”

Was this a phenomenon of Asia, or could urbanites in the developed western world, even the least affluent among us, ever accept an existence on this scale? I tend to doubt very many would. But I also discovered that a strain of American thinkers has been arguing for two centuries that we take up too much living space and ought to be living lives that are more spatially compact. Henry David Thoreau believed this; so did Ralph Waldo Emerson.

One 20th century American architect not only advocated smaller houses but actually built a few of them. Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than 1,000 small homes, which he called Usonian houses, and saw about 60 of them completed in diverse areas of the country. They were one-story dwellings with flat roofs and cantilevered overhangs to allow for the collection of solar heating. They had no garages, basements or attics. There was very little storage space. One of these places sold in the late 1930s for $5,500.

Many of the Usonian houses are now open to the public, and most visitors find them uncomfortably cramped. But Wright’s Usonian creations were mostly about 1,200 square feet in size, much bigger than the microhouses of Tokyo or the closet-size apartments of Shanghai.

It surprised me to find out that the Usonian houses were also bigger than most of the homes built for middle-class Americans in the early 20th century. In 1900, the average new home was about 800 square feet, and often had to house a family with two or more children. The average size hadn’t increased all that much by World War II — often it was a Cape Cod-style house with two small bedrooms and one bath. Sometimes a finished attic made it feel a little more spacious, but not all that much. By 1960, the average new home size had increased merely to a Usonian 1,200 square feet.

It’s only been in the decades since then that middle-class homes have exploded in size. By 2000, we were building suburban houses that averaged around 2,000 square feet. Average sizes have grown a bit since then, though not by much. Wasteful extravagance, Frank Lloyd Wright would have called today’s homes.

SO PERHAPS IT SHOULDN’T BE TOO SHOCKING that in the first two decades of this century an architectural ideology emerged that called itself, and deserved to be called, the tiny-house movement. Tiny-house activists explained that these small places saved on energy, reduced pollution and offered affordable living for financially strapped house-hunters.

The movement gained momentum in 2013 with the release of a film called TINY: a Story About Living Small, which documented the construction of a tiny home by a recent college graduate, Christopher Smith, and his then-partner. As a writer for Grist put it, “Suddenly, tiny houses were popping up everywhere across the internet. You couldn’t shake a stick at your Facebook feed without hitting a shared photo of a wee storybook cottage.” In 2014, Netflix introduced a reality TV show called Tiny House Nation.

Actually, experiments had been underway for some while. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, architects and big-name philanthropists promoted tiny houses as a remedy for the sudden epidemic of homelessness. These were 400 to 800 square feet each, and attracted a fair amount of national media attention. But they were an urbanist outlier, to say the least: As of 2021, only 100 of the Katrina houses had actually been built.
A Usonian house
A Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Usonian house built in Galesburg, Mich., in 1949. Many of the some 60 Usonian houses that were built are now open to the public. Most visitors find them uncomfortably cramped. (FLW Sites)
In Washington, D.C., in 2012, the architectural firm Boneyard Studios designed four houses on an empty city lot that were measured at only 220 square feet. The architects described them as “an experiment in simplicity, and sustainability, and creative urban infill.” To relieve the claustrophobia one might expect, the designers offered communal amenities — notably an organic fruit garden with 16 fruit trees.

Even with fruit trees, this seems impractical for almost any full-time resident. And in fact, they proved viable only as part-time getaways for the somewhat adventurous affluent, in part because they failed to meet minimum size standards for permanent dwellings under D.C. law. By 2015, the original Boneyard group had disbanded.

YOU MIGHT ASSUME that the failure of the tiny-house movement to gain traction is due to a simple reality: Very few people would want to live in one of these places. But it’s more complicated than that. Surveys have shown there is a demand for them, even if not a huge one. There are other obstacles in the way. Potential small-house buyers have found it difficult to get the homes appraised, and without an appraisal it is very difficult to obtain a mortgage. Even if you can get an appraisal, many lenders have been unwilling to invest in anything smaller than 1,500 square feet. They warn that the financial trajectory of any house under 1,000 square feet is depreciation. They don’t re-sell.

A few years ago, a buyer who wanted to find something small lamented to the National Association of Realtors that he was effectively frozen out. He wanted a 700-square-foot house and had the qualifications for a loan, but no bank would work with him. “Our dream doesn’t meet the bank’s standards,” he said, “and it seems like none of our friends’ dreams do either.”

Blogs about tiny houses continue to turn up in significant numbers, but these days they are more likely to be negative rather than positive. “The Tiny House Dream Is Actually a Nightmare,” one blogger posted. Another shouted, “Screw Your House and the Tiny Horse It Ran In On.” Less-emotional critics tend to make the point that the most pressing housing need currently is for dwellings large enough to house families and that small houses simply don’t do much to solve that problem.

SO WHERE CAN THE TINY-HOUSE MOVEMENT, once briefly a minor media sensation, possibly go from here? The simplest answer is that tiny houses can be used for second residences or temporary guest accommodations for travelers. The Harvard Graduate School of Design began trying this in 2015 and had some success with it. Small houses can also be temporary dwellings for prospective buyers who are waiting to clear the bureaucratic hurdles on their larger purchases.

But there’s another use for these houses that seems more promising: Make them available to people who are homeless. Seattle experimented with a tiny-house village for homeless individuals in 2016. It was very limited — 15 units in all, built at a cost of $2,200 apiece. And at about 100 square feet each, they made most small houses look spacious. But by last year, there were 10 such villages in Seattle, with more than 325 homes. They’re owned by the Low-Income Housing Institute and built by volunteers. The city of Reno, Nev., is trying something similar.

And maybe the idea of tiny houses for the middle class isn’t quite dead yet. In San Antonio, a developer is building a neighborhood called Elm Trails with single-family homes of 661 square feet selling for around $150,000. By January, there were 96 of these houses built or under construction; about half of them had been sold. A video of the houses attracted 500,000 visitors in the first week after it was put up.

Not all the comments were positive. “I have more space than that in my Honda Civic,” one of the viewers said. But most of those who responded to the video seemed intrigued. “It’s small,” the video host conceded. “But it’s affordable.” “As long as it’s built to quality,” another watcher wrote, “I don’t see the problem. It doesn’t have to be big to be good.”

I suspect Elm Trails would work nicely in Shanghai or Tokyo. Whether it will work in San Antonio remains to be seen.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
From Our Partners