Step into an alleyway in the Northeast Washington neighborhood known as Stronghold, and you will see a vegetable patch, a campfire, a view of the Capitol and a cluster of what neighbors call “those tiny people, building their tiny houses.”
The people aren’t really tiny, but their homes are — 150 to 200 square feet of living space, some with gabled roofs, others with bright cedar walls, compact bathrooms and cozy sleeping lofts that add up to living spaces that are smaller than the walk-in closets in a suburban McMansion.
“This is the dream,” says Rin Westcott, 28, who lives in Columbia and came out on a wintry Saturday afternoon bundled in a flower hat to help her friend Lee Pera with a tiny-house raising.
Pera, 35, wore safety goggles as she treated the cedar boards of her “little house in the alleyway,” one of three under construction in what is thought to be one of the country’s first tiny-house model communities.
If these affordable homes — which maximize every inch of interior space and look a little like well-constructed playhouses — are the dream, they represent a radically fresh version of what it takes to make Americans happy.
Tiny homes first drew national attention when the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., now based in Santa Rosa, Calif., launched the concept in 2000. The idea gained visibility when it was featured in several national magazines and, in 2007, became the focus of the Tiny House Blog, established by self-proclaimed “lover of tiny spaces” Kent Griswold.
The small homes, some on wheels, don’t warrant many trips to the Container Store. There are no kitchen islands, three-car garages or living rooms that are never lived in. In fact, their increasing popularity could be seen as a denunciation of conspicuous consumption and a rejection of the idea that more is, well, more.
The group behind Stronghold’s tiny-house community calls itself Boneyard Studios. “As property values and rents rise across the city, we want to showcase this potential option for affordable housing,” the group writes on its Web site. “We decided to live the questions: Can we build and showcase a few tiny homes on wheels in a DC urban alley lot? . . . Not in the woods, but in a true community, connected to a neighborhood? Yes, we think. Watch out left coast, the DC adventure begins.”
There’s one problem: The city’s zoning laws don’t allow residential dwellings on alley lots unless they are a minimum of 30 feet wide, or roughly the width of a city street. D.C. is currently discussing lifting the 30-foot restriction. So, as Boneyard Studios continues to advocate more progressive zoning laws, it is using the property to showcase what could be.
“We want to inspire thinking about this as a possibility in the District,” says Brian Levy, 37, one of Boneyard’s founding members, who is building his tiny home in Stronghold but currently lives in a rowhouse off of U Street.
Although the diminutive homes are made of high-quality materials, they are priced for a flagging economy. They sell for $20,000 to $50,000, less than the down payment on a two-bedroom condo in a trendy D.C. neighborhood.
“They’re a statement that no one needs to be trapped in a mortgage they can’t afford in a house that’s too big for them anyway,” says Amy Lynch, a consultant with BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis-based company that studies generational trends. Lynch says tiny houses signal the end of America’s love affair with enormous homes. “The baby boomers raised their children. Now, they’re looking at all this stuff they have and thinking, ‘What has meaning for me now?’ Plus, these tiny houses are small enough that you can clean — actually clean them!”
Here in Stronghold, the tiny houses also signal a culture clash between generations with different ideas about which American dream to aspire to.
Jay Austin sipped Darjeeling tea as he looked over his construction plans. Austin, 23, sees the tiny home he’s building as perfect for Generation Y — underemployed, credit-crisis kids who know they will probably never achieve the “Mad Men”-era American ideal of a one-income family with a large house in the suburbs, two kids and two cars.
“I saved for four years for a down payment. Then, I realized I could buy a whole house for that money,” says Austin, who works in planning for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “These also give us the luxury of mobility; if I need to move for another job, I don’t have to pack a single bag.”
Still, some of the neighbors in Stronghold — where 1,800-square-foot renovated rowhouses sell for half a million dollars — are befuddled by the tiny-house movement, largely because they spent their lives trying to upsize.