by James A. Bacon
I am tickled by the “tiny homes” movement, which the urbanist blogs treat with a certain reverence. To be sure, tiny homes (under 500 square feet) address a real problem: the unaffordability of real estate in some of the nation’s most desirable metropolitan areas. Tapping creativity and ingenuity to stretch the boundaries of design is vastly preferable to addressing the problem through coercion and wealth transfers, as the political class is inclined to do. Still, it amuses me that when Millennial creative-class types get so much attention, while a rural, blue-collar alternative — the mobile home — gets no respect at all.
A recent case in point is a profile, published yesterday in Atlantic Cities, of four tiny homes built on a single lot in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. Housing in the rapidly gentrifying District is unaffordable for many residents. By one estimate, the housing supply for low-income renters falls 30,000 units short. Writes Nancy Cook:
This is where evangelists for the tiny-house movement come in. Proponents of this small-space living say these houses can help fill the void. They can be built in vacant urban lots, allowing residents to reuse space in dense areas. More important, the tiny houses offer a cheaper alternative to buying a condo or a single-family house. Tenants of the Evarts Street lot in Northeast Washington—a community the owners call Boneyard Studios—built their houses for about $35,000 to $40,000; that is less than the down payment required to buy many D.C. homes.
The author describes the house of 24-year-old Jay Austin as having a “cool minimalist design” along with solar panels and a tank to collect rain water for use in his kitchen sink. Alas, the house “still lacks a shower or toilet.” On the other hand, the houses are built on trailers. “If [the owners] ever decide to leave the city,” writes Cook, “they can simply bring their homes along.
Hold that thought: a 140-square-foot house with wheels — no toilet, no shower — built for $35,000 to $40,000 exerts a hold on the imagination of young urbanists. Now, compare and contrast to housing innovations coming out of places like Rocky Mount, Va., home to Fleetwood Homes, or Martinsville, Va., home of Nationwide Homes.
Factory Expo Mobile Homes, a distributor that ships to seven states in the Mid-Atlantic region, offers an Annual Year End Sale selling a “micro” mobile home for $17,900. The 373-square foot structure contains a bedroom, living/dining room, kitchenette and a bathroom with working shower and toilet. It may not have solar panels, but it does have thermal insulation. It may not have a tank that collects rain water, but it does have a 30-gallon electric hot water heater. It also comes equipped with things like a refrigerator, electric range, light fixtures, plumbing and an electric furnace.
I’ll admit, this sucker is pretty ugly — the unadorned vinyl exterior has as much charm as a pair of old sweat socks. But when you’re paying down an $18,000 loan over 15 years at 3.5% interest rates — about $150 per month — you might have a little money left over to dress it up. And it’s a whole lot roomier than Jay Austin’s tiny home. Price is the big advantage that manufactured housing has over hand-crafted housing. (Finding land and utility hook-ups for either tiny homes or mobile homes is a separate issue.)
If you’re looking for something more stylish, consider the “Kinglet” eco-cottage manufactured by Nationwide Homes. This bad boy packs a bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen into 475 square feet. It sells for about $54,000.
Mobile home parks have a lousy reputation — but that’s mostly because of the poor and disorderly people who live in them. I’ve seen mobile-home subdivisions on the beach in North Carolina that were nicely kept up. Their owners added decks, porches and manicured gardens. The problem is that many municipalities have zoned mobile-home parks out of existence. It isn’t the housing they object to — it’s the poor people who live in them. But if you’re looking for a solution to the affordable housing crunch, mobile homes and manufactured housing should be part of the mix.