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Photo: Low Income Housing Institute
Six tiny houses share a common deck in Lake Union Village, Seattle, Washington.

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who spend their time trying to make life better for everyone. I know how easy it is to get distracted by headlines featuring people doing the opposite, but I find that focusing on the helpers is better for my mental health. The following article shows how well things can work when a city tries to make life better for everyone by helping those most in need.

At the community development magazine Shelterforce, Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), reported on a hopeful Seattle initiative.

“In 2017, I wrote a piece for Shelterforce on Seattle’s then-emerging effort to build tiny houses to shelter homeless families, couples, and singles. Over the past three years, Seattle has led the country in piloting this response to the homelessness crisis. …

“Tiny house villages are an effective crisis response to homelessness and have proven to be a rapid, cost-effective response with better outcomes than traditional shelters. …

“When Mayor Jenny Durkan took office in January 2018, she authorized the first tiny house village exclusively for homeless women. The Whittier Heights Village is located on property owned by Seattle public utility City Light and shelters single women, same-sex couples, seniors, pregnant women, and women with pets. The mayor also funded two additional villages: True Hope Village, which is church-sponsored and focuses on people of color including families with children; and Lake Union Village (LUV), for singles and couples, located on a city-owned parking lot. All three villages were planned, constructed, and opened in 2018, and together shelter 155 homeless people.

“How did this happen so quickly? The mayor prioritized the need. … A village requires anywhere from 6,000 to 30,000 square feet of vacant land, depending on the number of tiny houses and common facilities to be placed there. There are suitable urban infill sites zoned for residential and mixed use, as well as larger commercial and industrial sites.

“It takes careful research and help from local government to identify good sites, and we were quite surprised to find a large inventory of publicly owned underutilized and surplus sites held by the city, county, state and even the Port of Seattle. We also found multiple nonprofit, private, and church-owned properties that could be used. Nonprofit housing organizations own land that they hope to develop in the future, and these can be used on an interim basis, from two to four years, for a tiny house village.

“Each village needed only four to six months’ lead time to be constructed. … There are 15 to 34 tiny houses at each village, plus shared community kitchens, community meeting space, counseling offices, storage, donation huts, security huts, and plumbed bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.

“An effective partnership between multiple departments in the city and LIHI was key in setting up the villages. … LIHI staff led the effort to raise funds to construct the tiny houses, reaching out to hundreds of donors and volunteers. We applied for permits, led work parties to build the houses, and developed the management and staffing plans.

“We undertook extensive community outreach to neighbors, businesses, and the public, working alongside city staff, including the Seattle Police Department and the Human Services Department, which funds LIHI for operations and services. While not everyone was supportive, they were all provided detailed information on the management plan and code of conduct, and were invited to submit their names to serve on a community advisory committee. Each village, staffed 24/7, has Village Organizers and dedicated case managers to assist people in obtaining long-term housing, employment and services.”

At Shelterforce, here, you can read more details, including Lee’s assessment of how the tiny house approach compares with other initiatives to address homelessness.

Photo: Andrew Constantino
A row of tiny houses in the Georgetown Village in Seattle. I like how residents show their love for their place.

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Photo: Mohammad M. Rashed
Of the roughly 200 houses in Makhunik, Iran, 70 or 80 stand only 5.0 feet to 6.5 feet tall. Even this boy would have to stoop to get in the door.

Long before the Hobbit, stories abounded around the world about miniature races of people. In Iran, there is actually a kind of proof.

As Shervin Abdolhamidi writes at the BBC, “In the first part of Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver washes ashore on the island country of Lilliput, where he encounters the Lilliputians, who stand barely taller than [6 inches].

“While Swift’s Lilliput is merely a fantasy, a comparable village exists in the eastern extremities of Iran. Up until around a century ago, some of the residents of Makhunik, a 1,500-year-old village roughly [47 miles] west of the Afghan border, measured a [little over a yard] in height. …

“In 2005, a mummified body measuring [10 inches] in length was found in the region. The discovery fuelled the belief that this remote corner of Iran, which consists of 13 villages, including Makhunik, was once home to an ancient ‘City of Dwarfs’. Although experts have determined that the mummy was actually a premature baby who died roughly 400 years ago, they contend that previous generations of Makhunik residents were indeed shorter than usual.

“Malnutrition significantly contributed to Makhunik residents’ height deficiency. Raising animals was difficult in this dry, desolate region, and turnips, grain, barley and a date-like fruit called jujube constituted the only farming. Makhunik residents subsisted on simple vegetarian dishes such as kashk-beneh (made from whey and a type of pistachio that is grown in the mountains), and pokhteek (a mixture of dried whey and turnip).

“Arguably the most astonishing dietary anomaly was a disdain for tea – one of the hallmarks of Iranian cuisine and hospitality.

“ ‘When I was a kid no-one drank tea. If someone drank tea, they’d joke and say he was an addict,’ recalled Ahmad Rahnama, referring the stereotype that opium addicts drink a lot of tea. The 61-year-old Makhunik resident runs a museum dedicated to Makhunik’s historic architecture and traditional lifestyle. …

“Although most of Makhunik’s 700 residents are now of average height, reminders of their ancestors’ shorter statures still persist. Of the roughly 200 stone and clay houses that make up the ancient village, 70 or 80 are exceptionally low. …

“Constructing these tiny homes was no easy feat, Rahnama said, and residents’ short stature wasn’t the only reason to build smaller houses. Domestic animals large enough to pull wagons were scarce and proper roads were limited, meaning locals had to carry building supplies by hand for kilometres at a time. Smaller homes required fewer materials, and thus less effort. Additionally, although cramped, smaller houses were easier to heat and cool than larger ones.”

Ah-ha! The wisdom of the Tiny House was tested centuries ago in a remote Iranian village! “The sun also riseth and goeth to his downsetting, and there is no new thing under the sun.”

More here.

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Photo: Amelia Templeton/Oregon Public Broadcasting
The Granny Pods of Portland, Oregon, aren’t just for grannies. This woman and her family live in one — technically an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) — in their landlord’s backyard. Last year, Portland issued building permits for roughly one ADU a day, easing a housing crunch.

When I was a child, I used to hear a lot about zoning from my politically oriented mother — large lots were good, allowing  residential uses in commercial or industrial areas was bad. Times change. Some industrial areas are clean; mixed-use development improves community vitality; higher density in cities is good for keeping rents affordable.

Amelia Templeton reports for National Public Radio about recent initiatives in Oregon.

Earlier this year, Michelle Labra got a notice that the rent on her family’s two-bedroom apartment was doubling, from around $620 a month to more than $1,300. She worried she was being priced out of Portland and would have to move to the suburbs.

“But Labra, her husband and their two children didn’t get pushed out of Cully, their North Portland neighborhood. They were able to stay by moving into a little house, 800 square feet, built in a neighbor’s backyard. It’s a type of housing city planners refer to as an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU, often called a granny flat or granny pod. …

“With a lot of cities looking for solutions to rising housing prices, the idea of making it easier for homeowners to add small second units in their backyards and garages is gaining traction. Portland has among the fastest rising rents in the country, and it has embraced the ADU as a low cost way to create more housing in desirable neighborhoods. …

“Talking about the sudden rent increase [at her old home] brings Labra to tears. She was close to the other families in the apartment complex, and so were her children …

“The [apartment complex] was on the main street in Cully, a neighborhood on the northern edge of Portland with mobile home parks, ranch houses and small apartments built in the 1960s and 1970s.

“It’s also, according 2010 census data, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Oregon. Close to half of the people who live there are people of color.

“The residents of the Normandy started working with a community group called Living Cully and staged a protest against the rent increase. Hundreds of people marched in the streets back in February. …

“In an effort to arrest the gentrification of the neighborhood, Living Cully helped about half the families relocate to new homes in Cully. …

“Eli Spevak, a developer with the company Orange Splot, which builds smaller homes including ADUs … [says] Portland’s zoning code is contributing to its housing problems.

“On much of the city’s land, the code limits how many units you can build on a lot, so developers build the biggest house possible, to turn the most profit. There is an exception for ADUs as long as they meet certain criteria. …

” ‘The good thing about it from my perspective is they allow a neighborhood to have people with a wide range of incomes living with each other.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Jason Koxvold

Question: What is halfway between the book-sharing Little Free Libraries that are sweeping the country and your town library? Answer: A personal library set apart from your home in a tiny house.

The Today show interviewed an artist whose friends helped him build one, perhaps also securing themselves a place to stay as a guest.

Christina Poletto reports, “In New York’s Ulster County, at the base of the Catskills Mountains, Jason Koxvold’s woodland home has a new addition to the property that is nothing short of stunning. There, tucked among the property’s forest of oak trees, sits a tiny one-room library which holds 2,500 books.

“Koxvold, a British artist based in New York, owns the property and was inspired to carve out a space specifically for solitude and escape. ‘I work from this location and was looking to make a quiet space for writing and reflection,’ Koxvold told TODAY.

“When there’s an overflow of visiting guests, the forest library also serves as an additional bedroom. …

“Koxvold desired a simple, singular structure that he could construct on his own using red oak from the property.

“Using already-felled trees left over from the construction of the main house, cut trees were planed on site into large log sections measuring 8 x 8 feet. After air drying the 12,000 lbs of milled red oak for several seasons, they became the shelving and cubbies that make up the the library’s interior.

“Koxvold was able to complete this structure with the help of eight different friends over the course of a year.

“While the monolithic shape and black exterior is shocking against the natural forest forms, the interior, heated by a single small wood stove, is as warm as it is cozy. A lone picture window looking into the forest is a source of natural light. …

“If you’re lucky enough to be invited as a guest, you’re welcome to leave a private message in one of the books on the shelves.” More.

Nice idea about leaving notes. In Suzanne and Erik’s Harlem apartment, an entire wall was available for written messages. Guests loved it.

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Ready for another post on tiny houses? Here is a house built from scratch in Burrillville, Rhode Island, near the border of Massachusetts.

Kim Kalunian (now at WPRI) wrote about it last summer when she was still working at WPRO.

“Jessica Sullivan shares a nearly 200-square-foot tiny house with her husband in Burrillville. It’s 8 by 16 feet, but a small loft gives them extra space for a bed.

“While some tiny homes come prefabricated, the pair decided to build theirs from scratch, and started the process in 2013. They moved in full-time last summer.

“Today, they live on an organic farm, and their tiny home is completely off the grid – they use solar power and carry in their water. They don’t have an oven and instead cook on a RV-style stove top. They have a small bathroom, but there’s no shower. (Don’t worry, they haven’t abandoned personal hygiene: they go to the local gym or shower outside in the warmer months.)

“ ‘We don’t have a water bill, we don’t have an electric bill,’ said Sullivan. ‘For us it costs roughly $800 to $900 a month, that’s including our overhead in the house … our rent, our cellphone, our heat, our groceries.’  ”

Isa Cann of Tiny House Northeast, a professional tiny home design and building company, “who said it’s common for folks to put their tiny homes on wheels, said placement of tiny homes depends a lot on zoning.

“ ‘If the question is, “Where can we park a tiny house?” the first and best answer will always be, “Read the zoning requirements of the town [or towns] you’d like to live in before you get started to buy or build your own tiny house,” ‘ she said.” More here.

Kalunian also describes a tiny apartment in downtown Providence. All these adventurers in miniature living seem to cook on something like hot plates. Other than that I am a terrible pack rat and could never fit everything into a tiny house, having nothing more than a hot plate or camping stove would be a deal breaker for me.

Photo: Another Tiny House Story blog
Jessica Sullivan shares a nearly 200 square-foot tiny house with her husband in Burrillville.

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I’ve been watching a tiny house go up in front of the Umbrella Community Arts Center. It’s an art project that started in June and is supposed to wrap up next June.

The Umbrella said “Artist Miranda Aisling will be building a tiny house on the front lawn of The Umbrella and filling it with handmade items.”

I am now going to post the photos I have taken periodically, and I hope I get them in the right order. Even though the project is only half way, when I saw the new color today I said to myself, “Time to report.”

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The latest thing in tiny houses is taking a vacation in one. The Boston Globe suggests that if you have been intrigued about downsizing (way, way down sizing) to a tiny house, you could test one out. Or maybe you just want to simplify your life for a week.

Jessica Geller writes, “Getaway, a new startup out of Harvard, is taking the off-the-grid retreat and miniaturizing it. …

“For $119 a night, a group of four can book a cabin complete with hotel basics, such as towels and sheets. The tiny house is stocked with snacks, bicycles, firewood, and playing cards, all available for purchase via Venmo, a mobile payment system.

“Getaway … is one of the first projects out of the Millennial Housing Lab — a collaboration among the business, law, and design schools [at Harvard] — with the goal of developing fresh housing ideas for a new generation. …

“But are they too cramped for comfort? Jon Staff, a cofounder of the Millennial Housing Lab, says no. They’re full of conveniences. And they might just teach visitors a thing or two about scaling back. …

“In addition to Getaway, the Millennial Housing Lab plans to build tiny houses for the homeless and create kits for anyone to be able to build a house in 30 days.

“At 160 square feet, the 8×20-foot Getaway cabin is larger than the average minivan, 90 square feet, and a little smaller than a school bus, 245 square feet.”

Check out a few of my past posts on tiny houses: here, here, here, and here. And be watching for a series of photographs I’m taking of a tiny house going up gradually over the summer at the Umbrella Arts Center.

Photo: Kataram Studios

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Suzanne’s Mom’s Blog has featured a number of stories about both homelessness and tiny houses, so I was intrigued when a high school friend linked to this story on Facebook. It’s about helping homeless people build their own tiny houses.

Jen Hayden wrote at Daily Kos, “Out of the Occupy Madison protests a cool idea was hatched: Building 98-square-foot homes for those without. The homes have a bed, kitchen, bathroom, storage and propane heat. Future residents take part in building the homes. [According to WMTV,]

The homes cost just $3,000 to construct, most of it funded by community donations. A revolving crew of volunteers provided the labor, including Betty Ybarra. Previously homeless, she now resides in the home she helped construct. “It’s exciting. I’ve never even owned my own house,” Ybarra told WMTV

“After getting shuffled around the city while they figured out the best place to build the village, they finally settled on a location and it officially opened this week. [Reports Jennifer Kliese at WKOW,]

‘Rather than taking people from the streets and putting them in a building, we thought we could work together to create our own structures,’ says Luca Clemente, with Occupy. ‘We don’t give houses to homeless people, we enable people to build their own houses to create their own futures.’When complete, there will be nine homes in the village made from reclaimed and recycled materials. Organizers hope to add a garden, tree orchard and chickens.”

More here.

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Kai sent a link to a story about a guy who has his mother living in a tiny house in his backyard.

I had to laugh. The house is about the size of my garage, and as much fun as it would be to live in a child’s playhouse, I can’t imagine what a born pack rat would do with all her clutter. (Not to mention, how many grown children want a parent living in the backyard?)

Sandy Keenan reports in the NY Times, “In most cities, adding a second house to a single-family lot would be illegal or would set off an epic battle with the neighbors that could drag on for years. But not in Portland, Ore.

“There, this kind of housing — referred to officially as ‘accessory dwelling units,’ but better known as granny flats, garage apartments or alley houses — is being welcomed and even encouraged, thanks to friendly zoning laws. And additional living spaces are springing up everywhere, providing affordable housing without changing the feeling or texture of established neighborhoods the way high-rise developments can. …

“Eric Engstrom, a principal city planner, has seen these small structures become increasingly popular during his 16 years working for the city. And as he put it, ‘Given the low vacancy rate, when they’re done, you can rent them out in about an hour.’ Which means that adding an accessory dwelling unit, or A.D.U., increases the value of a piece of property. …

“It was in 2010 when the biggest changes took place. That was when the city relaxed the limitations on size and began offering the equivalent of a cash incentive by waiving the hefty fees usually levied on new development. Other cities in the Northwest have been moving in this direction, but Portland is the first to offer a significant financial benefit and one of the few that does not require owners to live on the site, provide additional off-street parking or secure the approval of their neighbors.” More.

I know of at least one resort community that allows accessory apartments for family members. It’s a good idea, but there’s always the worry that in the season, some folks will just rent them out to tourists and still need a place to stay.

Photo: Laure Joliet for The New York Times
A 480-square-foot garage, now a home: one of many small dwellings encouraged by the city of Portland, Ore.

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I was thinking about houses this past weekend.

First, there is this house on the grounds of a private school near where I live. I snapped it on my walk.

Concord Academy Treehouse

Second, there is this house on a Hudson River Estate falling down around the ears of the latest, impecunious generation.

Photo of Rokeby, a 43-room house on the Hudson River, by Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times. New York Times story here.

Third, there is a tiny house that a Hampshire College student is living in as a senior project.

James Sullivan writes, “As a child, Hampshire College senior Nara Williams hated being told to pick up after herself. This semester, she’s learning to keep things tidy — very tidy.

“For her senior project, she is living in a 130-square-foot house to explore the realities and benefits of living small.

“A few weeks ago, Williams took delivery on a model home used as a showcase for the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., a leader in the burgeoning ‘small house’ movement. …

“The housing project, Williams said, is her inquiry into ‘viable alternatives’ to the American dream. Blogging about the experience, she is raising questions about property ownership, material goods, consumption, sustainable living, and other issues in an era marked by housing and environmental concerns.”

Read about Rokeby, the Hudson River estate passed down through too many generations, and read about the tiny house, and pray that no one bequeaths you anything like the former. A tree house or a tiny house are what you want if you prefer to own property and not have property own you.

Update: Omigosh, a scathing memoir is just out on what it was like to grow up at Rokeby — reviewed in the Globe, here

Photo: Darren Durlach/Globe Staff
Boston Globe story here.

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I have been hearing off and on about something called the tiny-house movement.

Here is one of its proponents, Jay Shafer, writing on his site: “Since 1997 I have been living in a house smaller than some people’s closets. I call the first of my little hand built houses Tumbleweed. My decision to inhabit just 89 square feet arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space.

“My houses have met all of my domestic needs without demanding much in return. The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.” Read more.

Blogger Andrew Odom also is a fan of tiny houses. He lists several links to tiny-house enthusiasts.

“One of the things I am often talking about in regards to the tiny house community is….well, community. Through such wonderful sites such as minimotives, Tiny Tack House, The Tiny House, rowdykittens, Clothesline Tiny Homes, TINY, relaxshacks, and a host of others, I have made friends, cohorts, confidants, and supporters. This doesn’t even count the collective sites and their authors including Tiny House Blog, Tiny House Talk, and Tiny House Swoon. But I am always up for meeting more. So imagine my excitement when I was able to reconnect with Kevin of Cozy Home Plans. …” Read more.

A tiny house has a lot of appeal, but I know a pack rat like me would never manage. Would be nice to have a tiny house in the backyard, though — with nothing in it. Like living in your dollhouse.

Photograph: Tumbleweed Tiny House Company

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