Thinking Tiny

I just may end up living in a school bus someday.
Illustration by Tony Healey
Kimberley Singletary is the managing editor of Biz New Orleans magazine. A 20-year Southern California veteran, she has been surrounded by the film industry for most of her life.

 

“It’s like one of those ‘How many people can fit in a phone booth’ kind of fascinations,” laughed Maine-native Ken Wright as I stood with him watching people try and file into his 77-square-foot gypsy-wagon-style home, parked for the moment at Slidell’s Heritage Park.

During the first weekend in December, I was among those waiting to take a peek at Wright’s miniature living space on the Southeast Louisiana stop of the largest tiny house festival in the country. Wright’s home was one of many on display; all around 200-square-feet of living area or less. Inclued in the array of tiny homes were converted school busses (or “schoolies”), a converted box truck, a converted van and a tiny firehouse.

Living this way at first sounds crazy, I mean the average home in the United States is around 2,600 square feet. The average mortgage that comes with it, however, (according to the Mortgage Bankers Association) is just over $300,000 and the average American’s personal debt (outside of a mortgage) is $38,000. The average median income, on the other hand, is just over $59,000.

The cost of a tiny house (typically defined as a home measuring under 400 square feet) typically ranges from $10,000 to $40,000.

What does that mean? It means that every tiny house dweller I talked to — a group that spanned at least five decades in age — had one thing in common: they spent every day, not at a 9-to-5 job, but pursuing their own passions, free from mortgages, debt and even the necessity of having to stay in the same place. Every day they lived where they wanted and did what they wanted.

At a time when affordable housing seems scarcer by the minute and wages frequently fall short of keeping up with the cost of living, the tiny home movement has thrived. In 2014 alone there was the launch of a wide array of TV shows, including “Tiny House Nation,” “Tiny House Hunting,” “Tiny House Hunters” and “Tiny House, Big Living.” Simple living, minimalism…these are ideas that have thrived, particularly with millennials and retiring baby boomers. If you’ve ever dropped a car packed with stuff off at Goodwill you know the feeling it gives you. That lightness, that freedom.

But is tiny house living really do-able? Who does this?

Joining me at the festival was a colleague of mine, a millennial who currently lives with her mother and pet chihuahua. Although employed full-time, she’s found herself priced out of not just buying a house in New Orleans, but even renting. A tiny house has become her goal, something she sees as a perfect fit for her lifestyle.

And then there’s my parents — semi-retired and living on the Northshore, they have already downsized to a 1,600-square-foot home but have found even that can be more work than they may want.

While we toured these structures, with all of their creative storage ideas and sometimes surprisingly roomy spaces , (I loved one of the school busses that featured a full-size stove, tons of wood and windows everywhere) I started wondering, “Do people do this in Louisiana?”

The top tiny house-friendly states in the country — looking at things like resources, ordinances and builders — are (in order) California, Oregon, Texas, North Carolina and Florida. Louisiana is not in this group. In fact, we only have one builder, Elite Tiny Homes out of Houma. Formerly a financial analyst in the oil and gas industry, Wade Heyl began creating furniture from cypress and sinker cypress and that love grew into bigger projects. Since 2015, he has built four custom tiny homes. According to Heyl, there are currently no state regulations governing tiny homes, meaning any rules are governed by local jurisdictions.

Another tiny home dweller I met confirmed that Louisiana currently has no classification for tiny homes but says she holds out hope for 2019. She noted that Atlanta just last year passed an amendment to its city zoning laws allowing for “accessory dwelling units” of less than 750 square feet if they have their own kitchens. There is still nothing allowing tiny homes to stand on their own property or anything governing homes on wheels, but tiny home advocates have praised the move as a step in the right direction that, while small, can still open up big possibilities.

In a city where affordable housing remains a big issue, who knows, maybe some tiny could be in our future?


 

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