September 18, 2023

The Irony of Tiny Houses: Commoditizing Rebellion

Thumbnail_AliceHSBy Alice Wilson, PhD Student, University of York (UK)

Capitalism is amazingly good at devouring the things that would seek to challenge it, then packaging that same thing up and selling it back to people through its own market tendrils. It is somewhat of a superpower.

Tiny houses are one of the more recent examples of this. (I did a TEDx talk about people's motivations for living in a tiny house and what your life might be like if you lived in one.)

A tiny house is a compact living space, often ranging from 100 to 400 square feet, designed to provide all the essentials for daily living. These homes, which can be stationary or mobile (like those on trailer foundations), prioritize minimalism and efficient use of space. They've gained popularity as a response to rising housing costs and a desire for simpler living and reduced environmental footprints.

Rapacious land-banking by ultra-wealthy investors coupled with the worst wage stagnation since the Napoleonic war and an astronomically ballooning housing market means that  few can afford a house—and that might lead people to riot.

But no need to worry about that - look at this cute shed! It’s approximately as big as your mother’s spare bedroom, but you could buy it for just $30,000! Yes, you would have to poop in a bucket of sawdust, but look at this snazzy skylight!

Driven by Instagrammable interiors and the allure of freedom, these cosy little abodes have skyrocketed in popularity in the last 10 years. Younger folks especially seem drawn to the idea of living life on their own terms – tiny, mobile, and unburdened. My concern is that this is indeed more of an idea than a material reality.

There is a lot of value in ideas. But the tiny house idea has a few fundamental flaws.

Picture1Photo by Karl Hedin on Unsplash

These houses, barely the size of a traditional living room, have become  popular due to their symbolic power. For many, it's the call of a different life, one where the 9-to-5 grind is just a relic from another era and success isn't measured by square footage. Plus, there's the environment to consider. With climate change being one of the defining nightmares of our era, reducing consumption and our carbon footprint is no longer a fringe or hippy consideration—it's necessary for our continuation as a species.

What this story does not capture, however, are the structural forces that are creating the situation in which tiny houses can even emerge as a solution. It is admirable and good and wise to try and reduce our own individual carbon footprints. But just 100 companies have been responsible for more than 70% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Data from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute, found that 32% of these emissions come from public investor-owned companies. The enduring narrative about taking personal responsibility for your carbon footprint obscures the much more significant responsibility of corporations.

Likewise, people are looking to tiny houses because of how affordable they are compared to traditional houses or flats. The average house price in the UK right now is £286,000 ($365,000). The average cost for a mid-range fully fitted tiny house on wheels hovers somewhere around £35,000 ($45,000). It’s a big difference.

Many of the women I speak to in my own research explain how this huge price differential was a lifeline for them. They describe how being able to pay off a loan in 7 years rather than paying off a mortgage for 25 years meant they could work part-time whilst still being able to afford to own their own home.

Picture2Photo by Scott Webb.

I repeatedly noticed how the women I spoke to explained their tiny living situations as a personal choice which they had made to optimize their lifestyles. They were prioritizing their free time and were rejecting the work-to-live mentality.

What was missing was a broader acknowledgement that the conditions that put these women in a position of having to either live in a house the size of a room or work 40 hours a week for the rest of their lives to service a mortgage debt for a house they will barely ever be in because they spend so much time at work is a deliberately maintained situation.

As filmmaker Bree Newsome Bass explains:

Homelessness is a feature of the housing market. Not a bug. Not an unfortunate byproduct. It’s a deliberate process of denying people access to a basic necessity of life in order to create false scarcity and enrich the ownership class.

Tiny houses, especially cheap off-grid self-build tiny houses, have real potential to exist as a living argument with the established misery and exploitation of our working and housing norms. Thus, the market is working to neutralize them as quickly as possible. A concept that started as a breakaway from the mainstream now has its own glossy magazine spreads and dedicated TV shows. Suddenly, the rebellion looks a lot like the same old rat race, just in a prettier, compact package.

In tiny houses we see an intersection of personal dreams and market-driven realities. The desire to simplify and reclaim autonomy from a system designed for relentless growth has found its symbol in these compact havens. Yet, the very system we seek refuge from adeptly repackages our rebellion, selling it back with a bow-tie of sustainability and freedom.

I am not convinced that freedom can be purchased. While I admire the ingenuity of tiny homes, try to remember to scrutinize the vast, complex social and economic landscape they sit within.

Alice Wilson is runs the blog tinyhouseresearch. You can connect with her on Instagram here or watch her TEDx talk here


Interesting site, you can find so much here.

Living in a tiny house is not for everyone, and it's important to recognize that people have diverse lifestyles, needs, and preferences. What works for some may not work for others.

Not everyone is suited for tiny house living, and it's vital to acknowledge that different people have different needs, tastes, and lifestyles.

Your insights on the paradox of tiny houses within the larger socioeconomic landscape are eye-opening. It helped me reconsider the deeper forces at play behind the allure of these compact homes and question the true roots of the housing crisis. Thank you, Alice Wilson, for shedding light on the broader context.

the irony lies in the transformation of a movement that started as a rebellion against consumerism and excess into a marketable and sometimes luxury-driven trend.

Your article about tiny houses really made me think. You discussed how capitalism seems to swallow up rebellious concepts, such as living in a tiny house, and transforms them into products to buy. It feels like the system absorbs anything that challenges it and then sells it back to us. You also mentioned why people are interested in tiny houses, like the desire to be more green & environmentally friendly. It made me realize there's a deeper & more profound meaning behind the "Tiny Houses" trend.

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