Tiny house movement challenges big issues

tiny-house-tiny-homeBy Kirsti Marohn

Compliments of: S C Times

There’s a growing movement of people buying and building so-called tiny houses, typically less than 500 square feet. Recently, tiny houses are getting attention as a potential solution to homelessness.

Lydia MacKenzie didn’t intend to be part of a revolution.

Lydia-MacKenzie-tiny-house-revolution-photo-kimm-anderson-stcloudtimesNine years ago, the online college professor planned and built a 18- by 24-foot house overlooking Big Lake near Richmond. With a kitchen, bathroom and living room all on the first floor and a sleeping loft upstairs, it’s a neat but cozy living arrangement.

“I don’t have the sense of (it) being small,” she said. “It’s just really comfortable.”

For MacKenzie, who has traveled abroad extensively and taught for a while in Ecuador, it was a natural fit.

“I’m a minimalist,” she said. “My footprint on the world is as small as I can make it.”

MacKenzie is part of a growing movement of people choosing to live by a less-is-more philosophy.

They are part of a trend of people buying and building so-called tiny houses, typically 500 square feet or smaller.

Contrast that with the median size of new homes built for sale in the United States last year: 2,598 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s up from 1,660 square feet four decades ago.

Blogs, websites and books have spotlighted the unique designs of tiny houses and the appeal of a simplified lifestyle and less preoccupation with accumulating stuff. Tiny house owners brag about their lower cost and reduced maintenance, leaving more time to enjoy hobbies, travel and experiences.

Tiny houses can range from low-cost units built from used shipping containers or other recycled materials to expensive custom-designed homes whose prices are anything but tiny.

Recently, tiny houses are getting attention as a potential solution to homelessness. They can be built relatively quickly and for minimum cost, but can have a big impact on the life of someone struggling to find stable housing.

A group of St. Cloud residents is working on a plan to build at least one tiny house for a person experiencing homeless, with the possibility of more in the future.

The group is modeling its effort after similar projects in other U.S. cities, including Madison, Wisconsin; Newfield, New York; Olympia, Washington; and Austin, Texas.

New approach puts housing first

Lydia MacKenzie very comfortable tiny house less than 500 square feetThe concept stems from a relatively new approach to helping the poor known as Housing First. It aims to provide homeless people with housing as quickly as possible, then provide services as needed.

At a recent meeting of the St. Cloud Coalition for Homeless Men, St. Cloud resident and homeless advocate Tina Lamberts noted that there are several places in the community where homeless people can get meals or stay in a shelter.

“What they really can’t get is a place to call their own, and the privacy and dignity that comes with that,” she said.

Research shows that the past method of making people jump through hoops to prove themselves before moving up to the next level isn’t working, Lamberts said.

“Really, the person needs the stability of a roof over their heads and knowing where they’re going to be day after day,” she said.

For homeless people, having no place to get out of the heat or cold, wash their clothes or protect their belongings is demoralizing and makes it difficult to get on their feet, Lamberts said.

“It’s all the simple day-to-day things that we take for granted are not part of their existence,” she said.

Taking after the New York model

MacKenzie tiny house basement with bunk beds for visitorsCarmen Guidi followed the Housing First model when he built six tiny cottages for homeless residents of Newfield, New York, outside of Ithaca.

Guidi was a successful businessman who had money, cars, houses and toys when he was asked to go to Haiti to help build an orphanage. Returning to the United States, Guidi was sickened by the excess and wealth compared with the poverty of Haiti.

“It just changed me inside,” he said.

Guidi started helping with a meal program for homeless people of Ithaca and eventually got to know many of them. He tried to help them find housing, but landlords wouldn’t take a chance on renters with bad credit, criminal records or no rental history.

He bought several campers and put them in his backyard for homeless people to live in. But the cold winter weather of upstate New York caused the water to freeze and made them difficult to keep warm, Guidi said.

Eventually, Guidi donated seven acres of land and built a community of six tiny cottages, each for about $12,000 to $15,000. Each cottage is built on a foundation and has a kitchen, full bath, heat and plumbing.

Guidi formed Second Wind Cottages and hopes to raise money to build a dozen more homes.

“Once I started, then people really started to get behind it,” Guidi said.

All of the cottages are full and there is a waiting list. There are plans to add a community center and a garden.

Having a stable home has substantially improved the lives of the residents, Guidi said.

“They’ve been getting a second chance where everybody else had given up on them,” he said.

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