Opinion: Phyllis Merriam

Tiny houses are not solution to income disparity

‘Round and Round in the Circle Game’ (Joni Mitchell)
Posted:  Monday, March 18, 2019 - 9:00am
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The February 15 Buzz article “Young Ideas in the Age of Old Men: In Defense of Tiny Houses” by Liam Paul Sigaud was notable for its admirable youthful enthusiasm and misleading information.

Sigaud maintains, “with a little elbow grease and professional guidance a tiny house can be built for as little as $20,000.”  Additionally, the city of Fresno, California, and the tiny town of Spur, Texas, of 1,000 souls are cited as the vanguards of the tiny house movement.  

Fresno and Spur, Texas (a wonderfully perfect name for a Texas town), have approved Tiny Houses on Wheels – otherwise known as THoWs. You are unlikely to be approved for a mortgage on a tiny house on wheels, so they’re being promoted as a debt-free lifestyle. Unless one is financially blessed, there is no debt-free lifestyle.

The current and recently rescinded Rockland housing ordinances dictate THoWs are recreational vehicles. RV’s are not tiny houses and are not approved for year-round living in Rockland’s residential neighborhoods. Old or new houses, at a minimum, big or small, must be wired, plumbed and connected to the city’s water and sewer lines.  

 There is no way anyone could have a tiny house for $20,000. Even if one had the requisite building skills “to invest in high-quality building materials and meticulous architectural details” per Sigaud, the costs of building supplies have been steadily increasing. 

Normal-sized homes come with land while tiny houses do not. Scanning the local land prices reveals the least expensive parcels on Broadway and Garden Street are $19,000 for 8,712 square feet and $19,000 for 6,534 square feet, almost the cost of Sigaud’s tiny house.

Are there generous family members or friends who are willing to have your tiny house placed on a cement slab or built on a foundation in their yard? In that case, who pays the increased property taxes? The landowner? The tiny house occupant who pays the family homeowner for their increased property taxes? Property taxes in Rockland only increase each year. 

Can you be approved for insurance on your tiny house? What about plumbing and sewer hookups? Rockland ordinances do not allow composting/biodegradable or propane toilets. Cooking fuel?  Bathroom fixtures? A driveway? Heating? Wiring? None of these professionals’ skills are free or inexpensive. Neither are kitchen and laundry appliances. 

Do you install a combo washer/dryer unit that is too small to wash bedding and small enough you’ll get really tired and bored with the many loads of laundry? Will the laundromat become the major time consumer for the week? What to do with the accumulation of dirty cloth diapers should you have a baby? Where do you stash odorous dirty clothes in a tiny house until you go to the laundromat? 

Asceticism and minimalism may be laudable qualities but they are not universal goals and tiny houses may not be Nirvana.

While young folks may like to see Grannie quarantined in a tiny house in the backyard, as cited by Sigaud, most Grannies want to age-in-place in their own, familiar homes. In order to determine the type and extent of Rockland’s housing needs, and who is impacted, a comprehensive review of residential districts needs to be undertaken. Rockland needs the expertise of a certified city planner versus the anecdotal legislating in which our city council engages.

According to the 2016 U.S. Census, Rockland had 599 vacant housing units and another 158 housing units that needed upgrades to plumbing and kitchens. Demolition and new construction is far more expensive than rehabilitation of these existing properties that could help meet housing needs. Housing needs are directly met, or not, by individual income sources.

We should all be empathetic toward our young people who are facing huge college debt, inheriting a massive national debt that just reached past $22 trillion, and uncertain financial futures here in Rockland, which offers seasonal employment in our service sector with few well-paying jobs unless you have specific degrees or credentials in highly marketable skills such as a licensed plumber, electrician, etc. 

Tiny houses are not the solution to the ever increasing income disparity in America and globally. And fanning the fires of ageism is no solution to diversity either.

Phyllis Merriam lives in Rockland