Washington, D.C.

A Tiny House Grows in Washington, D.C.

Is building a house that’s no more than 200 square feet the answer to the crisis of affordable housing? A band of D.C. residents thinks so.

A band of D.C. residents have built a cluster of 'tiny homes' in the Northeast neighborhood as a possible solution to the affordable housing crisis.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
Dec. 2, 2013, 7:10 a.m.

If you drive to the end of a res­id­en­tial street in the North­east quad­rant of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., you’ll see a small white sign, af­fixed to a fence, that points down an al­ley­way to Lot No. 21. It is a fairly mundane ad­dress for what its oc­cu­pants en­vi­sion as noth­ing less than a little patch of hous­ing Uto­pia — with the em­phas­is squarely on little.

Lot 21 en­closes four tiny houses, each meas­ur­ing no more than 200 square feet. To the homeown­ers, these small struc­tures rep­res­ent one pos­sible solu­tion to the crisis of af­ford­able hous­ing in ma­jor cit­ies.

One of the homeown­ers, 24-year-old Jay Aus­tin, ex­plains the concept as he kicks back on the post­age-stamp front porch of his mod­ern, 140-square-foot dwell­ing he calls Match­box. “I wanted to do this pro­ject to ex­am­ine how much space people really need rather than what they can af­ford,” he says.

Af­ford­ing a de­cent place to live can be a try­ing ex­er­cise in a city like D.C., where 57 per­cent of res­id­ents rent their homes. The me­di­an sale price of homes in the dis­trict rose 15.7 per­cent over the past five years, ac­cord­ing to Trulia, a na­tion­al web­site that tracks real-es­tate prices and list­ings. Rising prices have locked more and more res­id­ents out of the buy­ing mar­ket and made pre­vi­ously af­ford­able neigh­bor­hoods such as Columbia Heights, Shaw, Lo­gan Circle, and Bloom­ing­dale more ex­pens­ive for work­ing fam­il­ies and young pro­fes­sion­als.

Now, the city does not have enough af­ford­able hous­ing to keep up with the de­mand of low-in­come renters, says the Na­tion­al Low In­come Hous­ing Co­ali­tion. The group es­tim­ates that the city falls 30,000 units short. (The up­side to the city’s rising prosper­ity, however, is an in­crease in its po­ten­tial tax base to tackle prob­lems ex­actly like hous­ing).

This is where evan­gel­ists for the tiny-house move­ment come in. Pro­ponents of this small-space liv­ing say these houses can help fill the void. They can be built in va­cant urb­an lots, al­low­ing res­id­ents to re­use space in dense areas. More im­port­ant, the tiny houses of­fer a cheap­er al­tern­at­ive to buy­ing a condo or a single-fam­ily house. Ten­ants of the Evarts Street lot in North­east Wash­ing­ton — a com­munity the own­ers call Bone­yard Stu­di­os — built their houses for about $35,000 to $40,000; that is less than the down pay­ment re­quired to buy many D.C. homes.

“For me, it was more of an eco­nom­ic free­dom of not want­ing to be tied to a mort­gage,” says Lee Pera, 36. Plus, Pera and her fel­low tiny homeown­ers built their houses on trail­ers. If they ever de­cide to leave the city, they can simply bring their homes along. So, in the eyes of the law, these homes are more like campers.

The idea of build­ing and liv­ing in small homes has gained trac­tion over the past 15 years through the pub­lic­a­tion of books and blogs ex­tolling this life­style. In the af­ter­math of Hur­ricane Kat­rina, a hand­ful of ar­chi­tects built small cot­tages for dis­placed res­id­ents in lieu of gov­ern­ment-is­sued trail­ers. Oth­er cit­ies such as Port­land, Ore., are home to not just tiny houses but even a tiny-house hotel.

The D.C. tiny-house com­munity began of­fi­cially in March 2012, when Pera’s friend, Bri­an Levy, bought a va­cant al­ley lot off Evarts Street. The pair set out to re­search D.C. zon­ing laws and reg­u­la­tions. (It turns out that loc­al laws re­quire that the tiny houses sit on trail­ers, giv­en the size of their lot. Res­id­ents also can­not live in their struc­tures full-time, yet the law does not define what ‘full-time’ means.)

These laws mean that the tiny-house move­ment in D.C. re­mains an ex­per­i­ment. All of its res­id­ents, who hold down full-time jobs with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment or a re­new­able-en­ergy com­pany, keep oth­er apart­ments. “The idea of tiny houses is much more widely ac­cep­ted on the West Coast,” Pera says. “We wanted a show­case for this idea, and it was hard to find any­one loc­ally who had built these things.”

Three of the four houses on the lot are com­plete now, along with a ve­get­able garden, and a yard with bench, bis­tro table, and small fire pit for en­ter­tain­ing. When you walk in­to Aus­tin’s 140-square-foot home, it looks like a cata­log for Room & Board, with framed pho­tos, muted col­ors, a flat-screen TV, and rows of spices in the kit­chen. His tiny home also fea­tures en­ergy-ef­fi­cient designs such as sol­ar pan­els and a tank to col­lect re­usable rain wa­ter that he uses in his kit­chen sink. However, it still lacks a shower or toi­let.

Des­pite the cool min­im­al­ist design, prac­tic­al prob­lems still present them­selves. For one, it be would be hard for two adults to live in a tiny house — let alone a fam­ily with chil­dren. “It shows the ex­tent to which some people go to find something they can af­ford here,” says Peter Ta­tian, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate at the Urb­an In­sti­tute, a think tank in D.C. “You would think that someone with that kind of gov­ern­ment job would be able to af­ford some real hous­ing.”

Na­tion­ally, the tiny-house move­ment also re­mains more of a the­ory than a genu­ine fad. Just 1 per­cent of home buy­ers pur­chased places of less than 1,000-square-feet, ac­cord­ing to 2013 re­search from the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Re­altors, mean­ing tiny houses still make up a tiny slice of the real-es­tate mar­ket.

Don’t ex­pect tiny houses to rule the day just yet on solv­ing the quandary of af­ford­able hous­ing, es­pe­cially for a wide swath of people. (Hous­ing ad­voc­ates still ex­tol oth­er, more tra­di­tion­al meth­ods in ma­jor cit­ies, such as vouch­ers, tax cred­its, or hous­ing trust funds that raise money to buy and pre­serve units in up-and-com­ing neigh­bor­hoods.)

If any­thing, the tiny-house phe­nomen­on shows an­oth­er pos­sible av­en­ue. That was ex­actly the in­tent of the res­id­ents off Evarts Street. They wanted to build a “show­case” or an art pro­ject, Aus­tin says, to prove what is pos­sible when it comes to re­think­ing liv­ing spaces.

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