While skeptics argue the popularity of tiny house living is driven by reality television and simply a passing fad, research is showing it’s a trend driven by a changing culture that’s defining how we live in the 21st century. A perfect storm of an aging population, boomerang college grads drowning in student loan debt, and lack of suitable and affordable housing for all but the affluent are only some of the factors driving the tiny house demand and the increase in multigenerational living.
Shifting Family Values
While the average size of new homes is at an all-time high of over 2600 square feet, suburbia is also home to the fastest growing poverty rate than any other setting, according to a recent Brookings Institute study. These suburban neighborhoods that popped up like weeds during post-World War II and continue to proliferate in many large urban areas are based on a romanticized American dream that some argue are outdated and ripe for change.
After the housing bubble burst ten years ago followed by the resulting financial losses for many families, people began to reconsider what exactly the American dream even meant. Many moved closer to family, for both financial and emotional support. Researchers at Zillow who’ve studied the housing shift have found that financial assistance and physical health are two main factors driving the increase of multigenerational housing. The following chart shows that for those 65 and older, proximity to family is a top priority when deciding where to live.
For young millennials with mountains of student loan debt, and their grandparents who are living longer and need family assistance, multigenerational housing – defined as households with at least three post-college generations – just makes sense. Adding an attached unit (ADU) onto an existing house or building a detached accessory dwelling unit (DADU) in the backyard creates an affordable housing alternative for all.
While Millennials make up about one-third of those living in multigenerational households, older adults 65 and over make up a hefty 21 percent. While it’s possible to assign a dollar value on the costs of creating an ADU or detached DADU, it’s more difficult to put a value on indirect costs – and savings. Your college grad could save a bundle by staying in the unit while they get on their feet. The cost and time savings by having aging parents under your roof or in your backyard as opposed to flying to Florida every other month is an important intangible that can’t be assigned a dollar value. Long-term care costs are simply unaffordable for many, and having mom or dad close can ease the burden for both parent and child as they age in place with family close by.
Shifting Family Structures
Societal shifts are in the air as well. We are seeing family structures revert back to mirror Depression-era households. The dominant nuclear family of the fifties has now shifted to multigenerational households where grandparents live with their children and often adult grandchildren under one roof. A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center shows that the number of Americans living in multigenerational households has skyrocketed, escalating from 51.5 million in 2009 to more than 60 million in 2014.
Multigenerational households aren’t the only demographic driving the tiny house demand. While many aging baby boomers are in jeopardy of seeing their standard of living decline due to rising health care costs, a rising percentage of older Americans have little or no familial support, with over one third of boomers unmarried. According to researchers at Bowling Green University, the golden years of boomers are likely to be a lot lonelier and poorer than previous generations. The need for affordable housing located in tiny-house communities with public transportation or in easy walking distance to commercial centers and health care is crucial for our aging demographics. Aging-in-place without the support of family or the means to afford assisted living facilities leaves the elderly few housing options.
Despite the increasing popularity of tiny house living, few local governments have defined policies that address tiny house building such as size, lot, or ownership requirements. All levels of government must strategize for this shift, and none more urgently than urban planners. Many communities are faced with stringent zoning ordinances that make building an ADU or DADU difficult, if not impossible. However, with the rising demand from homeowners and builders, many municipalities across the country are loosening their rules to more easily allow attached and detached units on existing homes. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu signed a statewide law that ensures every municipality with a zoning ordinance “shall allow accessory dwelling units as a matter of right … in all zoning districts that permit single-family dwellings.”
While some tiny house-friendly areas in Colorado, Oregon and California have adopted zoning codes that make it easier for homeowners to build tiny houses, many municipalities still have codes that make building a tiny house on an empty city lot difficult, if not impossible. This is often a city-by-city issue, with local governments reticent to change zoning regulations that have been on the books for decades.
Tiny house advocates see unlimited opportunities to create less expensive housing options in older neighborhoods with single family homes. Adding new housing to established neighborhoods, not trailers on wheels but tiny homes built on real foundations connected to municipal services, increases the tax base for cities, and it’s a discreet way of adding density and diversity as opposed to high rise apartments.
However, minimum square foot requirements in most metropolitan cities mean tiny houses, which are often 600 square feet or less, are illegal. Many younger tiny house homeowners try to fly under the radar by keeping their house on wheels – legally classifying them as “trailers” – parking in secluded backyards of friends or family willing to take them in and share their utilities. Not a solution for grandma or for those wanting a permanent home in a thriving community.
While the biggest roadblock to tiny house living has been local ordinances, perhaps we’re now in a climate where public demand will begin to sway city governments to revisit zoning codes in favor of tiny houses and ADUs. Our society is shifting, and perhaps it’s time for outmoded ideas of how neighborhoods are designed and what constitutes a “community” to be replaced with innovative housing adaptations where all generations can thrive.