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Land of tiny home people: Northern CA’s Small House Movement

There’s an area of about 60 square miles north of San Francisco where housing prices average about a half million dollars that has become a hub for the Small House Movement. My parents live in the area, but I had never heard of a Tiny House Person until two years ago when I went to film the 96-square-foot home of Jay Shafer in Graton, California. 

“I’ve been called the Imelda Marcos of Tiny House People”, commented Shafer as he tried to organize the shoes on his tiny front porch to make room for mine. Inside felt like a Craftmen-style bungalow, but in miniature. (See video A Tiny Home Tour).

The living room was eaten up by 2 armchairs, built-in bookshelves, a closet and desk and desk chair. Pot racks gave the impression of a well-stocked kitchen, but a toaster oven was the only cooking equipment and an earthenwear bottle supplied water to the sink. The bathroom was a shower/toilet hybrid gravity fed with water Shafer carried up to his lofted bedroom above.

Poster child of Tiny House People

For the past decade or so, Shafer has made tiny homes his life. He has not only lived in tiny spaces, but he founded a business based on the concept (the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company) and co-founded an organization to support tiny-home owners (the Small House Society).

Shafer is vocal about his housing choice in an attempt to draw attention to minimum size standards (many tiny homeowners like Shafer get around these by building home on wheels which are technically trailers) as well as to encourage debt-avoidance and a less materialistic lifestyle.

“Some cultures it’s believed that the true self, or the key to happiness, is actually within and that the more you pare away the closer you’re going to get to that,” he explained to me while standing inside his home. “My primary reason for living small is just to be happy. And I think that a lot of extra stuff gets in the way of that.”

Tiny house DIY divas

If Shafer- who has appear on Oprah, NPR, CNN, the New York Times, etc- is the poster boy of the Small House Movement, Jenine Alexander is the movement’s DIY diva. 

She built her first tiny home on wheels using just materials she found in the dump or on craigslist. Total cost: the price of a used trailer and some fasteners. (See video DIY home for less than $3000).

Last summer, I visited Jenine in the driveway of her parents’ home in Healdburg, California (just 18 miles from Shafer) where she was building a second tiny home with fellow builder Amy Hutto. (For video, see Recycled, reclaimed, passive solar, tiny house on wheels).

This “commercial” effort was more high-end than her original caravan, but most of the materials were still salvaged construction waste (albeit brand-new doors and windows that simply were sized wrong for their original intent).

I wasn’t the only one to show interest in their project, but Jenine still seemed nervous about their business venture.  “I have visitors coming all the time to look at my house, but I wonder if we’ll be able to sell this. And I don’t know how much of it is people’s idea that they want to live small and it’s a dream that they never fulfill. Or they are going to fulfill it but they’re going to build it themselves.”

An illegally small home

Jenine also knew that it’s tough to sell something that doesn’t comply with building code. While technically building the home on wheels helped get around minimum size standards, there was still the issue of where a potential buyer might park it.

“What we’re doing is potentially dangerous. We’re putting ourselves in a position where my home is illegal. I mean a house isn’t legally a house unless it has one room that’s 120 square feet. I mean if any of my neighbors had a problem they could say, you’ve got to get off and legally I’d have to move.”

At the end of the summer, I called Amy and Jenine again to shoot their completed home (See video Tiny home on wheels: breaking with minimum size standards). They told me to meet in front of the city hall. It turns out a neighbor had complained.

“We got tagged at Jenine’s house,” explained Amy. “If someone complains then the police are required to tag it. And if they tag it we end up with 72 hours before we have to move it. So we moved it here. Across from the city hall. And it got tagged again. So we have until Thursday for it to remain in this public location and then we can move it to another public location but we’d kind of rather sell it.”

The next day, they found a buyer for their home. Jenine didn’t reveal his identity or location on her blog, but simply explained he’d be parking it between Oak and Madrone trees.

Tiny homes as acts of civil disobedience

Just 30 miles south of Jenine and Amy in the old farming community of Petaluma, Stephen Marshall sells tiny houses by the side of the road. By keeping his units under 400 square feet, they qualify as recreational trailers and sidestep any need for building permits. (See video Little house on a trailer: 12 feet wide is not a tiny home).

“Everything we’re building here is outside the envelope of conventional planning, building permits. It’s an end run around that whole world that leads to unsustainable, unaffordable housing.”

Marshall built his first tiny home at age 22 as a way to afford housing in pricey Palo Alto (California). While these days most of his buyers are people in their sixties who are transitioning into retirement, he sees the Tiny House Movement as having two demographics: retirees and the younger set.

“The young people need an affordable space and are trying to imagine a more sustainable future.  That community are kind of self-starters and do-it-yourselfers.” 

While legally his units aren’t supposed to be used as homes (only his “caregiver cottage” can be used as a second unit by certified caregivers), he recognizes that there are people who are using tiny spaces as homes in an act of civil disobedience.

“The people who buy these and live in them, they’re generally living in them on rural property without the permission of the zoning authorities. So they’re actually living without permits and they’re living off the grid. It’s not a mainstream thing, but as time goes on it’s going to enter the mainstream as people find it serves a need for affordable, sustainable housing for the future.” (See video The human scale of tiny homes and McMansions as fad).