The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tiny homes are all the rage. So why do so few communities welcome them?

The political power of home buyers trumps that of housing innovators.

Tiny homes could be a solution to all kinds of housing needs. But when tiny-home developers try to build next door, neighbors protest. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Tiny houses are being hailed as an affordable answer for big cities — and are so trendy that they even warrant their own HGTV show. Their boosters promote them as the solution to problems ranging from homelessness to environmental waste to the housing crunch.

Yet opposition to their incorporation stretches from Charlotte to Bend, Ore. And it’s not only in urban areas that tiny homes are met with hostility. Many suburban communities are also using any means possible, including planning commissions and zoning laws, to prevent small, mobile housing units from gaining a toehold.

Those resisting the tiny-house movement frequently cite fears that it will bring down the prices of existing homes. As a San Jose resident put it, “People are sympathetic toward the homeless, but to put this in an established neighborhood doesn’t make sense.”

Reasonable on their face, this and similar arguments have historically served as covers for more nefarious and selfish motives. The debate over tiny houses today simply puts a modern gloss on an old housing problem: Profits and the convenience of the wealthy win out over the needs of the poor, even when the result is homelessness.

Implicit in such arguments is the notion that communities would embrace tiny- house developments if — magically — current urban and suburban areas had an opportunity to rebuild and incorporate tiny houses at the planning stage.

The great earthquake and fire that leveled much of San Francisco in 1906 exposed this reality. In the wake of the disaster, progressive reformers viewed the destruction of San Francisco’s vice and prostitution districts, as well as residential working-class neighborhoods, as the “great purification by fire.”

Out of the ruins, reformers anticipated the rise of a new model city where small homes replaced substandard dwellings such as apartments, lodging houses and residential hotels.

For the benefit of the working poor left homeless by the quake and fire, the city’s relief committee constructed 5,610 two- and three-room wood frame houses. These small, green, transportable “earthquake cottages” were placed in parks and on other public lands and made available under a lease system designed to culminate in ownership.

Almost immediately, they aroused complaints from middle- to upper-class San Franciscans, who groused that the camps in city parks deprived more-deserving citizens of much-needed open space and that the camps were creating a class of idlers and paupers. The city’s business elite led the critical chorus, seeking to exploit the tabula rasa created by the disaster by investing in the newly vacant, and potentially valuable, land.

Once the immediate housing emergency was resolved, many of the cottages were relocated in clusters throughout the city. Although this restored some of the  parks to open space, San Francisco’s cultural elite joined the criticism of the tiny houses. Working-class homes set in centrally located neighborhoods were inconsistent with the City Beautiful Movement, an en vogue urban planning philosophy that emphasized aesthetics in architecture as key to civic pride and engagement.

Leaders of this movement had always been reserved in their support of the cottage housing plan championed by reformers. While they tolerated the cottages that had been moved to outlying areas of San Francisco, they did not want them in neighborhoods close to the city center.

They used “public safety” concerns to cloak their motives for eliminating the portable housing. The new communities of the working poor were cited as the source of the bubonic plague that followed the quake and fire.

This charge, however, was nonsense: San Francisco’s Health Board reported that sailors, contaminated in other parts of the world, were responsible for the outbreak. Further, its initial spread was confined to patients and workers in the City and County Hospital.

The city nevertheless implemented the “one size fits all” remedy of destroying many of the earthquake cottages, especially and precisely in those neighborhoods with the most real estate potential.

Undaunted, tiny-home advocates continued to maintain that even the most humble cottage was infinitely better than the best tenement. Over the summer of 1907, they moved approximately 3,000 cottages, installing them on private lots with the plumbing paid.

Their efforts were thwarted when a city official, again resorting to vague claims about public health, declared that he would have the cottages “all removed from the camps … if he [had] to have the buildings torn down over the heads of the refugees.”

The ensuing panic left many people injured and cottages and belongings damaged thanks to hurried moves. Teamsters raised their prices. The war against the earthquake cottages, ostensibly waged out of concern for public safety, quickly degenerated into a race to clear the land, regardless of the human cost.

Location, rather than condition, increasingly dictated the fate of the surviving cottages — with government officials targeting homes in prime development areas, while repeatedly resorting to specious justifications about public health, even after the bubonic plague was eradicated in 1908.

In one instance, they conveniently cleared the Harbor View district of earthquake cottages after the area was approved as the site for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition.

Within a decade of the earthquake and fire, the great experiment in building a community incorporating inexpensive tiny houses was over. Reformers’ efforts to make the world anew by providing modest housing for low-income residents were trumped by business interests, combined with those of the city’s economic and cultural elite.

In the ensuing decades, residents in burgeoning suburbs would repeatedly deploy superficially civically minded arguments like those voiced in San Francisco — the need for open space, fears about overcrowded schools, crime, traffic and declining property values — for limiting or opposing outright the building of affordable-housing units in their communities.

This pattern is repeating itself today with tiny homes. Facing skyrocketing rents in suburban Mountain View, Calif., for example, the working poor created a number of communities of recreational vehicles (campers and trailers), frequently parked along the length of local parks. In August, local police stated, “If ordinances are being followed, we try to leave them alone.”

Yet this month, signs suddenly appeared at one of the more popular sites, prohibiting the parking of vehicles more than six feet high. Violators were immediately issued $38 parking tickets. Authorities claimed that safety concerns prompted the abrupt action: People exiting driveways, specifically customers of a Target store, had trouble seeing traffic as they pulled out onto the street.

The homeless and their advocates envision tiny houses as a practical solution to soaring housing costs. Environmental activists tout them for encouraging a minimalist, non-wasteful lifestyle and for being far more sustainable than recreational vehicles. Tiny houses have also fired the public imagination as designers compete and enthusiasts compare features of the many models available. Yet more than 100 years after the simple earthquake cottages provided safe, durable and affordable housing, urban and suburban zoning codes outlawing the installation of tiny houses remain inviolate.

Claims by property owners and business interests of possible threats to public safety posed by the introduction of tiny homes continue to dominate the debate, just as they did more than a century ago. Such claims ignore the immediate threats to the safety of people living on the streets and only thinly mask the concerns that truly dominate: the property values and profits of the already comfortably housed.