2016 – Little House Emissaries

Published in DigBoston, May 5, 2016

Photo by Alison Mead

From Martha’s Vineyard to Boston to Los Angeles, the small home movement struggles for acceptance at the end of the road

“That’s definitely tiny.”

Mike Mitchell is standing outside of a blue cottage with scalloped roof trimming on Martha’s Vineyard in an area known to locals as “The Campground,” or Wesleyan Grove. He’s a carpenter in his 60s with light eyes and a sunny demeanor, and he’s part of the minority (about 10 percent) of the cottage owners who remain on the 34-acre swath of land in the off-season. The cottages have an otherworldly quality: cobblestone paths, playful animal carvings, and whimsical sayings like “La Dolce Vita” or “Summer Love.” The compound seems like it came straight out of a children’s storybook setting, or Epcot.

This particular house is about 12.5 by 27 feet. It’s among the smaller of the cottages that are on the campground, which total just over 300, but everything about cottage life is relatively small compared to the typical American household. For Mitchell, Wesleyan Grove is a real-life example of what a tiny house community might look like, something that he hopes to one day see on Martha’s Vineyard.

“My vision is you take a land lot that can fit a four-to-six-bedroom house,” he says. “And instead of that, put four or six tiny houses, and you cluster them, kind of like the campground.”

“Tiny houses could be an affordable option for the island’s working class,” Mitchell adds. “This includes plumbers, carpenters, and teachers.”

Tiny houses have hit headlines for their eccentricities and, most recently, as a way to help the 44,000 homeless people in and around Los Angeles. At least, that’s what LA resident Elvis Summers was hoping for when he constructed and gave out 37 tiny homes to those in need. However, the small structures, which were parked along sidewalks, caught the attention of city officials and have been tagged for removal. Connie Llanos, a spokeswoman for LA mayor Eric Garcetti, told NPR that the tiny houses were safety hazards.

In some places, however, an increasing number of city planners and housing advocates are looking at small dwellings as a possible solution to housing pressures. On the famously elite islands off Cape Cod, that impact is most severely felt by people in the lower and working classes.

According to Philippe Jordi, executive director of the Island Housing Trust, there is a housing crisis on the Vineyard, where most market-rate homes start at around half a million dollars. He references the 2014 American Communities Survey on the state of housing in Dukes County (in which 99 percent of residents live on the Vineyard), which found that about 75 percent of housing units are valued at $500,000 or more, compared to 21 percent of housing statewide. Furthermore, at the time of the survey, 60 percent of homeowners in Dukes were paying monthly mortgages of more than $2,000, while 40 percent of all renters were paying more than a third of their income on housing.

Mitchell notes that Martha’s Vineyard is a well-known vacation destination for influential people, and even tells a story about the time former President of the United States Bill Clinton visited the campground. The Wesleyan Grove resident, who has a background in computer science, was working as a digital contractor for the Secret Service at the time and describes Bubba as a “very charismatic man.” Still, Mitchell’s idea is to welcome people in a much lower tax bracket than Clinton.

“They want it to be a place they can live in during the summer,” he says of wealthy tourists. “They can’t do that if the working class doesn’t have housing.”

Mitchell’s vision is a throwback to the Methodists who settled in the area in the 1870s and would gather at a meeting house called the Tabernacle, which still stands today. On these grounds 19th-century Methodists held “camp meetings” for sermons and prayers, while congregants pitched tents that eventually became more permanent. Specifically, Mitchell hopes for a future in which tight-knit communities of smaller units share amenities in a central structure that houses a kitchen and laundry.

Home is Where the Cart is

The idea of tiny houses or small living spaces has been around since early human settlements camped out in Turkish yurts and gypsy caravans. The modern interpretation—like Macy Miller’s tiny house in Idaho—has seen a significant increase in popularity in the wake of the housing market collapse of 2008. So-called “tiny houses,” which are typically between 200 and 400 square feet, are part of a social movement of people looking to downsize their living situation. Owners typically value an alternative lifestyle that minimizes their financial expenses, decreases their carbon footprint, and adds flexibility to their lives.

In Massachusetts, tiny houses on wheels are lumped into the same category as mobile homes, and under the state’s building code it is prohibited to live in these types of structures for more than 30 days. If they are built on a foundation—and few of them are—common features of tiny houses, such as ladders to sleeping lofts and a single egress (rather than two, in case of fire), are not allowed by building codes. Adding to the restrictions are building permits that are required to move a tiny house structure to its desired location, as well as health code regulations and other zoning rules for different towns and cities.

With the state’s complex legal infrastructure, local tiny house enthusiasts are forced to get creative. “As we go forward with tiny houses, everyone’s collectively trying to figure out where they fit,” says Amy Henion, a recent Northeastern grad and tiny house blogger who is originally from Boston. Some live in their tiny dwellings under the radar, in friends’ or relatives’ backyards. Others relocate to rural areas or out of state in the hopes of finding a more private environment.

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