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 Surveyon 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.
Henion was living in a Somerville apartment until July of last year, when she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina to work for Ryan Mitchell, a prominent figure in the tiny house movement (no relation to Mike Mitchell from the Vineyard). North Carolina, as it turns out, is a “hotspot for the tiny house movement,” Henion says. “There’s definitely more space and freedom down here to park a tiny house.”
Mike Mitchell doesn’t want tiny house owners on the island to live under the radar or to relocate; he wants to help them work within the system. In the summer of 2015, he formed the Island Coalition for Tiny Houses, a grassroots-level advocacy group that wants to make tiny houses legal on Martha’s Vineyard within the next year.
The impetus for Mitchell’s movement was a 78-year-old woman, Kathy Rose, who had purchased a tiny house to live in by herself on the island, only to find out that her tiny abode wasn’t allowed. After reading an article about Rose in the Martha’s Vineyard Times, Mitchell took action.
“I read that and said, ‘I live in an area with houses that were considered to be tiny, and they used to be moved around like trailers,’” he said. “‘Maybe this is a good model to follow.’” And maybe the coalition can help Rose stay on the island, he thought.
The coalition teamed up with Island Housing Trust, a group that provides affordable living solutions on Martha’s Vineyard, to open up Rose’s tiny home to the public at the island’s annual Agricultural Fair last August.
“The Island Housing Trust is extremely supportive of us,” says Mitchell. “We offer another alternative to the affordable housing market.” According to Mitchell, over the course of the four-day event, about 4,000 people walked through Rose’s house. The Island Coalition then circulated a petition to legalize tiny houses on the island, gathering more than 750 signatures in the process.
Not everybody liked the concept. Mitchell recalls one particular man who equated the homes to “white-trash trailers.” “I told him it doesn’t have to be that way, they don’t have to be an eyesore,” Mitchell says. After explaining to the man that the campground where he lives has similarly small houses that are worth half a million dollars, the man changed his tone. Mitchell continues, “He told me, ‘I need housing for my workers. If you can do it, I can see them living in a tiny house for a summer.’”
Rose’s tiny house was eventually banned — not because of its size, but because it wasn’t built to code and was moved into Oak Bluffs without a permit. “If someone were to get building permits and remove the trailer components and follow the building code and the zoning bylaws, there is no reason why a person could not live in a tiny home,” says Mark Barbadoro, a building inspector for Oak Bluffs. “There are a couple of things misunderstood about tiny houses on Martha’s Vineyard and whether they’re legal or not.”
Tiny houses on trailers are not allowed in Oak Bluffs, because they violate the town’s zoning bylaws. But it is possible to live in such a small house on the Vineyard, said Barbadoro, so long as residents follow specific rules. Those guidelines include obtaining a permit, having the house on a foundation, identifying where the house was built, and complying to a range of specs and building codes.
“We just want to keep people safe,” Barbadoro says. “That’s what it’s about.”
As is the case for small-home owners elsewhere, from Boston to Los Angeles, the approval process is easier said than done. In Mitchell’s case, his grand idea of having multiple tiny units associated to a main house could run afoul of some seemingly arbitrary local codes. For example, the structures could be considered “Accessory Dwelling Units” under zoning bylaws in Oak Bluffs stating that a residential owner of a regular house can only attach smaller units if they have owned the property for six or more years. There are also additional steps, each with their own set of rules, like getting approved by health inspectors. As per health codes, only a certain number of people are allowed to live in a tiny house at once.
All things considered, the road to legal tiny living is a winding and complicated one. These houses are largely uncommon, and a streamlined policy for them doesn’t exist yet. But the interest is building.
TINY HOUSES, OPEN ROAD
For Chloe Barcelou and Brandon Batchelder, a freelance stylist and a carpenter respectively, having a tiny home on wheels provided the perfect solution for their dynamic lifestyles. For the past five years, the couple has bounced around New England in search of freelance gigs and places to stay until they both found jobs on a film set last year in Boston.
They plan to eventually take their gypsy-inspired tiny house, made entirely by hand from recycled, thrifted, or found materials from the sets they’ve worked on, on the road to wherever their careers take them. “We’re just going to play it by ear and take it day by day,” says Barcelou.
Henion, the Northeastern grad who relocated to Charlotte, currently lives in an apartment but says she’s saving for her own tiny house. Mostly she’s excited by the prospect of freedom — from a burdensome mortgage, a permanent location, and too much stuff.
“The tiny house movement can teach us that we can get rid of things we don’t need because we know ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ doesn’t make us happier,” she says.
Miranda Aisling Hynes, an artist based in Arlington, built her tiny house as an art project. It’s legally parked in front of Concord’s Umbrella Art Center; last April the Concord Zoning Board of Appeals approved a special permit that allowed construction of the little building.
“It got great support,” Hynes says. “So long as no one lives in it.”
According to her plan, Hynes’s project (titled Big Art; Tiny House) will eventually be moved off the art center’s front yard and will become the first hotel room for “Miranda’s Hearth,” a community art hotel she plans to open.
“Legalizing tiny houses, it will happen in Massachusetts,” Hynes says. “Jay Shafer is doing it on the West Coast.” She’s referring to the modern tiny house pioneer who has been outspoken about the merits of such living situations since 1999 and who established a tiny house design company that ships out design plans to online customers nationwide. Planning for the long term, Shafer is constructing a village of small homes in Sonoma County, California. Hynes continues, laying out the limitations of certain accommodations. “Tiny houses aren’t an urban answer.”
“Urban centers are already too dense,” she adds. “Shoving additional tiny houses in driveways in crowded cities will only create fire hazards, parking violations, and complications.”
Hynes says that although she has seen individual situations where tiny houses have worked in a city setting, she doesn’t believe it is a widely applicable solution.
On the Vineyard, meanwhile, members of the Island Coalition for Tiny Houses have written proposals to present to building inspectors and other municipal gatekeepers. Mitchell believes through communication, research, and advocacy, tiny houses will eventually be accepted as a practical solution to assist those in need of affordable housing. In the meantime, the carpenter, who has lived on the campground in Oak Bluffs with his wife since the ’80s, helps other cottage owners as a handyman.
“This is Elena, she’s in real estate,” Mitchell says during a tour of Wesleyan Grove, pointing at a friend’s residence. “I did her door.” He explains that the triangular, pointed rooftops on most of the cottages today are remnants of the Methodist tent origins of the area. As for the island neighbor who inspired his foray into the movement: Mitchell says he doesn’t know where Rose is living now, although he suspects that she is living under the radar in her tiny home. He hopes that when all the legal hurdles surrounding tiny houses are better understood, she will move, with her house, back to the Vineyard and legally park it in the place where she originally hoped to settle down.
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, appeared in DigBoston, and was followed up by a pop-up newsroom in Jamaica Plain and a street marketing campaign of 1,000-plus paper houses with information and URLs for the story.