Think Small, Change Big: The Tiny House Movement

Iconic Communities, Made in America
on December 15, 2015

tiny house movement

Leah Nash via Buzzfeed

From a chic design trend among eco-savvy environmentalists to a fledgling enterprise toward alleviating homelessness, the tiny house movement has found its niche in the humanitarian effort.

For the past decade, these tiny cottages, originally built as an effort to downsize and reduce the carbon footprint on the environment, have been erected on the outskirts of cities across the country in tiny communities geared toward the homeless population. Stats collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reveal that the homeless population in America numbers more than 610,000 people, and that number will only continue to escalate as the cost of living grows with each passing year.

Originally begun as tent communities in which the homeless would pitch feeble shelters in a campground-like area (usually in parking lots or near industrial sites), those who saw the pervasive social need began contemplating more sustainable and secure ways to house those who have next to nothing.

tiny house movement

Dignity Village | Leah Nash via Buzzfeed

Ranging anywhere from under $1,000 to a little more than $10,000 depending on the build and amenities, the cost per micro unit might, in some cases, seem steep when considering the size of these one-room cottages, likely no bigger than 10 by 12 feet. However, when compared to The Central Florida on Homelessness’s calculation that $31,065 is spent annually per homeless person on jail stays and hospital visits, even the most expensive structure amounts to a mere fraction of the already-existing cost. Recent studies have also proven that supportive housing directly affects a break in the factors that lead to chronic homelessness—the social malady that inevitably leads to jail and hospital stays for those forced to a life on the streets.

While most of these tiny homes don’t come with common household amenities like running water, indoor plumbing and heating, they are sufficient in providing viable shelter and security to those who are used to battling the elements to survive. Many of the most thriving tiny home communities have common buildings on site with showers, bathrooms and even a television-inclusive common area to promote community building.

Tiny House movement

Opportunity Village | Leah Nash via Buzzfeed

While the trend certainly has a long road of development ahead before it’s realized as the most viable and economically sustainable solution to homelessness nationwide, western states have taken fast to its implementation. The most thriving villages of micro houses for the homeless, some having been in operation since 2004, are located out west in areas like the Pacific Northwest, California and some Midwestern states. Places like Dignity Village right outside Portland, Oregon have been in operation for more than 14 years, beginning as nothing more than a ramshackle tent city. This housing community, like a variety of others in similar areas, is overseen by the community of residents, who have helped build their own colorful cottages, instated laws like a ban on substances to help residents get clean, and have a say in appropriate community conduct.

The same independence and dignity are afforded to residents of the Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington, where there is a communal kitchen, places to garden outside and, because it is run by nonprofit group Panza, paid staffers to take residents to and from town in vans, encouraging newfound social mobility and the progress toward finding a job and, ultimately, affordable permanent housing.

tiny house movement

Infinity Village homes, Nashville, Tenn. | Shelley Mays via The Tennessean


The sense of place, purpose and ownership given to those who find a home these communities are some of the most effective cures toward removing the pervasive social stigma surrounding homelessness. This opportunity cultivates an environment of self-sufficiency while also developing a small economy sustained by communal contribution, leaving residents more personally geared toward societal success.

While villages like Dignity, Quixote and others like Opportunity and Emerald Villages in Oregon, Occupy Madison Village in Wisconsin or Community First in Austin, Texas have grown into thriving, sustainable communities making a huge difference in people’s lives, many areas are not geographically ready for such an undertaking. Larger cities with dense populations, little wiggle room and high property values struggle with finding enough land and funding to create such resources.

tiny house movement

Quixote Village | Leah Nash via Buzzfeed

However, cities like New York, which have some of the largest homeless populations in the country, are looking toward more metropolitan-friendly structures, like small 350-square-foot unit community apartments that maximize on both geographical space and the capacity for a large number of inhabitants.

It might not be a perfect system and, like most ventures, it will need further development to become a permanent solution to homelessness. However, in the seasonal spirit of spreading love, joy and opportunity, the tiny home movement is making a huge difference by reminding the country that it’s the little things that count the most.