Tiny homes, big solutions …

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The activists who’ve rallied behind “We are the 99 percent” are swinging hammers and raising money to build homes for the homeless in Madison — 99-square-foot homes.

Volunteers with Occupy Madison’s OM Build program are helping to take the tiny house movement — a trend in living that has seized the dreams of individuals seeking to simplify their lives by downsizing their dwellings — in a new direction.

“There’s so many people out there that are struggling quite a bit and it’s just hard to get housing at this point,” Occupy Madison board member Brenda Konkel said during a Madison Common Council meeting on May 6. “This is one tiny, tiny answer to that problem.”

At the council meeting, the nonprofit won unanimous support from the alders for an experimental tiny house village. The village, to be established on the site of an auto repair shop, will consist of nine tiny houses, a workshop, kitchen-lounge, retail store and bathhouse, as well as garden beds and landscaping.

“I would be happy to live across the street from this development,” said resident and former Alder Satya Rhodes-Conway during the hearing. Nearly 50 people stepped to the podium to speak on the issue, most of them in favor of the project.

“I kind of wish there was an empty lot across the street from my house so I could say, ‘Come here,’” she added, noting the sweat equity requirement of the future tiny house dwellers, the respect Occupy has shown neighbors and the sustainable elements of the plan.

Occupy’s rezoning request for one-third of an acre in the Emerson East neighborhood reached the council with a recommendation from the plan commission, but there was some opposition at the council meeting from people who raised concerns that the “portable shelters” don’t meet code, potentially creating safety issues and negatively impacting property values.

Occupy Madison treasurer and house designer Bruce Wallbaum sought to ease concerns: “We’re going to invest in this property financially and with volunteers.”

Ald. Larry Palm, who represents the district where the village will be located, also sought to reduce worries, noting revisions to the plan, including some stipulations that he added at the council meeting. Palm is convinced Occupy is committed to the cause. He said he’s inspired by the volunteers’ vision for affordable housing, sustainable development and communal living.

Their vision is shared by advocates for the homeless in cities where other tiny house communities are being established. Dozens of organizations have stated interest in founding tiny house villages and several communities are in various states of development. In Austin, Texas, there’s Community First. In Oregon, there’s Dignity Village in Portland and Opportunity Village in Eugene. And in Olympia, Washington, Quixote Village opened on Christmas Eve in 2013.

Quixote began several years ago as a camp for the homeless protesting a local ordinance prohibiting people from lying or sitting on a sidewalk. Last December, the camp’s occupants left their tents for the 2.17-acre village, which consists of 30 cottages, each about 144 square feet.

A full-time manager and a part-time resident advocate work in Quixote, which is supported by the nonprofit Panza, named for Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s servant in Miguel de Cervantes’ magnum opus.

A tiny house “can be very cozy,” said project spokesman Raul Salazar. “It is whatever the resident makes it. Some people have really settled in. Others have used it as a home base and a place to sleep at night, but do not spend tons of time in the home during the day.”

He added, “Our situation is not about someone who has chosen to downsize. Our residents were homeless, living in tents prior to being a resident in our village. The appeal here is actually having a roof over your head, no matter how big it is.”

But downsizing is the appeal for many who have opted to leave large homes, condominiums, apartments or lofts to reside in a tiny house — which is not a new way to live but rather a very old way.


Tiny housers are fond of reminding people that Henry David Thoreau, for his 2-year, 2-month and 2-day experiment on Walden Pond, took shelter in a “tightly shingled and plastered” English-style cottage about 10-by-15-feet.

“Some try (tiny house living) for a few months and others really make it a way of life,” said Mikey Browning, who’s lived in a humble home of 140 square feet in southern Minnesota for three years. “I wanted to reduce my footprint. The best way to do that was to reduce the footprint of my home.”

Tiny house advocate Dee Williams, after a health crisis and an awakening, decided about 10 years ago to sell a three-bedroom house in the Pacific Northwest and build an 84-square-foot home.

She wrote about the experience in the recently released The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir from Blue Rider Press: “Admitting that I’m ‘happy enough’ makes me wonder if I’m falling short of my potential as a middle-class American; like I should want more out of life than this tiny house and the backyard, and the way it feels to sit on the porch and watch the sun come up.

“But the facts are the facts: I found a certain bigness in my little house — a sense of largeness, freedom and happiness that comes when you see there’s no place else you’d rather be.”

Williams founded Portland Alternative Dwellings to teach others about the simple life, and she has opened her tiny house to many of the curious.

New Mexican Pedra Mitchell decided this winter that her home sweet home should be a house-to-go; one of her few new possessions in her downsized life is Williams’ memoir.

Relatives and friends tease Mitchell about the size of her living space — 110 square feet. “My brother says his doghouse is bigger, but you should see my brother’s mortgage,” said Mitchell, who doesn’t have a mortgage.

The housing crisis has helped convince many of the newest tiny housers to go small. One in 10 Americans live in the 100 hardest-hit cities, where the number of underwater homeowners range from 22 percent to 56 percent, according to a report released on May 8 by the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. The study ranks Milwaukee as the third hardest-hit large city, with widespread underwater mortgages.

Meanwhile, a survey at TheTinyLife website shows that about 68 percent of tiny house people have no mortgage.

That’s the type of information that helped persuade Breeze Skinner to settle into her tiny house, currently parked on a farm outside Springfield, Illinois. She’d been renting an apartment but had the itch to own. “I was not seeing anything I could afford. I didn’t want to get into a situation where I couldn’t afford my mortgage and might lose my house,” Breeze said. 

Last fall, she visited a friend living in a tiny house and experienced the “small house swoon.”

These tiny house people connect at meet-ups and even a new annual conference held this spring in Charlotte, North Carolina. But mostly they click online, through Facebook and Tumblr, as well as websites that:

• Show where they live (tinyhousemap.com).

• Offer construction advice (tinyhousebuild.com).

• Promote resources (tinyhouseparking.com).

• Sell houses and plans (tumbleweedhouses.com).

• Post listings for really small real estate (tinyhouselistings.com).

More than 150,000 people follow TinyHouseListings on Facebook and others receive the daily emails of new homes to build, buy, rent or simply occupy. For instance:

FOR SALE: Cabin, land, solar panels, wind turbines, water tank, deep well, chicken coop with chickens, even a chain saw. Complete turnkey off-grid living setup.

FOR SALE: A lofted tiny house on wheels — 200 square feet — that comes with 1.66 acres of land. Plenty of trees, walking trail, gravel drive up to tiny home, wildflowers and lots of sunshine.

Tiny houses, bold cause

Occupy Madison’s OM Build is working to establish a cooperative eco-village of tiny houses at 2046 E. Johnson St., Madison — currently the site of Sanchez Motors.

The houses would be 99 square feet — 14-by-7-feet with a porch — and include a bed, loft, trailer, wheels, solar panel, propane heater, compostable toilet and a water system with a sink.

The effort to create housing for the homeless or formerly homeless, as well as a workshop, kitchen-lounge, gardens and retail store, involves thousands of volunteer hours, more than $80,000 in property improvements and a fundraising drive to purchase the property.

Source: Occupy Madison/OM Build

— L.N.