Some people have enough space in their living rooms for a circa-1992 Dominique Dawes to perform a floor routine, with cartwheels, spins, and triple backflips from corner to corner. On the other hand, Greg Parham, tiny house builder and owner of his own 16-by-7.5 foot wooden palace, has to use his foam roller at a friend’s place. The man’s muscles are in constant need of a massage. He, along with many others who have jumped on the tiny house bandwagon, have opted to sacrifice space for more time and financial stability. This shift in priorities, and the tiny house momentum at large, hints at larger social issues.
Parham is the owner of Rocky Mountain Tiny Houses, a company that designs and builds little custom homes for normal-sized people. Parham moved to Durango about six years ago after being laid off from an architecture job. He had the idea to buy a plot of land and build a small cabin, but after learning about tiny homes from a friend, Parham decided to build one for himself instead.
“It was an affordable housing thing,” Parham said. “(I was) just trying to find something that I could live in here (in Colorado), because everyone loves Durango and the outdoor life.”
Katie West was seeking the outdoors when she moved to Durango, but purchasing a tiny home was three-fold. West was living in Washington, D.C., and working as a data analyst for the Federal Government.
“In D.C., it’s very career focused, very cutthroat,” she said. “It’s a wonderful city, but it has a certain pressure.”
West had also gone through a divorce, and was wanting a new scene away from the memories of her marriage. She was able to keep her job and work remotely, so with her new nomadic freedom, West headed West. She said she wanted to do something crazy. Initially, that meant taking care of goats in a California hippie commune. But after her cloven-hoofed dreams were crushed, West sought out Parham to build her tiny home. She landed in Durango simply because she found a place to park it, on Island Cove Mobile Home Park, off Florida Road.
“I called Greg in a panic. It is hard to find places to legally park them,” West said.
Parking has become a central issue for tiny home owners. As more people settle for less living space, parking spots become more scarce. This is due to building and zoning codes, which require a minimum square footage for new homes.
Parham said there is still a huge gray area when it comes to building tiny homes. Most jurisdictions follow old codes that require a 600-square-foot minimum, he said. An official tiny house standard (Appendix Q) was incorperated into the 2018 International Residential Code. In the past, a lack of recognition of tiny houses in the IRC was a major roadblock to building legal tiny homes. The new code hasn’t been adopted by La Plata County just yet.
Jon Phipard, a tiny home owner in Grand Junction, believes the laws haven’t caught up to modern day mini-living because of greed. You can make more money renting a high-rise condo than a 250-square-foot tiny home, he said.
“We don’t use as many utilities, and we don’t pay huge taxes like you would on McMansions,” Phipard said.
Phipard paid $14 for his electric bill in April of 2018. The highest he’s ever paid was $34. His natural gas bill is about $17 to $21 every five to six weeks.
Space comes at an obvious trade-off, though. West loves to cook extravagant meals, but no longer does so. Phipard also loves to cook, so he sacrificed some bathroom space in order to have a larger kitchen, complete with large appliances (although he recently had to swap out his Crock-pot for a new Insta-pot).
Parham said there have been moments where he’s felt cramped in his 16-footer. He cited a “Portlandia” episode where Fred Armisen’s character is using the toilet as a chair in his “home office.” Parham said if he gets out of the shower while his wife is cooking, he has to dodge knives, hot skillets, and cheese graters. It’s not easy to maneuver. He’s building a larger home – one that is 8.5-by-26 feet – to avoid these dangerous situations.
“Those are the times I’m like, ‘God, I can’t wait to get into this new house,’” Parham said.
Phipard, who is a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs nurse, said one doctor always tells him, “I don’t know how you can do it.” But a common thread most tiny home owners share is that owning less has allowed for more freedom in many ways.
“For me, it is mentally freeing to not have so much stuff. I can look around and see everything I own, plus my car, in one glance,” West said. “If I need to clean my house or take care of the gutter, it’s so small it’s really fast. If I have to clean my whole four bedroom house, it’s stressful.”
When first transitioning into the tiny home lifestyle, West was surprised at how easy it was to get rid of stuff.
“In D.C., I was used to having work outfits, and after-work outfits, (etcetera). I thought (having a small closet) would be hard, but after moving out here, I realized my lifestyle was so much more simple,” West said. “Whether I’m working, hiking, or going to a coffee shop, I’m wearing the same thing.”
West’s “simple life” attitude is one that many tiny home owners adopt. Some buyers purchase tiny homes as an extra vacation home or to function as a trailer for traveling, but West said that most people purchase tiny homes for the opposite reason – to own less. Parnham agrees. The tiny house movement is a rejection of consumerism.
“It’s an over-consumptive society, not only with resources and energy, but just stuff. We are drawn to stuff. … But that is just the way we were raised – that we need stuff and it makes us happy,” Parham said. “(Tiny homes) are a departure from that mindset.”
Shopping becomes much more deliberate when every item has a specific place. The last thing that West bought was a bottle brush to clean her Nalgene.
“It’s very freeing, because even if something is cool, I literally cannot fit it. Or, if I buy that thing, I’m going to have to get rid of something else to fit it somewhere,” West said. “It helps me prioritize and make a decision on what to buy a lot easier.”
The growing tiny house movement has other economic implications as well. Parham said that the majority of people who purchase tiny homes from him are doing so out of necessity. It’s what they can afford. Affordability is part of the reason West sprung for her beetle kill mini-mansion.
“I lived in a beautiful Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I loved it. It was great, but (rent) was $2,000 a month and really stretching me thin,” West said. People opting for less leg room to save on rent is an effect of the affordable housing crisis. The average price for a one-bedroom in San Francisco is $3,400, according to a Curbed article. Seattle, home to Amazon, has a reputation for its affordable housing issues. The city recently approved a head tax of $275 per employee per year for corporations, and are applying the funds to help add more affordable housing. Finding an place to live in New York City for a reasonable price is a tale as old as time. Denver’s affordable housing problem continue to grow. This issue is no longer specific to city dwellers, though. This is something Durango also knows far too well.
Urban Institute’s Mapping America’s Rental Housing Crisis estimated the gap in affroradble houseing (the amount of affordable units availiable compared to the amount of units that are needed) for low-ioncome renters across the country. In San Juan County, it is estimated there is a total of 51 affordable units available for every 100 extremely low-income renters, who make $23,850 or less.
Tiny-home owner Marissa Pozzi purchased a tiny home to support her footloose lifestyle working on West Coast cannabis farms. When Pozzi moved to Colorado, she was able to find a plot to rent for $300 a month.
“In Durango, how can you beat that?” Pozzi said.
Phipard said lawmakers are paying attention to the movement, and things are moving fairly fast. Portland commissioners recently lifted building and zoning codes. Idaho adopted tiny home zoning codes in 2017. La Plata County officials have committed to adopting Appendix Q next time codes are updated, Parham said. This will legally allow someone to build a tiny home on their own property, as long as they jump through the same hoops as someone building a normal-sized house. Parham said Durango has not followed suit, but city officials are looking for ways to allow tiny homes as accessory dwellings,and more municipalities around the nation are opening up to tiny homes as an affordable housing option.
Former La Plata County commissioner Bob Leib proposed the idea of building a tiny home community with 24 homes near Escalante Middle School. If the community is approved, it is estimated that home prices will start around $30,000. What that means is there could soon be many more homeowners in Durango. For Pozzi, who owns some land in Tennessee said that was her main goal.
“That is the ultimate freedom,” Pozzi said. “You have your stability and your home base, but don’t have to pay rent and throw your money away.”