HORSE SHOE, North Carolina — Rubina Beg’s 144-square-foot tiny house has everything the typical home would have, not excluding the kitchen sink.
Beg, a 2014 graduate of Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, began building the mini abode seven months ago as a senior project for her self-designed “Art and Science of Sustainable Living” major. About $15,000 and some Craigslist posts later, she has a completely off-the-grid homestead on a two axle trailer.
Many others are jumping on the tiny house movement bandwagon, as small as it may be, in pursuit of something more sustainable than the average 2,600-square-foot American home. Annelise and Jake Hagedorn, graduate students studying rural sociology and hydrogeology at Pennsylvania State University, are co-owners of the Brevard Tiny House Company, a business aimed at constructing customized homes.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and spending a year abroad teaching English in Sri Lanka, the Hagedorns craved alternative housing options. In 2013, with the move to graduate school only a month away, the first 168-square-foot Brevard Tiny House was built, in all its sunny-yellow siding glory.
“We were on a very strict building schedule and budget,” Annelise said. “We had gotten accepted and we needed to go.”
Even before their experience beyond the nation’s borders, the two saw little appeal in the supposed “American Dream.” With the average home nearly tripling in size since the 1950s, a change incommensurate to reductions in family size, the Hagedorns chose to “rethink” their situation.
Cities across the U.S. are choosing to “rethink” homelessness with this same unconventional mindset.
Individuals with Occupy Madison Inc., a nonprofit stationed out of Wisconsin, are currently building 99-square-foot houses on wheels. Using recycled pallet wood and a few extra hands, each home only costs $5,000. A composting toilet, internal water system and stove are also included.
“We had heard about these tiny houses in the media, but mostly in the context of middle-class Americans downsizing their lifestyle,” Luca Clemente of Occupy Madison Inc. said. “We saw that it would be possible to do the same thing for the homeless.”
In Newfield, New York, organizers are planning 14 to 18 homes to be built with private donations. In Austin, Texas, the plan is to build an entire camp of shelters on 27 acres.
According to many tiny house volunteers, the tiny house movement could have global implications – especially with regard to refugees.
As a January press release from the United Nations Refugee Agency, best known as UNHCR, explains, a large number of Syrian refugees are “sliding into abject poverty, and at an alarming rate, due to the magnitude of the crisis and insufficient support from the international community.”
A study entitled, “Living in the Shadows,” conducted by UNHCR and International Relief and Development, involved visiting almost 150,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps in Jordan in 2014.
Researchers found that very few households had heat, electricity and running water.
“Unless the international community increases its support to refugees, families will opt for ever more drastic coping strategies,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. “More children will drop out of school to work and more women will be at risk of exploitation, including survival sex.”
As the standard of living continues to drop, tiny houses could act as the solution for a big problem.
Beg’s home features a 36 gallon grey water tank, a 46 gallon tank for fresh water and a rain catching system. Her composting toilet, though seemingly barbaric, acts as a safeguard against water pollution. The small space is also insulated with cotton armor fibers that are denim scraps from a company that produces jeans.
“When you’re mixing human waste with water, it just makes sewage and it’s harder to process,” Beg said. “Instead of flushing my toilet, I am taking care of everything myself.”
This lifestyle could ease the water sanitation and heating issues that are currently arising, while offering refugees a more respectable alternative to sleeping in white and blue plastic tents.
“Sky’s the limit. The real issue here is that it is changing people’s lives and giving people self-worth,” Brenda Konkel, Occupy Madison Inc. organizer, said.
Dignity was actually what Betty Ybarra, a 49-year-old homeless woman in Madison, was looking for. After pushing through two bitter winters with no shelter, she traded a park bench for a tiny home.
“We can check on our flowers and we can now try to live a normal life,” Ybarra said, smiling next to her sea-foam green abode. “It means shelter and security. Living in a tiny house is life changing.”
– Lauren Stepp