Tiny Houses Could Become a Big Presence in New Orleans

By Sharon Armstrong When it comes to houses, is bigger always better?  According to proponents of the tiny house movement In Louisiana, the answer might just be no. In Louisiana and across the United States, house prices, rents, and the general cost of living have been on the rise for quite some time, with both home owners and renters facing increased financial difficulties. With that in mind, it is not surprising that many people are exploring unconventional ways to reduce their living costs, and for some, the answer is not just going smaller but going tiny, as in tiny houses. So, what is a tiny house? Tiny houses are as much a movement as a structure. Physically there are no set terms by which tiny houses are legally defined, but while the average, newly constructed American home is about 2,600 square feet, tiny houses typically fall somewhere between 100 and 500 square feet. As a social movement, they are more about simplifying one’s lifestyle, and reducing energy consumption and financial burdens for occupants. While the ideals of a downsized and simplified life offered by tiny houses, popularized on  TV shows such as Tiny House Nation and Tiny House Hunters, could be seen as a fad, for an increasing number of people living tiny offers a way to offset financial pressures caused by stagnant wages and an increasingly expensive housing market. Two such people are Autumn and Jack Ware. The Wares are self-employed business owners here in New Orleans—Jack is a Technology Liaison at Valence Tech Solutions and Autumn is the owner and founder of Aware Copywriting. Both enjoy what they do and are used to budgeting for the inevitable lean months between work projects. in 2015, they sold their small double Uptown shotgun house and began renting. “Once we sold our house, we had cash in hand,” said Jack Ware. “We did all the things that you are supposed to do: we reinvested in our businesses, we paid off our medical bills, and we were still struggling.” In July 2017, they decided to pursue a less than conventional housing solution and move toward tiny living on a 1974 Cooper Seabird 37 sailboat, moored at the Lake Pontchartrain Landing Marina and RV Park, 6001 France Rd, New Orleans. Lake Ponchartrain Marina. Photo credit: Sharon Armstrong Described laughingly by the Wares as the ultimate “fixer-upper tiny home”, the 37-foot-long Sea Shanty cost less than $4,000 dollars, and is currently undergoing extensive renovation. “Living on land was at least $3,000 a month,” said Autumn. “Living on the Shanty will cut our living expenses by as much as three-quarters. We want a full life, and there are two ways you can do that: you can make a ton more money, which requires a ton more time and work, or you can reduce your cost of living. We made a decision to reduce our cost of living. We don’t want to be working just to pay bills.” Autumn Ware at the marina. Photo credit: Sharon Armstrong The Sea Shanty. Photo credit: Sharon Armstrong The couple hope to have the Shanty fully up and running by November 2017. Their future plans include sailing the Shanty around The Great Loop – a 6000-mile-long system of waterways that encompass the eastern portion of the U.S. and part of Canada –with Autumn’s son Fain, two cats, and a dog. “Rental housing in New Orleans is becoming unaffordable, but we can work from anywhere,” said Autumn. “For us going small meant choosing freedom.” The lack of affordable housing has long been an issue in New Orleans. According to Andreanecia Morris, the executive director of Housing NOLA and an advocate for affordable housing in New Orleans, that need is only becoming more urgent. “Wages since Katrina have remained stagnant while the cost of living has increased,” said Morris. “Despite high levels of vacancy, more than 37 percent of renters in New Orleans spend more than half their net wage on housing costs.  When you add things like increased house and flood insurance costs, increased cost of utilities, and a housing market that is frankly unsustainable, it is obvious that things need to change.” The very term “affordable housing” is often a misunderstood one, said Morris, and carries an underserved social stigma. “People tend to think that “affordable housing” means subsidized housing or Section 8 housing , and then it is easy to marginalize those in need as ‘those people,’” said Morris. “But, increasingly, more and more New Orleanians are ‘those people.’ We are all struggling when it comes to finding affordable housing in the city.” One possible solution might lie in building smaller homes, said Morris, but even that would only address a small portion of the population’s needs. “We are working with the tiny house people when it comes to zoning,” said Morris. “Tiny houses might help some people, but we need an equitable solution. There is no silver bullet. HousingNOLA is a long-term plan because we need multiple strategies at multiple levels and we need to keep politicians who ignore the wants and the needs of our community accountable.” The concept of tiny houses is grounded in community, according to Cherie and Jimmy Hebert, owners of Tee Tiny Houses in Arnaudville, Louisiana. Tee Tiny Houses opened for business in April 2017, and, while there are numerous manufacturers in other states, such as Wind River in Tennessee and Colorado’s Tumbleweed Tiny Houses, according to Cherie Hebert, Tee Tiny Houses is the only one of its kind in Louisiana. “I believe that tiny houses are more than just a fad,” said Hebert. “I think that people are looking for an alternative and cheaper way to live.” Despite interest in tiny houses, coding and zoning laws continue to be problematic for would-be buyers, said Hebert. “In the State of Louisiana, legislators don’t really know whether to treat tiny homes as recreational vehicles (RVs) or permanent homes,” said Hebert. “And that can cause problems.” Tiny home zoning and coding laws vary from state to state, as do laws pertaining to house-boats. On land, there are basically two types of recognized tiny homes: those built on wheels, which are legally considered a recreational vehicle (RV), and those built on foundations, which are legally classified as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). These regulations can be complicated, and proposed changes to legislation are making slow progress. With that in mind, many tiny house builders, including Tee Tiny Houses, help buyers with inspections and also finding lenders for tiny house mortgages. In an effort to change existing coding and zoning laws in Louisiana, said Hebert, Tee Tiny Houses is also in the process of forming a tiny house advocacy group with Habitat for Humanity, “interested community peopleand members of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) Architecture Department. W. Geoff Gjertson is a professor at the School of Architecture and Design at ULL.  He is also a personal advocate of tiny houses, although, he says, he does have certain reservations about people’s expectations. “It involves a complete change in lifestyle,” said Gjertson. “But there are people who could live in tiny houses, and do well in them.” Who are those people? Contrarily to many people’s expectations, a survey by The American Tiny House Association shows that the largest demographic of people interested in living in tiny homes is women between 46 and 55 years of age. “There is definitely this idea of simplifying your life,” said Gjertson. “Having less to maintain and clean, having lower utilities, more time to do other things that you would like to do.” But do tiny houses actually save you that much money? “The initial cost of building tiny homes is smaller, but the cost per square foot is actually higher, so they are not as inexpensive as some are led to believe,” said Gjertson. “Especially if you are going have someone else build it for you. If you do it yourself, you can build one for $30,000 to $50,000.  If you are going to buy it, you can expect to pay anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000.” According to Gjertson, tiny houses’ most sustainable feature is that they use fewer resources such as land and energy. “Moving forward, we are not going to have as much land to utilize,” said Gjertson. “Most people won’t be able to afford large plots, especially if they want to live in urban areas.” With the advent of micro-apartments in New York City, San Francisco,  and New Orleans, some of which are less than 300 square feet, it could be said that tiny living has already arrived in many of America’s densely populated urban areas. “By necessity, we will be building smaller homes, just like they are doing in New York and San Francisco,” said Gjertson.  “Tiny houses could be an urban solution for cities with lots that can be sub-divided if zoning allows for multiple buildings on a single piece of property, or accessory buildings for renters.” One way that terrestrial tiny houses are similar to aquatic ones, such as the Sea Shanty, is that both are designed to fully use all available living space. As a rule, when it comes to tiny living, the smaller the living space, the more valuable storage space becomes. Using multi-functional furniture – such as folding tables, bed lofts, and cunning drawers built into unexpected places, such as stairways, beds, and seating –  is a typical feature of tiny house design.  On both land and sea, shelving uses vertical space, and,, said Gjertson, plenty of natural light helps make even tiny spaces feel spacious. Making small spaces work is challenges beyond the simply aesthetic sense – living small is easy, but living small comfortably is far more difficult. Clutter, whether in terms of design or belongings, is anathema when it comes to successful tiny living. As such, Gjertson uses tiny house design as a teaching tool for his architecture students at ULL. They recently completed designing and building their first tiny home, named the  MODESTEhouse or Mht for short. The Mht will be donated to Habitat for Humanity and then sold at cost to a victim of the August 2016 flooding in Lafayette. As part of the final testing for this ongoing project, Gjertson lived in the Mht for 2 weeks. The MODESTEhouse. Photo credit: W. Geoff Gjertson on behalf of the ULL Architecture Department
All exterior and interior photos of the MODESTEhouse appear courtesy of W. Geoff Gjertson, on behalf of the ULL Architecture Department
“In the wake of the floods in August, there is a definite need for smaller homes for people who have had RVs and trailers destroyed,” said Gjertson.  “At 216 square feet, we designed the Mht to be minimalistic, but it has a full kitchen, a bathroom and shower, a storage loft, and a covered porch. I found it very comfortable.” Tiny homes, said Gjertson, could be way for people to live less expensively without losing modern amenities and comforts, and also enable people currently living in RVs and trailers to build equity. “It is too soon to know if Tiny Houses build equity,” said Gjertson. “But the challenges of building homes to a smaller scale while retaining modern conveniences is one that future architects will have to face, regardless [of whether or not] the tiny home movement loses steam.” “In our increasingly crowded world, space will always come as a premium,” he continued. “Building homes to a smaller scale will be born of necessity. As time goes on, we are going to see more tiny homes.” As of the writing of this article, Lake Pontchartrain Landing sports a large banner that reads, “Random Walk Tiny Homes. Coming Soon. A Waterfront Tiny Home Community”. According to an announcement posted on the property, a number of tiny houses on wheels will be arriving at the end of September 2017, geared toward those looking for “profitable summer rentals” or seeking “minimal maintenance requirements and an ideal New Orleans waterfront location.” “Some people ask us, ‘why would you do this?’” said Autumn Ware. “My answer always is, if you could reduce your cost of living and still gain access to the whole world, why would you not?” Smaller living isn’t a new concept to Louisianans: the streets of New Orleans are lined with shotgun houses, their compact size designed to maximize small plots of available land, and effectively combat the uncomfortable heat and humidity of Louisiana’s semi-tropical weather. According to a 2015 report released by the U.S. Census Bureau,  Characteristics of New Housing, over the last 42 years the size of the average new home in America has increased by more than 1,000 feet, from 1,660 square feet to more than 2,687 square feet: a 62 percent increase since 1973. Yet for those tired of larger mortgage payments, higher utility bills, and a more cluttered lifestyle, tiny houses might be just the thing. For homeowners seeking to supplement salaries in the face of wage stagnation, tiny houses might provide a way to bring in rental income. For those with limited resources seeking to get that first important foot on the property ladder, tiny homes might be a way to build equity at an affordable price. And for those displaced by the increasing numbers of storms and floods that seem to be an unavoidable fact of living in Louisiana, tiny homes might offer shelter from the storms, both physical and mental. “If you are someone who can’t afford a larger house, or who wants to downsize, they can be a high quality, affordable home,” said Gjertson. “I don’t think you can force the idea on people because, for many people, it is still kind of the American dream to have a large home and property.” “But it is not until you actually do that you realize that financially, and out of sense of simplicity, it might be good to downsize into a tiny home,” he said.  “As long as you can accommodate your belongings, you can be pretty well off in a smaller space.”