Tiny houses: Confirming or Denying the Neoliberal Ideal?

Unsettling distinctions and liminality. These are the phrases that have been on my mind and in my mouth recently in conversations about tiny houses.

There is a lot of media attention on the benefits of downshifting, reducing consumption, and decreasing spending on disposable goods. In general, I agree, all good things and all associated with the tiny house movement. Many of the women I interview mention these same buzzwords in our conversations.

And, it can’t escape our attention that a certain amount of wealth, of material excess is required in order to be able to downshift away from it. There is a hierarchical value system implied in downshifting, an air of moralised superiority. Or do I create this feeling in my head as a result of my guilt about the jumpers/vases/things made of plastic that I own?

My research includes women with money and women without, but nobody who has identified themselves as being really poor. A majority are university educated and have social and cultural capital to rely upon in assisting them to complete their build and make the transition into tiny house living.

The tiny house movement is also closely associated with ideas of self-sufficiency, off-grid capabilities, and a certain detachment from the rest of the world. The homes themselves are usually found either in a community comprised of other tiny houses or as stand alone and stand out dwellings in car parks, or on grass verges in neighbourhoods otherwise filled with rows and rows of conventional brick houses. They are identifiably different and ‘apart’.

And, most tiny houses don’t have washing machines; they are too energy hungry, too loud, and too big. This means that lots of tiny house residents rely on local laundromats or the use of washing machines in their friends’ houses. Maybe the same friends they go to when they want a bath. A majority of tiny houses include back up generators which require fuel like petrol or access to mains electricity. The small kitchen space means food storage is minimal and regular shopping trips are required, even by families who grow a lot of their own food.

Considering this, the idea of self-sufficiency and detachment doesn’t seem to quite fit. Rather, different types of inter-reliance come to the fore.

A resident may no longer be so reliant on a job since their cost of living has halved, but they may become more reliant on a local supply of wood for their stove. Similarly, tiny houses may facilitate increased resilience by having solar panels in the event of a mains power outage, but it is also more vulnerable to inclement weather – no sun, no battery. Portable tiny houses permit enhanced freedom to move your entire home with you wherever you may care to go, but also leave you at the whim of the changing zoning laws, parking policies, and NIMBY neighbours.

Tiny houses then are liminal zones where normal ways of doing and being are morphed in some ways and confirmed in others. Tiny houses and their residents exist as living critiques of the neoliberal imperative to always consume and always expand, to put productivity first, and to aim for the domineering vision of ‘The American Dream’ that is replicated all over the global North.

At the same time, they conform to and reinforce some of the central tenets of this dream; to own a detached home surrounded by a garden, to be autonomous and self-sufficient, and to identify yourself by what you consume.

As usual, an ‘either/or’ analysis is incomplete are erases much of what is interesting. Tiny houses are perhaps better handled in a ‘both/and’ framework.

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