We need a Levittown of tiny houses

In the previous post, I wrote about the bungalow court, the predominant form of multi-family housing in Southern California from the 1910s through the 1930s and a cousin of the cottage cluster that is perhaps more prevalent in the Northwest. Reading its Wikipedia entry, I was surprised by how much it sounded like what todays tiny-house village proponents are seeking, having attended the monthly potluck of local citizens planning a village a few Fridays ago:

<… a style of multi-family housing which features several small houses arranged around a central garden…. Bungalow courts were generally marketed to people who wanted the amenities of a single-family home without its high cost. While each family in a bungalow court had its own house and garden, upkeep and land were shared among the residents…. [O]f the 112 surviving bungalow courts in Pasadena [where the form was invented], 43 have a historic designation such as a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.> [Road trip?]

Levittown, another part of US affordable-housing history, also has some important lessons for us today.

  • The Levitts purchased options on large swaths of onion and potato fields in undeveloped sections of Long Island. (Available land is harder to find today, and much more expensive, but every community likely has underused properties owned by government or by folks who want to make a difference.)
  • The Levitts designed a small house that could be rapidly constructed. (Eugenes SquareOne Villages has put its tiny-house plans on its website for all to use.)
  • They aimed for speed, efficiency, and cost-effective construction. The building of every house was reduced to 26 steps, which enabled them to be producing 30 houses a day by July 1948(!!!). (This reminds us of how off-site modular construction is increasingly being used to produce more-affordable housing today.)
  • They used pre-cut lumber and nails shipped from their own factories in California, and built on concrete slabs. This necessitated changing the building code, which did not permit concrete slabs. Given the urgent need for housing in the region, the town agreed. (Changes in regulations and/or zoning often seem to be necessary with innovative, lower-cost housing, since some 70% of most cities and towns are still zoned only for single-family homes — a racially and socioeconomically exclusionary system that is finally beginning to be challenged.)
  • They cut out middlemen and purchased many items, including lumber, directly from manufacturers. (We wonder if nonprofit providers and government are subject to so many constraints that it is difficult for them to produce Affordable Housing affordably. We have seen many criticisms of the cost of Affordable Housing, which can be $200,000 or more per individual unit — although it is also important to consider the costs, both financial and moral, of having thousands of our fellow citizens living on the street.)
  • Half of the original 2,000 properties were rented within two days of the community being announced on May 7, 1947. The Levitts later built 4,000 more homes and switched to selling them, for as little as $8,000 each (equal to $89,765 today). With the full implementation of federal government supports for housing, they were able to offer ownership on a 30-year mortgage with no down payment and monthly costs the same as rental.

It is stunning to realize that there was once a very different America, where government and private industry worked together to produce an incredibly accessible and affordable housing solution, because affordable housing was properly seen as something its citizens deserved. And sad that our country has strayed so far from this ideal. But it can be inspiring that our own history provides some possible models for restoring sanity and affordability.

One contemporary model might be Community First! village on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The brainchild of Alan Graham, Community First! is a 51-acre, two-phase master-planned community that, when complete, will comprise more than 500 homes.

Phase I, built in 2014, is already a thriving 24-acre community with 120 tiny houses (which they call micro-homes), 100 RVs, and 20 canvas-sided cottages, as well as community gardens, food prep and dining areas, medical and support services, Wi-Fi, an outdoor movie theater, and a direct bus line.

The micro-homes were designed in partnership with the University of Texas School of Architecture. According to CityLab, the homes are around 250sf and rent for $225-$430/month. Although created and managed by the faith-based nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Community First! has no religious requirements to join.

The village also operates a plethora of micro-enterprises that employ residents or enable them to make items to sell in the village market, from the Community Inn (a B&B for visitors who come to see the village) to a car repair, art, woodworking, and metalwork shops. A resident gives a video tour of the village and many of its amazing amenities here. (You can see the Before in this 2014 video.)

In October 2018, Community First! broke ground on Phase II, which will add 110 RV sites, 200 micro-homes, and a permanent 20,000sf health facility.

Published by Sherri Schultz

Writer & change-maker exploring micro-dwelling in Eugene, Oregon. Founder of Springfield/Eugene MicroDwellers: https://www.meetup.com/Micro-dwellers .

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