Features & Essays

Small But Mighty

Tiny homes promise to solve Colorado’s big housing problems—but only if we find a way to make them fit in.

Hunter Buffington lives off the grid in Larimer County, Colorado near Fort Collins. “I’d love to tell you where we’re based, but it’s technically illegal,” she says. The PR and event production manager lives with her husband and son in a converted bus dubbed The Rebel Ant. “She’s a rebel because she doesn’t follow the other ants in the colony,” says Buffington of her home on wheels. An advocate for the tiny house movement, Buffington is also breaking rank by living independently in an area where affordable housing and increasing population density are serious issues.

With five TV shows devoted to them so far, the tiny house trend is lighting up cable, blogs, YouTube channels and Instagram feeds dedicated to aspirational simple living. Typically described as a dwelling space of 400 square feet or less, with some mounted on travel trailers, these adorable cottages and the freedoms they represent have captured our hearts and Pinterest boards. But popularity doesn’t necessarily translate to practicality, which raises the question: Who’s living tiny in Colorado—and is it working?

While the tiny-house trend began in part as a way to be location-independent, Alexis Stephens of Tiny House Expedition, a popular blog, describes herself as “one of a very small subset of full-time traveling tiny house homeowners.” Stephens and her partner, Christian Parsons aka #teamtinyx, live the prototypical tiny-house-on-wheels (“THOWs” in tiny-speak) nomadic existence touted early on in the movement. The documentary filmmakers have been on the road for nearly three years, logging more than 40,000 miles. The website is their primary source of income, along with freelance photography, blogging and speaking gigs, says Stephens. “It doesn’t pay well, but so far we’ve been able to keep ourselves going, and it’s been great.”

Aside from location independence, downsizing and simplifying are big reasons many people decide to build a tiny house. Holly Cook spent childhood summers in beachside cottages on the California coast, so downsizing to a custom-designed 400-square-foot tiny house made sense to her. Cook and her husband Bruce run Riverview RV Park and Campground in Loveland, which welcomes tiny houses on wheels that hook up to water and electricity. “Bigger houses never appealed to me,” she says.

Hunter Buffington is motivated in part due to affordability. “Sometimes people assume we went tiny because we’re poor, when in fact, it’s the opposite,” she says. She and her husband both have student loans and found themselves earning too much to qualify for loan programs and not enough to qualify for a conventional mortgage. “Then we’d be spending all our time paying that mortgage and keeping up with the house.”

John and Leslie Marcantonio know all about keeping up with a large house and mortgage. “We both work full time and we don’t want to spend our weekends cleaning toilets, vacuuming and mowing,” says Leslie Marcantonio. The couple live in a tiny house while renting out their 2,500-square-foot house in Longmont, which will allow them to pay off that house and retire with more financial security. If living tiny doesn’t suit them, Leslie says, they can always return to their larger home.

When asked what types of people are attracted to tiny houses, Kenyon Waugh, self-described “Wee-EO” of WeeCasa Tiny House Resort in Lyons, says, “There isn’t a single demographic; it’s a psychographic.” In other words, the “why” defines the “who.” Rod Stambaugh, founder and owner of Sprout Tiny Homes in Pueblo says baby boomers are his number-one customer. “They’ve had the big house, the monstrosity, the kids are gone, and they’re ready to downsize instead of seeing their retirement dollars evaporate on utilities and upkeep,” he says. “They’d rather spend their money on travel.”

Health coach Katrina Toucké agrees. “For me, it’s all about experiences,” she says. Toucké went tiny for her health and well-being after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, selling her businesses and designing a tiny home customized to meet her needs. “It’s definitely a sustainable lifestyle for people who are on a limited budget due to a disability,” she says. Toucké currently lives in an RV park near Ouray.

“A lot of people lost their retirement during the recession,” says Byron Fears, founder and owner of SimBLISSity Tiny Homes in Lyons. “They can’t afford to support that bigger house; their kids are gone, they don’t want to take care of a bigger property.” Fears adds that about half of SimBLISSity’s customers are single women between ages 40 and 60. “Income disparity and a desire for independence make tiny houses appealing to women.”

Natalie Doolittle, CEO and owner of Trailer Made Custom Trailers, which builds trailers and steel frames for THOWs, says 70 percent of their customers are DIYers in their late 20s and early 30s. She says about 10 percent of their customers are older retirees and empty nesters, but this could be because that demographic is buying from builders like Sprout and Tumbleweed rather than DIYing.

Sensing a need in the market, Fears started SimBLISSity to build larger and more luxurious tiny homes. “When we first started in 2014, I got hate emails accusing me of destroying the movement,” says SimBLISSity’s Byron Fears. “When you watch the TV programs,” he says, “it’s clear that most of those houses are designed by a guy who doesn’t have a girlfriend or boyfriend.” In those tiny lofts, “you’re restricted to one position, and that doesn’t encourage romance, so we built in sofas and all sorts of creature comforts,” he says. Fears adds that living in Colorado requires more space to store winter gear for playing outdoors. “If you want to thrive rather than survive, you need a spot to store your gear, coats and boots.”

Holly Cook wanted to downsize without skimping on comfort, so she and her husband designed a larger tiny home, which includes her mother’s china hutch and a full-size bathtub. John and Leslie Marcantonio say the traditional eight-foot-wide tiny felt “too claustrophobic” for them. They had a home custom-built in Canada with slide-outs like those found in an RV, which gives them more space. “You don’t have to live like a monk to go tiny,” says Fears. “We need things that nurture our souls and our daily activities.”

The challenges to tiny-home living aren’t just about minimalism and space. The biggest problem currently facing the tiny-house movement? Where to put them.

What started as a quest for independence—from crushing debt, material possessions, the resource-gobbling excesses of modern life and the 9-to-5-grind—has shifted to a quest for belonging in the literal sense, as owners of tiny homes seek to claim space in and near communities. Attitudes and ordinances addressing tiny houses are changing in Colorado communities, albeit slowly, as residents and government officials seek to balance the needs of communities against those of individual homeowners.

In December 2017, El Paso County led the way toward tiny-house-friendly zoning in Colorado. Municipalities typically regard tiny THOWs as RVs, and many communities prohibit people from living in RVs full-time. El Paso County reclassified tiny houses as distinct from RVs, allowing people to live in them full-time in certain designated areas, provided they pass an inspection and are hooked up to utilities. (In Larimer County, THOWs are considered RVs, which can only be kept in the same location for 180 days each year.)

It’s a start. The reluctance of towns to embrace tiny houses on wheels stems from a desire for safety and uniformity. In Fort Collins, RVs are allowed to camp for only 30 days in the same location, must be hooked up to utilities, and backyard camping is forbidden. Composting human waste and gray water are prohibited in Fort Collins for health reasons, says Ted Shepard, chief planner for the city of Fort Collins. He says that, about once a year, someone calls asking where they can place a tiny house in Fort Collins. “They get rather crestfallen when they hear they’re considered either a mobile home or an RV, and they assume we don’t watch the TV shows and think we’re fuddy-duddy bureaucrats who aren’t with the program.”

However, putting down roots doesn’t suit all owners of tiny homes for financial and other reasons. Hunter Buffington is aware of this tension between freedom and belonging. She’s tried facilitating conversations between the City of Fort Collins and tiny house advocates to lift some of the restrictions for mobile dwellings. “Unfortunately, those conversations don’t go anywhere,” she says. “These barriers to figuring out how to live small really need to be removed.”

Recently, the Town of Fraser in Grand County adopted tiny-friendly zoning regulations. “It’s a question of affordability,” says Andy Miller, a builder and member of the Town of Fraser Board of Trustees. Where nearby ski town Winter Park built 25 employee housing units with rent pegged to income, Miller says that Fraser doesn’t have the sales tax base to follow suit. Instead, the town adjusted zoning regulations to allow smaller dwellings and reduced tap fees for utilities. “It’s the cost per square foot that helps someone build a modest home,” he says. “We’re trying to lower the threshold.”

In Boulder County, the town of Lyons is considering an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) designation for tiny houses. “We’d like to permit tiny houses as ADUs so long as they’re safe and built to some standard,” says Paul Glasgow, director of community development. Currently, accessory dwelling units like carriage houses and garage attic apartments must be built in place and pass an inspection. “What we’re evaluating is, what if someone just had a pad and a way to hook into sewer and electric?” Glasgow says the planning commission will be debating these issues in the coming months.

For homeowners who want to hit the road either full or part time, the current best options are RV parks zoned for tiny houses on wheels, like Riverview RV Park and Campground in Loveland or Peak View Park in Woodland Park. Tiny-house owners who want to live off-grid or grid-adjacent will either have to purchase land, which runs contrary to the ideal of living on the cheap, or, like Hunter Buffington, hide and hope to escape discovery. Right now, Larimer County “does not actively enforce the land-use code for tiny houses on wheels, unless we receive a written complaint on one,” says Terry Gilbert, director of the Larimer County Community Development Division.

So what does the future hold for aspiring downsizers? The tiny-house trend seems to be moving toward stationary communities rather than nomadic solitude. Sprout Tiny Homes is slated to build a 200-unit tiny house subdivision on the Arkansas River in Salida in 2018. “We get inquiries every day from people all over the country who want to live there in a tiny house,” says owner Rod Stambaugh.

Tiny house communities can also potentially address the affordable-housing crisis in Colorado. In 2017, Sprout built several 40-foot-long tiny houses for Aspen Skiing Company as an affordable housing option for employees. Three people can live in one of these Sprout tinies, which has two loft beds and a downstairs bedroom, says Stambaugh. The houses have radiant floor heat, air exchangers and tons of storage, and an employee can pay $450 per month for a bed—a steal in Aspen’s rental market.

A six-month tiny-house experiment led by the Colorado Village Collaborative has proven successful for people who are homeless in Denver. In the summer of 2017, 15 people moved into the Beloved Community Village; none returned to the streets after moving in, and 80 percent were gainfully employed. The Collaborative solved the problem of utilities by centralizing them; each unit has electricity and a sleeping area, with common kitchen and bath areas. Affordability and strong neighborhood support buoyed the experiment, which bodes well for the expansion of the project in the future.

Cole Chandler, organizer and co-founder of the Colorado Village Collaborative, plans to sacle this model and his group is working with the city to create permanent zoning for these villages. “This is a realistic solution that can be done quickly and cheaply, it’s environmentally friendly and it’s community based,” he says. “We have land available here in Denver—we’re not like San Francisco or New York—and there’s no reason for people to be sleeping outside being criminalized just because they’re poor.”

“I see the tiny house movement as only growing from here,” says Alexis Stephens of Tiny House Expedition. “We live in a world with a lot of chaos and input, and it makes too much sense to live within your means.”

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