Posted July 1st, 2009 by Amanda Abel and filed in Issue 8: Bureaucracy/Regs.

3-generationsIf it were easy to identify locations, get loans for, and build small homes, this little web journal wouldn’t exist. It is truly a privilege to be able to put down roots somewhere, and there’s no way for most of us to forget that. The sad thing, I think, is that this crazy bureaucracy is taken as a given. In Jay Shafer’s “Viva la Tiny Revolution” that he posted last year on his site (or as I like to call it, the “tiny manifesto”), he said the following:cup-rinse

“As long as the law ignores justice and reason, then just and reasonable people will ignore the law. At this point civil disobedience is not only justified, for many it is the only option. The people of this purportedly free country will live in houses of any size that suits them whenever reasonable egress and land ownership or a landowner will allow. Thousands of Americans are already living beneath the radar in structures commonly regarded as too small to meet code. These folks live largely outside the system of imposed excess, and they do so within the rights granted to all of us by the Constitution of the United States. It now remains for our banks, zoning and codes to catch up.”


The question is how do we get these huge systems to embrace what we know is a more sustainable model? For the last few months of graduate school, I became involved in an urban studies research cluster. There were other grad students working in geography, sociology, history, etc., dealing with fascinating topics that I see overlapping in so many important ways. A fellow photographer is working on documenting the rise and fall of Victorville, a desert community between LA and Las Vegas, once the second fastest growing U.S. city, and now quickly becoming deserted itself due to the housing bust. Another project is looking into transition towns in England and the U.S., while still another studies how cities change or don’t change following natural disasters. One of the questions these students asked me when we talked about the Small Home Movement was, so what’s being done about it? And I was sorry that I couldn’t say much beyond, well…we’re talking about it.

Most of the people I’ve met in the Small Home Movement are creative and thoughtful people. We are problem solvers, but also tend to keep to ourselves. We engage in this little revolution quietly and for our own reasons and purposes. I’m writing this entry in my 400-square-foot apartment that I live in alone (with Leelu the Cat). In the last 2 years, I went over $30K into debt for the privilege of grad school; I spent $19K just on rent. And the thing is, I accepted this as necessary, rather than finding another way, like Elizabeth Turnbull. But to make progress, we’re going to have to do more than think outside the box. We’re going to have to go against our natures and learn to be collective in action, because, the truth is: the importance of living small is barely a blip on most people’s radar.

We can’t wait for banks, zoning, and codes to catch up to us. We have to rebuild the box.


8 Responses to “Bureaucrazy”

  1. AnneNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Amanda, great article. Every Movement first starts as a discussion, then more heated discussion, then deepening discontent, then finally action. I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the Small House Movement is slow to gain momentum. Movements that raise a lot of fire quickly in the people very often die just as quickly. It has just recently hit the awareness of the general public that there is another way to live, and live well, in smaller housing. I would hope that this Movement grows slowly to set down some seriously deep roots.

    As for grad school… I was on the precipice just a month ago of realizing that “investing” 25-30k in a Master’s degree would probably not pay off at my age (41), so I jumped ship. My advisor was very sad. I’m very sad. I would truly have loved to go back to school full time and immerse myself in rigorous academic debate and learning for a couple years. But, my growing anxiety over taking on that kind of debt got the better of me. You have my admiration for sticking it out!


  2. AnneNo Gravatar says:

    I should correct myself re: “It has just recently hit the awareness of the general public that there is another way to live, and live well, in smaller housing.”

    Small homes are not recent. Rather, what is old is new again. It’s only in the last 20-30 years that housing square footage has grown out of control, with the rest of human history filled with very small and very livable homes. It’s just that societal memory seems to only last 10-20 years, maybe less.

  3. Betsy McCullenNo Gravatar says:


    Great choice of a Topic for this issue!! I have been waiting for more info on this and I was happy to see it here at SLJ, so THANKS :)

    I think in some ways it is a nice idea to stay ‘small’ in our society. Except for the idea of a bank loan, I think the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ syndrome will keep us from being too much in the spot light – for once the government gets too involved, it could become a big nightmare!! With the exception of safety & fire prevention ‘codes’ for our small home, I think there are a lot of totally ridiculous zoning & code laws. The biggest problem I have is that if I own a piece of land, I should OWN it, not be subjected to what I can and can not do on it. I mean, within reason, I should be free to build a simple, comfortable tiny house on it without having to go thru so much government red tape that I get discouraged!! Simple should be SIMPLE :)


  4. RandoNo Gravatar says:

    Amanda presents several frustrating points regarding how “the system” seems to make us adhere to minimum size requirements. It’s the same in the metro-Atlanta area as well. However, there is one creative way that I plan to get around all the red tape. I currently live in a 1,500 SF home. I plan to build a small house (about 475 SF) in the back yard building permitted as a “GUEST HOUSE” and that gets me around all of the ridiculous zoning mandates because they apply to the main residence; the guest house is considered an auxiliary structure similar to a storage building or pump house. Once completed, I can live my dream in the tiny house and rent out the big house as income generating property. Best of all, I’m in the backyard to keep an eye on the renters. So county requirements may be restrictive, but if we “small house folks” begin to think outside the box, we can beat regulators at their own crazy games and still be able to achieve our SMALL dreams. Good luck to everybody facing zoning restrictions!

  5. Amanda AbelNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Anne, thanks for the compliments! Only time will tell whether choosing to accumulate that debt will actually pay off. No matter what, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to do research into this movement and meet so many small-housers. And you’re right about the societal memory. It’s crazy that within 20-30 years, average house size doubled and now it’s become almost inconceivable to live with less than 600-1000 square feet per person. I appreciate what you said about rooting the movement. I tend to get impatient, though I think many important things are developing right now and the action will be visible within a year or two, especially in terms of the small-house communities currently being discussed. What was your Master’s degree going to be in?

  6. Amanda AbelNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Betsy! I really hope that more discussion follows about this issue. I think it really is one of the biggest things we have to confront. And I agree with you. It would be really nice to just be able to build what you can live in. If it doesn’t harm other people, what’s the big deal? Unfortunately, simplicity that doesn’t fit into the norm in this society is quickly frowned upon.

  7. Amanda AbelNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Rando, that definitely helps out. California allows for the same thing, but the owner is required to live in the main house. There are definitely landlords who rent out both structures or live in the ADU but it’s supposedly illegal. Are the rules the same there? I think for the most part it’s not enforced here though. Good luck!

  8. AnneNo Gravatar says:

    Liberal Studies at UW Milwaukee. I figured I couldn’t decide which way to go and saw the MLS program as a really good fit. Maybe if I get a windfall I’d reconsider it.