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Mental Health

Tiny Homes

A good option for the body, mind and spirit

Samantha Gambling, MSc, and Shari Laliberte, RN, PhD

Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (4), pp. 36-39

Safe, secure housing is fundamental to our health.1 Poor living conditions and unsafe, unaffordable or insecure housing situations increase our risk of health challenges.2-4 As cities across BC face an ongoing affordable-housing crisis,5 it is becoming clear that having access to high-quality housing options is critical for our mental, physical and emotional well-being.

Tiny homes are a unique option that can gently increase density in cities and meet the increasing calls for more affordable housing.6 At the same time, tiny homes have potential to improve ecological sustainability and help foster closer social relationships and human interactions, which benefits the wider community.7 Although more research needs to be done, plenty of anecdotal evidence supports these claims. Arguably, certain features of tiny homes, and the lifestyle that tiny homes enable, have a positive impact on their residents, the broader community and the surrounding natural environment.

Currently, there is no strict definition of "tiny home." The most familiar version of the tiny home—made popular by television documentaries and social media—is a small, moveable, custom-built single-family home. But the tiny-home model is a flexible one, and the idea of a small, environmentally sustainable housing option can be shaped to suit whatever population it serves. Over the past 5 to 10 years, tiny-house "villages" have received international attention. These examples are built to meet the needs of multiple diverse populations, including renters looking for sustainable and affordable solutions to high real estate prices and soaring rental rates, veterans,8 Indigenous activists,9 environmentally conscious communities, people with disabilities and people experiencing homelessness.10

Less money, less clutter, less worry

Tiny homes are cheaper to build and easier to maintain than large homes. This can offer residents greater financial freedom and even the possibility of home ownership with relief from mortgage debt, which can have positive effects on our mental and physical health.11,12 Because a tiny home requires less money to maintain, the financial benefits are ongoing—not simply a matter of whether someone can afford to buy a home, but whether someone can afford to live comfortably and sustainably over the long term.

Living in a tiny home often requires the individual or the family to re-think their attachment to possessions. Moving into a tiny home usually involves downsizing— reducing one's amount of "stuff." While initially it may be hard to let go of some of our personal things, downsizing makes for less clutter and, ultimately, less maintenance.13 Reduced clutter is beneficial for a person's sense of well-being and their sense of home.14,15

Tiny homes typically range in size from 80 to 700 square feet. This might seem small, but the literature suggests that the size of a home is less important than the design—of both the house and of the neighbourhood where the tiny house is situated.16-18 Most important is the ease with which one is able to perform daily living activities.19

Personal satisfaction with one's home is also related to how one views their home in comparison to other homes in the community. Are the homes equal in size and comfort?20 Are they aesthetically pleasing? A person's health in their home is affected by the amount of natural light, the ventilation and pollution levels (and one's perception of pollution levels), as well as relationships with neighbours21,22 and being close to outdoor green space.23

Human connection and participation

Tiny homes increase opportunities for human interaction and can foster social inclusion. In urban settings, tiny homes placed on vacant and under-developed land can offer an affordable place to live in neighbourhoods that are already well served by public transportation systems. In suburban and rural settings, tiny homes can be placed as a solitary unit or in a community setting with other tiny homes. In this context, tiny homes can be managed using a co-op or condominium model, or they can function as private homes or rental units.24

When tiny homes are placed in intentional communities, residents have options for sharing communal resources to decrease costs and increase access to amenities.25,26 For example, a tiny-house community might share laundry facilities and communal kitchen, storage and community meeting spaces.24 In the "Simply Home" tiny-house community in Portland, Oregon, residents share garden and eating spaces, as well as tasks to keep the community functioning—from technology management to growing and ordering food.25

Participating in a community with a common social goal can foster good interpersonal relationships. It can also help promote mutual aid and empathy among individuals, which benefits the broader society.21 Examples of tiny-home communities for homeless populations in the US suggest that the "intentional living component" is the key feature valued by residents, allowing for self-management, community-governance and peer support.27 Community governance—where diverse people are engaged in wider community decision-making processes with shared decision-making power— aligns with a core primary health care principle referred to as "public participation."28 This process enables people to increase control over factors that impact their health and well-being, which is the definition of health promotion according to the World Health Organization.29

The recent Red Women Rising report30 addresses these issues in its recommendations to prevent further violence towards Indigenous women and children and to honour the central role of women in our communities. Among other things, the report calls for homes for everyone—homes of at least 400 square feet: "There should be tiny homes for every homeless person in Canada so people can live independently and grow their own food, and not be controlled or dependent on...government systems of oppression."30

Creative independence and flexibility

Tiny-home designs are customizable, allowing residents to plan their living space, tailoring their homes to their unique needs, tastes and budget. Many tiny-home owners are involved in the design and building process in a hands-on way, enabling them to build practical skill sets while exercising creative independence and experiencing a sense of pride and true ownership in the tiny-home project.31-33

Tiny homes can be used as temporary or permanent living spaces. When mounted on wheels or temporary foundations, they are cheaper to build than permanent housing and offer residents the option to relocate as their needs and circumstances change. Another factor that makes tiny homes a potentially healthy option is that they are groundoriented, allowing residents easy access to the outside world. In contrast, living on the upper floors of a high-rise is correlated with anxiety and social isolation, as well as lower physical activity, behavioural problems and respiratory illnesses in children.21

Sustainable living

Many tiny-home enthusiasts are motivated by an environmental sustainability ethic and incorporate alternative, off-grid technologies and sustainable designs and construction practices to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, some tiny homes incorporate solar panels, rainwater collection and filtration systems and composting or incinerating toilets. Smaller homes also require fewer resources and less land than larger homes, which may have significant environmental benefits.

Such "green" practices have the potential not only to reduce negative environmental impacts of development but also to improve our health and enhance our lives.37 Incorporating renewable energy sources and reused building materials and contributing one's own time and skills towards the construction of a tiny home can lower housing costs and enable affordable home ownership.34-36 Generating one's own energy needs can foster a sense of independence, self-reliance and security.31,38 And being part of wider environmental sustainability movements—feeling like we're part of the solution—can also help reduce the mental and emotional stress of environmental threats like climate change.39

Inevitably, "tiny living" shapes an individual's relationship with physical goods, encouraging a greater awareness of waste and consumption— forcing us to reconsider how much, after all, we need in order to live a good life. Tiny living has the potential to play a key role in a longer-term cultural shift towards a more eco-centric ethic.40,41

A big future for tiny homes

Despite their benefits, tiny homes are not yet legal in BC. This is due in part to difficulties in regulating building codes and zoning bylaws for tiny, mobile dwellings (especially those incorporating off-grid technologies) and to negative public perception about the impact of tiny homes on the economy and health of the population.

Municipalities are starting to take steps to include this housing option in their community plans, however. For example, the City of Vancouver's "housing reset" strategy identified tiny houses as a built form to explore.42 The City of Victoria is also considering tiny houses as one option for affordable home ownership.43

In the meantime, the tiny-home movement is growing from the ground up. Across the province, it is becoming more commonplace to find tiny homes and tiny-home communities being built under the radar, with the most ardent enthusiasts being those who live in tiny homes themselves and are passionate about creating sustainable, affordable communities.

More research and community dialogue is needed to explore how different housing options impact people's mental health and well-being. However, our observations and experiences so far suggest that if tiny homes are designed, built and placed in ways that promote affordability, sustainability and social connectedness, they could offer us much more than a way to increase the supply of affordable housing: they hold the promise of helping us create deeper connections with each other, improve our relationship with the natural world and meet the needs of diverse, growing communities across BC.

 
About the authors

Samantha co-founded the BC Tiny House Collective in 2016 with Anastasia Koutalianos. She has worked as a project manager for Small Housing BC and as a coordinator for the City of Vancouver's Homeless Count. Currently, she lives in a tiny house and works as a consultant for the Public Health Association of BC

Shari, a faculty member in nursing at Vancouver Community College, coordinates a health-promotion practicum that educates students about the social determinants of health and how to promote health through community organizing and advocacy. Her research focuses on deepening our understanding of the relationship between socio-economic processes and youth mental health

The contributors acknowledge that the writing and preparation of this paper occurred on unceded Coast Salish territory

Footnotes:
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