Tiny houses won’t solve our affordable housing problem

In Salida, Colorado, little homes come with a big price tag.

 

My small rural Colorado town may soon sprout the country’s largest tiny home development: 200 micro-sized rental houses clustered on a 19-acre parcel on the banks of the Arkansas River two miles from downtown, a project that is supposed to relieve our growing housing crunch.

There's no doubt we need affordable housing. Mean house prices in Salida (population 5,400) have more than doubled in the past 15 years, from $124,600 in 2000 to $287,400 in 2015, while average household income has crept up just 25 percent, from $28,790 to $38,395.

Which means if you’re a teacher or a hospital nurse, you likely can't buy a house here. And good luck finding a place to rent: Like so many scenic towns in the West, “amenity migrants” from elsewhere have snapped up affordable rentals as second homes and vacation-rental investments.

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Salida, Colorado's spread, from above.

Tiny houses smaller than 500 square feet are certainly trendy, featured in places like uber-chic Dwell Magazine. Outside Magazine just ran a story as did The New York Times, which reported Daniel Libeskind and other noted architects will design these “bespoke architectural collectibles” – for a price. 

That price is the rub. Even when mass-produced, tiny homes are not cheap on a square-foot basis. Rod Stambaugh, president of Sprout Tiny Homes, builder of the proposed Salida community, suggests in the Outside story that rental rates would range from $750 a month for the 260-square-foot model to $1,400 for the largest, which boasts an actual bedroom and 493 square feet of space. That is nearly 50 percent higher than what the out-of-town landlord on my block charges for the two-bedroom unit in his historic duplex, which boasts 300 square feet more living space and is walking distance to downtown. 

Of course, for the price, mini-home renters get green-built dwellings featuring chic appointments like steel countertops, sliding barn-door dividers and clever built-in storage. The tiny houses will also be constructed locally, either in Sprouts' factory in La Junta, down the Arkansas River, or on-site.

The development is also designed as a walkable neighborhood. The micro-homes will be clustered in “pods” facing adjacent neighbors. There’s a community building with exercise facility, kitchen, and laundry; a riverside trail; two small open-space parks; storage units; and possibly a restaurant and small store. The name of the proposed development — River View at Cleora — reflects local history. The site is part of the short-lived town of Cleora, which sprang up in 1878 in anticipation of a coming railroad line, and boomed until a rival railroad established Salida two miles upriver the next year. 

But price is not the only downside to the proposed development. There's also its location, which is between the city’s wastewater treatment plant, with its continuously humming machinery, and occasional odors, and the stockyards. The city will need to annex the parcel and extend city services to the new houses even as Salida struggles to maintain existing streets and infrastructure.

There’s also the problem that in a town that prides itself on being bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, the development will not hook into our town trail system. It is reachable only by a four-lane federal highway, or a county road with blind corners and no shoulders.

I concede that River View at Cleora seems well-designed, and it clearly will provide space for those who can afford the price and don’t mind the commute to town, or who want a vacation place in a scenic valley. But it’s not a solution to our affordable housing problem.

How many people will really settle down in these expensive micro-rentals? Or will they soon move on, much like those long-ago Cleora residents? They reportedly put rollers under their buildings and relocated themselves — homes and all — to Salida.

Susan J. Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She once spent a winter in a truly tiny house — a sheep wagon — and writes now from a small house in Colorado.

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