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.

14017120960_31d716282e_k-jpg
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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...