Downsizing to live large
By Leonie Sherman
WE’VE LIVED IN TINY SHELTERS for most of human history, but in modern times our dwellings have become status symbols. Downsizing is a relatively new concept. Susan Susanka’s bestselling book The Not So Big House, published in 1997, is often credited with starting the tiny home movement. The financial crisis of 2007 gave it an unexpected boost. Though tiny homes have been featured in films, TV series, newspapers and magazines, they still account for less than 1% of real estate transactions in the US.
American culture glorifies excess and accumulation. Eighteen months ago we elected a man whose main claim to fame is his fortune. The average American single family home grew by a thousand square feet between 1978 and 2013, even as the average family size shrank. In a capitalist society, choosing to prioritize experiences over things runs counter to deeply-held, seldom-examined values. But like all great counter-culture, from Janis Joplin to slow food, California is fertile ground for radical acts of resistance. The soaring cost of living adds to the appeal of tiny living in the Golden State. The following Californians have made the move from bigger is better to less is more.
The Wilderness Adventurer
Ian Gillies’ tiny home and tricked out van, Biscuit, allowed him to quit his job. Ten years ago he was working as a graphic designer and living in a thousand square foot house in the Bay Area. Now that he calls 300 square feet home, he’s living the dirtbag dream. He spends half his time traveling the American west adventuring and the other half in his cozy cabin in Felton. He’s been living off savings for a year and a half. “Once the money runs out, I’ll worry about it then,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t have a kid or a mortgage or a car payment, so that removes a lot of stress other folks have.”
His mother’s illness inspired his radical simplification. When she got sick, he moved to LA to take care of her. “Before I left, I looked around my place and realized I didn’t want all that crap anymore,” he says. So he put it all on the free section of Craigslist. “Within a week it all went to people who needed it more than I did.”
The urge to purge only intensified after his mother passed. “I realized I didn’t want to be tied down by financial obligations. I wanted to look at pretty stuff more than a computer screen. I didn’t want to do work I don’t enjoy to pay for the things I want to do.” He hasn’t looked back. “It breaks my heart to hear someone in their 40s or 50s say they spent all these years working a job they hated. You can always earn more money, but you can never get back time.”
Gillies loves helping others simplify. “I get a little rush every time I help someone get rid of their stuff,” he confesses. “Sometimes people ask me ‘how do I know if I need something?’ I tell them to look at something they own and just ask if they need it. If it takes more than three seconds to decide, you don’t need it. When you realize that things aren’t adding much to your life, it’s easy to get rid of them.”
The Village Person
Getting rid of things was never an issue for Santa Cruz resident Vnes (pronounced Venus). As a child she spent six months of every year sharing a 32 x 8 foot sailboat with two cats, a dog, her brother, mother and step-father. “We had as much space as two VW buses!” she explains. “We were like hippies of the sea!” A visit to Santa Cruz and seven words changed her life.
“25 years ago I saw that awesome bumper sticker, Live Simply So Others May Simply Live,” she recalls fondly. “I think it’s very greedy to have so much more than you need when there are homeless people with nothing. I don’t own much, but I feel very wealthy. I’ve chosen to live in a tiny house and keep a tiny lifestyle- everything I need is within a mile so I don’t need a car. That allows me to work 30 hours a week at a really laid back job and maintain a wonderful lifestyle in this absurdly expensive place. My annual living costs are the same as some people’s annual property taxes!”
After she fell in love with Santa Cruz she did the standard housing shuffle involving sun porches and substandard rooms before buying her own place in the cooperatively-owned low-income El Rio Mobile Home Park right downtown. Her home is 33 x 8 and reminds her of the beach cottages of her youth.
“My place isn’t perfect, but it’s perfect for me,” she admits. “I know people who have these major responsibilities and so much stress.” She shrugs as she puts on a kettle of tea. “I like to keep it simple so I can enjoy life more.” Living small allows me to have little luxuries. I can still have a big screen TV, but it’s 40 inches, not 72.”
She’s also had to give up scavenging yard sales, discourage gifts from family and rewire her consumer impulses. “I’ve trained myself not to want stuff,” she explains. “Sometimes I see the hot new thing, and I feel like I’ve got to have it! But I’ve found that if I wait two months, it turns out I didn’t want it anyway.”
The Single Mom
For Angie Christine, the decision to live tiny wasn’t about the hot new thing; it was all about her son. After a divorce, she faced the prospect of raising Tyler, on her own, in one of the most expensive places in the country. She moved through a series of shabby rooms, apartments and studios and was on the verge of relocating to Oregon when a 450 square foot home on three acres outside of Ben Lomond came up for rent.
Downsizing her possessions and expenses has allowed her to be more present in her son’s life. “I didn’t want to move my son away from either one of his parents,” she explains. “I can take him to school, and pick him up, and encourage his passion for the ocean and surfing all because of this minimalist lifestyle.” Tyler was just signed to RipCurl as a team member.
But the non-tangible benefits are most important to Christine and her son. “There’s so much less stress and so much more freedom in our lives for having only what we need. We let go of so much. The emotional piece is really the best part of tiny living and was totally unexpected!”
The DIY Couple
For David Hicks and Sylvia Benson, living tiny didn’t involve letting go of much. They shared an even smaller trailer before moving into their own tiny home. ”I lived in a shack in the woods for six years and on a sailboat after that. Our 30 x 8.5 foot home is the largest space we’ve ever shared!” explains Hicks.
“I love that we built this ourselves. I know all the wiring and plumbing, everything that’s in the house and how it all works,” says Benson. “This was the only way we could build our own house and live in our hometown.” They can tow their place on a trailer and currently rent land in the Santa Cruz mountains.
“Our tiny home does not have a lot of storage,” Benson admits, when pressed to articulate the challenges of tiny living. So they built a small shed to store their biking, kayaking and backpacking equipment. “The shed has been crucial,” admits Hicks.
Like Christine, the benefit to their lifestyle has been most important. “Spending less money allows us the flexibility to enjoy our lives more.” says Benson with a contented sigh. “I feel lighter. There’s less stuff to shuffle around and organize. I feel a lot less burdened by things because I have less things.”