Tiny homes present big opportunities for Baltimore

Op-ed: Could tiny homes be the solution to many of Baltimore's problems? One homeowner thinks so.

A 238-square-foot home will soon be our permanent residence. But before you laugh, scoff or stop reading, let me explain why.

Living in a tiny house gives us freedom from a hefty mortgage and utility bills. It also frees us from unnecessary possessions and allows us to live an extraordinary life for very little money.

In a year, the average Baltimore resident will spend $11,000 to $20,000 on rent. Meanwhile, most fully outfitted tiny homes cost between $28,000 and $60,000 in total to purchase, depending on the materials and technology used.

In other words — for a few years' rent, an individual could own their own home. This is an especially promising option for close to 40 percent of those whose rent now takes over a third of their paycheck.

Tiny homes require a fraction of the land and resources that the average 2,800-square-foot home requires, and can be as structurally sound as any other home built to International Residential Codes. Tiny homes are the ultimate in environmental sustainability.

But, despite the advantages of less stuff and expenses, tiny homes don't yet fit into any existing affordable housing strategy. Maryland's counties and cities have zoning laws in place that restrict tiny homes and even bar individuals from living legally in them.

The big question is, why?

When Mayor Catherine Pugh was sworn into office, she stressed the importance of providing quality affordable housing for all Baltimore City residents. For a moment, let's consider how tiny homes could help move many more individuals toward home ownership.

We can model the best qualities of tiny home villages around the country. One example is Opportunity Village in Eugene, Ore. Though not a housing first model, this micro-house community provides extraordinarily cost-effective, transitional housing for the city's poorest and homeless. The village offers the previously unhoused mutual support, security, stability and privacy. Built for, and by, its residents, it is also self-governed. And therein lies its greatest strength — it empowers once disempowered individuals to make decisions about how their community is operated and managed. By giving individuals responsibility, they take wholesale ownership in the truest sense. From homelessness to homeownership now becomes a reality.

So, how might a city like Baltimore embody this example? The most obvious action is to build tiny home villages on increasing acres of vacant land. A city could lease this unused land, with an eventual option to purchase, creating an opportunity to build a sense a community and ownership in areas devastated by poverty and inequity.

We could also use tiny homes as vehicles in establishing vibrant, mixed income neighborhoods in the city's wealthier districts — literally in back yards. Those hosts will be called YIMBY's (Yes In My Back Yard) as an impactful counterpoint to NIMBYs, giving our hard-working citizens a safe place to rest their heads at night and the chance at being close to work during the day.

Additionally, just as local nonprofit Civic Works is now accomplishing through its YouthBuild program, we could turn building tiny homes into a systemic job training program — allowing formally disconnected young adults to learn highly sought after skills in an industry searching for qualified workers. They apprentice with professionals, begin to build their careers and work toward their own financial freedom. Perhaps Baltimore might become the number one tiny home producer in the nation.

The potential of tiny houses stretches far beyond any fad or trend. Tiny homes possess the ability to create new skills, empower individuals, save thousands of dollars and our environment, while breaking through de facto racial and economic segregation.

As Mayor Pugh stated in her inaugural speech, "We can do better, and we will do better." So, let's do better. All we have to do is think big and start tiny.

Greg Cantori is a volunteer tiny home consultant for Baltimore nonprofit Civic Works (www.civicworks.com). He can be reached at gcantori@gmail.com.

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