Detroit: Tiny houses and liberal dreams

Detroit: Tiny houses and liberal dreams
Tiny house made largely from recycled material. (Image: Screen grab of YouTube video)

Tiny houses have been hyped too much for me to believe that they are solely a demand-driven phenomenon sweeping the nation.

It has to take a lot of hype, after all, to interest a typical person in downsizing to a footprint the size of a one-car garage – or less.  If you’re older than about 25, for starters, you know something very important about living in small spaces: it’s a lot of work.

You don’t really simplify your life; you just exchange one set of daily chores for another.  These tiny houses displayed on TV shows look to me like huge obstacles to comfort for a good hour or more out of the day, when you’re having to constantly lift, hook, move aside, lower, shift, crawl, climb, wipe down, buss up, and otherwise fiddle with things, just so you can go to the bathroom or lie down to sleep.

If I had a tiny house, I’d probably use it as an office during the day, and spend my nights at a 5-star hotel where the toilet flushes, and you don’t have to run a scrimmage on the counter between your kitchen tools and your laptop, just to have a cup of coffee and a Pop Tart.

Either that, or I’d excavate all the useless nooks and devices and use the “tiny” for storage at the back of my property.  Live like a decent human being in the comfy 4-bedroom dwelling up front, where there’s room for my books, I can get to and from bed without putting on crampons or getting in some abseiling practice, and the toilets are all feet and feet from the kitchen and the dining room.  There’s a reason for that physical separation, you know.

A tiny house is a good place to put the lawnmower, is my thinking.  It’s perfectly sized and appointed for the lawnmower’s comfort.  It might even be a little chi-chi for the lawnmower.  But to each his own.

And that’s it in a nutshell right there.  To each his own.  If tiny-house living sounds totally dope to you, go for it.  As your Aunt Jen, I’d counsel you to try it for a while in a camper first.  Way cheaper and less of a commitment.  Same informational experience.

And don’t even think about trying it in my neighborhood.  I’m paying good money to be in a neighborhood with real houses, with people who want to do the same.  I think it’s wonderful if you despise my quarter-acre and 2,300 square feet of suburban comfort, and don’t want to be around them, because I really don’t want something that looks like this across the street from me.

(Image: Screen capture of YouTube video)
(Image: Screen capture of YouTube video)

I’ll do me.   Go do you somewhere else.

But then, that, right there, is the problem with our friends on the left.  They’re always using taxpayer money to get the rest of us, who are happy doing us and not bothering them, to let them do us.

So in Detroit, I saw today, courtesy of my MSN home page, that there are two relevant things going on right now.  One is that some nice people are building a little development of tiny houses to help the poor become homeowners.

The other is that Detroit is the cheapest urban-metro place in America to buy a real house.

That got me thinking.  Is the tiny-house development really a better option for aspiring, entry-level homeowners in Detroit?


With the tinies, we’re talking extremely small permanent dwellings of between 250 and 400 square feet, according to the enthusiastic USA Today article.  They’re cute, and will be spanking new when people first move into them.  But they’re microscopic.  The sponsors of the project think the right fit will be for single people, and couples who “really love each other.”  Uh-huh.  It isn’t clear to me whether there will be off-street parking (there are no garages in sight), but I’m suspicious on that head.

So for up to 400 square feet in snow-prone Detroit, where there may or may not be a place to put your car, you’ll be paying between $250 and $450 a month in “rent-to-own” rent.  It will all depend on the size of tiny you want, and your income.  It’s one of those public-sponsored deals where you become vested as if you’ve been paying a mortgage, after a certain time, but you’re also restricted in how much you can eventually profit from the property.  If the value of the real estate grows a lot, you won’t see the profit from that.  It’s not good for you to profit too much.  The property has to remain “accessible” to the next poor person.  That’s part of the deal.

Then there’s the cheapest-in-the-nation existing housing stock.  According to, Detroit residential real estate is going, on average, for about $24 a square foot at the moment.  So for a 3-bedroom house with about 1,300 square feet, you’re looking at a price of $31,200.  Which, as most of you out there know, is really honking cheap.

I tested this proposition by looking at recent sales in the general area of Detroit where the Cass Community Social Services project is building tiny houses.  Here are two typical examples of what I found.

This property, a 3-bed, 2-bath house with 1,455 square feet, recently sold for $32,000.

Screen-cap, listing.
Screen-cap, listing.

This property, a 3-bed, 1-bath house with 950 square feet, recently sold for $22,500.

Screen-cap, listing.
Screen-cap, listing.

There were quite a few properties that were cheaper by the square foot, but I limited my qualifying sample to properties that were clearly habitable and in well-kept neighborhoods.  These are just two examples of several dozen listed on

To calculate monthly mortgage payments, I assumed for simplicity that the borrower would be paying off the whole amount of the sale.  With an FHA loan, that’s close enough to the case that it won’t matter.  Plugging in property tax and average insurance costs, and an interest rate of 4%, I used an online mortgage calculator to determine the following.

For the $32,000 house, with 1,455 square feet and a long driveway, the borrower would be paying about $352 a month PITI.

For the $22,500 house, with 950 square feet, a driveway, and a 1-car garage, the borrower would be paying about $254 a month PITI.

And when the borrower goes to sell, he or she will reap whatever profit the market awards.

Before finishing the warm-up to our obvious conclusion, it’s also worth noting that it will cost more to build a tiny like the ones being constructed in Detroit than it does to just buy an existing, single-family residential dwelling.  As a rule, tiny houses are only dirt cheap if you build them yourself out of packing-crate wood while sleeping on the ground for three years when it’s below freezing at night.  (There’s also the option of developing your DIY tiny in an abandoned school bus or freight container.)

Tony houes built from recycled materials around an old bus. (Image via
Tiny house built from recycled materials around an old bus. (Image via


With all the habitable housing going for cheap in Detroit, you have to really want to stuff people into tiny houses, to build new tinies instead of just helping first-timers get into existing homes in established neighborhoods.

Dictating that people will live in storage sheds and nobly eschew profiting from their “rent” money has to be your priority.

If all you wanted was to enable the working poor to become homeowners, you’d do something like set up a mortgage-loan fund to cater to them, and maybe offer some amount of help in the first five years with upkeep expenses.

This is one reason it’s perfectly sensible to detect the fell hand of Agenda 21 planners in the “tiny house movement” hype.  That doesn’t mean that true believers, folks in private enterprise, who are putting their own capital at risk to advertise and sell tiny houses, are a bad thing.

It does mean that it’s just fine to look at their wares and decide to pass, in favor of a comfortable-size house that lefty scolds would launch spittle-throwing screeds against.  In Detroit, for poor people, the conventional option is actually a better deal.

It’s quite all right to have a really big house if you want one, for that matter.  Have as many as you want.  Just pay for it yourself.  Do you, dude.  It’s all good.

Bonus: for the funniest thing you have read in a long time, see here.  Just don’t be eating or drinking around your computer screen.  (Or squeamish about colorful language.)

Tiny house built with $420 worth of recycled materials. Labor cost not included. (Image: Screen grab of YouTube video)
Tiny house built with $420 worth of recycled materials. Labor cost not included. (Image: Screen grab of YouTube video)


J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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