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Tiny houses as more than a lifestyle choice?

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Posted at 12:15 PM, Sep 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-26 12:15:35-04

For some people, living in a tiny house is a philosophical statement, tangible evidence of their decision to downsize their living space, simplify the way they live, minimize their impact on the environment and save a substantial amount of money along the way. 

“I think the smaller footprint is a lifestyle choice,” said Bradley Cooper, who has a master’s degree in architecture and is awaiting city permits to build two tiny homes on Peete Street near Findlay Market in Cincinnati. “It’s a matter of how you want to spend your time and energy and what matters to you. Having a big house and a lot of stuff is not as important to some people as it is to other people.”

Saving money and energy also are critical elements of the “Tiny House Movement,” Cooper said.

But Habitat for Humanity is considering whether tiny homes can serve another purpose -- to provide low-income residents an alternative to large, more expensive homes. 

Photo by Greg Paeth, WCPO contributor

Like scores of other people during the last week, Cooper took a tour of the tiny house that has been on exhibit outside the Habitat for Humanity offices and “ReStore” in Bond Hill. That home will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 4910 Para Dr.

The homes that Cooper plans to build have about 280 square feet, slightly smaller that the 320 square feet in the Habitat prototype. By comparison, Cooper said the average home in the U.S. has about 2,500 square feet. Another measure of comparison is a project that he worked on at Miami University in Oxford, where GBBN Architects had been hired to renovate dorm rooms that averaged between 170 and 200 square feet, Cooper said.

Photo by Greg Paeth, WCPO Contributor

Habitat, a national organization that helps low-income people build or rehab homes, is asking people from the region to comment about tiny homes in an effort to determine if Habitat should move ahead and begin building some of these dwellings in Greater Cincinnati.

The average mortgage payment on a typical home that Habitat might build or rehab in Greater Cincinnati would be between $450 and $550 a month for a home that would cost somewhere between and $90,000 and $100,000, according to Ed Lee, president and CEO of Habitat’s Cincinnati office. He said that would represent a substantial savings to families that often pay $700 or more per month for rent.

Dawn Stutz, vice president of operations for Habitat, and Richard Schwartz, procurement manager, both said those monthly payments would shrink dramatically for anyone who would want to move into the kind of tiny house that Habitat has displayed.

Photo by Greg Paeth, WCPO contributor

The homes are built in repurposed shipping containers that measure 8 by 40 feet and provide 320 square feet of living space for about $23,000, Stutz said.

Schwartz said a typical monthly mortgage payment would be about $120 and that utilities might cost another $20 per month in homes that meet the federal standards for “Energy Star” certification. He said the 320-square-foot unit – kitchen, bath, bedroom and a small living space for watching TV or reading – is designed for one person.

The shipping containers are typically used to move products on ocean-going vessels and have steel frames. There’s nothing flimsy about them. The frames are so strong that the containers can be stacked 12 high, Schwartz said.

Lee acknowledged that people who talk about tiny houses in terms of a movement or lifestyle choice and his staff at Habitat may be looking at the houses “from completely different angles.” But he also pointed out that Habitat could benefit if the people involved in the movement can convince cities and counties that tiny houses are a reasonable alternative to far larger dwellings.

Photo by Greg Paeth, WCPO contributor

Exhibiting the container house in Cincinnati was an effort to start a conversation and get some reactions about where they might be built and who might be interested in living in them, Lee said.

Lee also made it clear that Habitat has made no decision about whether it will move ahead with building container homes. He also said that there is no timetable for when the organization might make a decision.

The home that has been parked outside the Habitat office had been on display recently at the Kentucky State Fair and will be moved soon to Floyd County, Kentucky, where it will replace the dilapidated home of a military veteran, Stutz said.

Among the people who took the tour this week was Kat Lyons, advocacy coordinator for Cincinnati’s Center for Independent Living Options, who works with people who have disabilities.

“Housing is one of the biggest issues for people with disabilities and anytime we see something that might help with this huge issue we take a look at it,” Lyons said.

Lyons was told that the units could be made accessible for the disabled. “This could be a good option for people with physical and mental disabilities and it could be a way to address the horrendous housing shortage that we have,” she said.

Lyons said she’s convinced that providing housing for people is the first step in dealing with other problems that they may face. “I believe that you have to give people a place to live first. It’s the most important foundation for our sense of security,” she said.