Tiny houses are big elsewhere - but in SA?

24 January 2017

The tiny house movement was started in the US by young singles or childless couples who could afford decent housing but balked at the thought of spending up to half their incomes to service 20-year home loans.

Instead of saddling themselves with 200m2 dream homes with manicured lawns and swimming pools, they choose to downsize drastically without compromising on kitchen and bathroom fittings and internet connectivity. Some opt to harvest solar power and rainwater and install composting toilets in order to "get off the grid" completely.

They erect their tiny dwellings on along trailer chassis (average size 2.6x6m) to circumvent building restrictions, and devise clever strategies like loft bedrooms to maximise the use of space. It helps to be tidy - there's no place for clutter in a 15m2 to 30m2 home. Having built or bought their tiny homes without loans, the owners park them semi-permanently on their own ground or in "tiny house eco-parks" or else make private arrangements with property owners, often in scenic locations. Less time spent on housework, maintenance and gardening means more time to enjoy nature, pursue interests and travel.

The movement also has a social dimension, in that many of its supporters are environmentalists who are concerned about the planet's dwindling resources and support calls for sustainable urban development.

The idea has spread to Australia and New Zealand, where it has taken off. Tiny homes can be parked on land that is deemed unsuitable for conventional housing, and they are cheap to build because the salvage yards are full of timber and fittings from demolished homes.

So, will these cute wooden houses catch on here? Probably not, due to bureaucratic issues and security concerns. Our tiny homes are more likely to be made from sturdy metal shipping containers.

However, tiny dwellings are an inescapable reality in South Africa - millions of citizens live in shacks and minute RDP houses, some of which are pretty amazing inside. The difference is that the occupants live minimalist lives because they have to, not because they want to. Most would probably jump at the chance of moving to a multibedroomed house in suburbia.

So there's that unequal divide again, which is something we will have with us for long time to come. According to Census 2011, government efforts to build RDP houses in the biggest metros couldn't match the demand, resulting in nearly one in five households now living in shacks. An intriguing question is, would the urban poor think any better of the affluent classes if they lived in tiny houses? I doubt it, somehow.

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