Tiny Houses Could Be the Next Big Thing for Shrinking Rust Belt Cities

  • Boneyard Studios' demonstration tiny house village in Washington, D.C. is one of a handful of tiny house projects exploring the viability of tiny houses in urban settings. Photo courtesy Inhabit via Flickr

November 13, 2015

Two years. That’s how long Eve Picker has been planning Pittsburgh’s first tiny house. It hasn’t been easy. She couldn’t even get a bank loan because the project was too unusual. And city zoning codes aren’t exactly set up for tiny houses. So the fact that ground is actually breaking and studs are finally being nailed, feels like a big deal.

“It makes it feel real,” Picker says, as she watches a five-ton excavator do some delicate ballet on the cramped building site. “I love construction. The messier it gets, the happier I am.”

Picker is a veteran of Pittsburgh’s development scene—and a bit of a maverick. She was one of the first to start renovating downtown lofts in Pittsburgh way before it was trendy. And this tiny house is a bit of an experiment too. The 330-square-foot, open-concept house is one of 16 projects that Picker’s group City Lab now has underway in an attempt to breathe some new energy into Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood—a place which has yet to catch the wave of the city’s ongoing renaissance.

“I’m really puzzled by Garfield,” Picker says. “Garfield is sort of the hole in a doughnut of economic development and wealth that rings it.”

That ring is now sporting all the traditional signs of urban renewal: A shopping district with a Whole Foods; $2-a-square-foot apartments. Google has even moved in down the road. Meanwhile, in Garfield, the story is the familiar Rust Belt tale of population loss, blight and vacant lots. It just couldn’t seem to attract new residents, particularly the so-called “creative class” of designers, engineers, researchers and artists that economists say can be key for reinvigorating and stabilizing neighborhoods economically.

“And so I thought, well, what if we took this information and instead of focusing on affordable housing and social services—let’s focus on this demographic.”

Eve Picker stands in front of the half-finished tiny house on N. Atlantic Ave in Pittsburgh. The project is one of 16 experiments that Picker's group City Lab is pursuing in order to lure creative workers to the city's struggling Garfield neighborhood. Photo: Lou Blouin

Eve Picker stands in front of the half-finished tiny house on N. Atlantic Ave in Pittsburgh. The project is one of 16 experiments that Picker's group City Lab is pursuing in order to lure creative workers to the city's struggling Garfield neighborhood. Photo: Lou Blouin

In other words, why not try to attract these kinds of creative workers by bringing something to the neighborhood that would appeal to this demographic—and that the community could say was only happening in Garfield. One idea: tiny houses.

“People love tiny houses. There’s a tiny house movement that’s global. I don’t know why it’s such a romantic notion, but people seem to really love the idea,” Picker says.

And the idea has already generated a lot buzz. Picker says even the local cops now call Garfield the “tiny house neighborhood”—and the house isn’t even finished yet. But not everyone in Garfield was feeling the love—at least not at first.

“People wanted to understand: Is this about gradually replacing the low-income African-American population?" says Rick Swartz, who heads up the non-profit Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, which is providing some of the financial backing for the tiny house project. "And the answer was ‘no.’ It’s a fill-in strategy. So we’re going to see how this is received. And if this becomes a lightning rod in the community, then maybe this is the only tiny house that gets built.”

Swartz is optimistic that won’t happen. In fact, he says most people in the neighborhood just see the tiny house as a curiosity. And if the neighborhood accepts this first one, he’d like to see more tiny houses built on Garfield’s more than 500 vacant lots. But he can only do so much marketing. At the end of the day, he says his neighborhood’s attitude toward the project will depend a lot on who ends up buying the tiny house.

“People are going to look at who it is that lives here. And if this looks like somebody who is going to be vacationing down in Aruba while he lives in our neighborhood the other 11 months of the year, then I’ve got big problems.”

Side by side: The 330-square-foot tiny house, compared to the neighboring house on N. Atlantic Avenue. The tiny house is being built on a lot that has been vacant for years. Photo: Lou Blouin

Side by side: The 330-square-foot tiny house, compared to the neighboring house on N. Atlantic Avenue. The tiny house is being built on a lot that has been vacant for years. Photo: Lou Blouin

This concern over who the buyer might be assumes, of course, that there will be a buyer. And finding one—at least one willing to cough up enough money to justify the project’s cost—can’t be taken for granted. This is literally the first example we could find in the country where a developer is building and offering a tiny house for sale in a city neighborhood. So no one knows if all the new mainstream buzz over the fairly DIY tiny house movement means people will actually buy tiny houses built by developers.

“I think the fact that we’re even talking about it shows that there’s a certain level of intrigue,” says Leila Bozorg, a housing expert who’s done a survey of tiny house projects nationwide.

“Whether that will translate into demand, I’m not convinced yet. I think that, right now, tiny homes still appeal to people who aren’t necessarily in the mainstream. I wouldn’t necessarily call them fringe populations either. But it’s people that want to think outside the box and are asking: Is there a different model, right now, for living?”

Should this pilot project be successful, Bozorg says Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland—which already has something similar in motion—stand to be at the forefront of this new sector in the tiny house economy. In cities like New York or San Francisco, Bozorg says this concept wouldn’t have a chance. Land is just in too short of supply to build dwellings that might house only one or two people.

“In shrinking cities, I think it could be used as a model,” Bozorg says. “Where you have a lot of individual plots of land that used to have large homes built on them that are no longer viable, I think that could be an interesting test whether there’s demand enough from folks that are seeking affordable housing to go to tiny homes as an alternative.”

The first test of that alternative is about ready to play out. Eve Picker’s 330-square-foot tiny house will go on sale next week. The price starts at $109,500.