Big dreams for tiny homes

While micro-apartments smaller than 400 sq ft are getting popular in New York City, tiny houses are still far from reality in the densely built city

Ms Miko Mercer (above) is building her 160 sq ft house (above right) in a warehouse in Brooklyn.
Ms Miko Mercer (above) is building her 160 sq ft house in a warehouse in Brooklyn.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Ms Miko Mercer would seem to be a good candidate for a tiny house - single, tidy, 1.6m. And indeed she has joined the Tiny House Movement that has swept the United States the last several years.

The salvaged windows of her little home do not, however, look out onto a misty forest or a community garden. They look out on cinder- block walls.

For the last year, Ms Mercer, 30, has been building a 160 sq ft house in a cavernous warehouse in Brooklyn.

She works at Birchbox, a start-up in Manhattan that sends people personalised beauty samples, and after work and on weekends, she often bikes to the warehouse on an industrial stretch of Bergen Street, where it is flanked by an auto body shop and a wood shop.

"The guys at the auto body shop think it's funny," she said. "They're like, 'Wow, you're building that all by yourself?'"

Tiny houses, generally defined as homes smaller than 400 sq ft, often built on wheels, first appeared in the early 2000s and have become mainstream since the 2008 recession. They offer the thrill of home ownership without the burden of a mortgage and their resemblance to actual houses has helped lift the stigma long attached to compact, economical housing alternatives - such as trailers, studios and single room occupancies.

Fascination with the homes has spawned a minor industry.

Ms Miko Mercer (above) is building her 160 sq ft house (above right) in a warehouse in Brooklyn.
Ms Miko Mercer is building her 160 sq ft house (above) in a warehouse in Brooklyn. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

In New York, if you want to buy, you have to couple off, unless you have an inheritance. This is a conceivable way to do it with a single income.

MS MIKO MERCER, who is building a tiny house that will sit on a trailer, on the high property prices in New York

Television camera crews follow intrepid souls as they "go tiny" while blogs, books and podcasts chronicle "the build", the move and - when things go wrong - the divorce, the theft.

People post and share tiny house photos with the same passion they have for cat videos. There is a photo blog called Cabin Porn.

Ms Mercer is building her house in Brooklyn, but probably will not live in it there. It is on a trailer and when she is done, she will tow it away, possibly upstate, where a tiny house colony for techie types and a left-leaning tiny house collective have appeared.

In New York City, the trend towards living small takes the form of the micro-apartment.

The city recently waived its 400 sq ft minimum for residential dwellings for a developer in Kips Bay, which offered 14 below- market units, each roughly half the size of a subway car.

About 60,000 people applied.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's recently approved affordable housing plan has opened the way for more such units.

But tiny houses are not popping up in New York City. It is too densely built, said Mr Ryan Mitchell, who runs the blog The Tiny Life. There is no room.

Moreover, tiny homes are often built on wheels and classified as recreational vehicles to slip by minimum-square-footage requirements. That solves one problem, but raises another: In many places, you are not allowed to live in a recreational vehicle and, in New York, it is harder to hide.

"I don't know anyone who lives in a tiny house in New York City," said Mr Tim Tedesco, one of the organisers of the NYC Tiny House Enthusiasts group on

Of the group's 270 members, only about 10 have tiny houses.

One lives in a century-old cottage on Staten Island that predates the 400 sq ft minimum, which was enacted in 1987. Others have tiny houses outside the city and visit, or commute.

Mr Tedesco recently sold his 190 sq ft house in Stony Brook, New York, to go on the road with a 35 sq ft microhouse.

Last year, the average price of an apartment reached a new high of US$1.7 million (S$2.3 million) in Manhattan, surpassing its last peak, in 2008, before the housing market collapse.

"In New York, if you want to buy, you have to couple off, unless you have an inheritance," Ms Mercer said. "This is a conceivable way to do it with a single income."

She estimates her tiny house will cost about US$30,000.

When she decided to go tiny, she planned with exactitude.

She went with new lumber, not used wood, but she had every cut planned so she would not waste anything. (Her wood scraps easily fit under the lip of her trailer.)

She found recycled denim insulation and windows from an old farmhouse.

This spring, she will add the roof and everything inside. Then the search begins for a place to park.

She has considered Far Rockaway, Montauk and points north, within biking distance of a commuter train. Though a weekend retreat might be "the more reasonable plan", she said, "I want to live in it".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline 'Big dreams for tiny homes'. Subscribe