“Where are all the black people?” That’s a question I saw posted in one of the tiny house groups I’m a member of when I had just started my tiny house build in early 2015. One of the group members was sharing pictures from a tiny house event that a number of tiny house people had attended and in picture after picture there was not one person of color to be seen. I watched the thread to see how the conversation would play out. The group member posting the pictures immediately took offense to the question and replied that they’d had a fun and great weekend and couldn’t understand why someone would bring up race. I understood the question completely, I just wanted to see how things were going to go. A few other commenters, who were also white, chimed in with the same sentiment as the person posting the pictures. I eventually commented and said I was raising my hand as a black person who was building a tiny house, that I would be representing for us. I also shared that I understood the question, that I knew it wasn’t asked to be offensive and that if the offended white people could think outside of themselves for a moment and imagine the scene in reverse, an event for something they were interested in and they only saw black people attending, they’d be wondering and asking the same question, as well as wondering if they should reconsider their interest in whatever it was they had originally been interested in… Not only did I understand the question, I felt it was a great question.
The people in the tiny house movement don’t look like me… The tiny house movement was and still is being touted as a “young, white hipsters movement”. I am neither young, nor white, though I can hold my own and rock with the best of them on being a hipster! 🙂 Being a product of Gifted Classes throughout school, where the majority of my classmates were white and I might be the only or one of very few brown kids, I knew I could hold my own in the movement. Early on in my researching days I noticed I’d reach out to people and not hear back from them, but see them responding to others online. I initially thought it to be totally race related, until I read a post by a white guy, who became a friend, who’d had his tiny house stolen. In that post he not only went off on whoever had stolen his tiny house, but he also went off on the cliquish, pretentious attitude he’d experienced from most of the people he’d encountered in the movement. I could relate and I reached out to him to say how sorry I was for what had happened and he and I talked about the tiny house culture and what we’d both experienced. We both concluded that what I was experiencing was probably a combination of being both race related and the overall cliquish nature of the people involved in the movement. I told him I wasn’t planning to let any of that deter me and I didn’t and I still don’t.
I also realized early on in my tiny house journey in dealing with some of the Mom & Pop local lumber companies that some of them are still members of the “Good Old Boys” network and they dealt with me accordingly. More recently, I was a member of a tiny house social media group that was okay with using the N-word in reference to black people and they kicked me out of the group when I objected to it and their behavior. I used all of the resistance, the non-inclusion and otherwise inappropriate behavior as fuel to my fire. I researched, I researched and I researched to become my own tiny house subject matter expert. I connected with a few people in the movement that didn’t subscribe to the nonsense I was experiencing. I knew that what I was planning to build was going to be different from what I’d seen, I knew that my brown face alone in a tiny house would catch some interest and I knew I’d make my own way in the movement. I realized that just like with so many other things in the world where people don’t look like me and/or aren’t necessarily welcoming, I could either become discouraged and back away from something I was interested in or I could become a strong enough force to require inclusiveness and a force strong enough to ensure we’re always included. Hence the reason I started sharing my brown face and my tiny house journey on social media and the additional reason I created Tiny House Trailblazers and invited the other brown faces I saw in the movement to join me; never exclusive, but ensuring we’re always included. Ensuring a forum for talking about race and the tiny house movement and showcasing the other people of color joining the movement. Taking the easy route has never been my forte’ and here I am.
An older black woman emailed me early on and said she felt I was the Harriet Tubman of tiny houses and I smiled from ear to ear and saved her email. I constantly get emails from people of color saying I’ve inspired them to want to go tiny or meet people who tell me how proud they are of me or how happy it made them to finally see a brown face in the movement. Nothing I’ve done represents a fraction of the strength and courage of Mrs. Tubman, but if my brown face in this movement helps another brown face gain some courage to follow their tiny house dream then I’d like to think I’ve made her proud.
Why would a person of color even aspire to live in a tiny house? For so many people of color home ownership is a dream to aspire to that may never be achieved. Yes I know that is also the case for some white people, before people again start getting in their feelings, but what I’m talking about is not just finances I’m talking about things like gentrification, the racial wealth gap, housing discrimination and predatory lending. Those things are real, they still exist today and have prevented and continue to impact homeownership for people of color. So while whites have already had or can have if they so choose to (yes, white privilege is a real thing) and are now making the conscious decision to go tiny, many blacks are just now getting to home ownership. Just getting to the big houses with the large yards in the nice neighborhoods. Or they aren’t too far removed from having lived in one of the original “tiny houses” and/or they may have family members still living in the original “tiny houses” and not so much by choice. All those things considered, the last thing some people of color want to talk about is a new, but not really new “tiny house movement” – with a compost toilet to boot. Not only doesn’t it sound fun, it might also evoke negative memories.
For many people regardless of race, tiny houses give the appearance of regression because society focuses on things and stuff as a representation of wealth and progress. Multiply that by being a person of color and add in some of our cultural nuances, plus the aforementioned factors and then raise it to the third power to understand how that is often seen in my community. A person of color who some consider a celebrity went off on a rant against tiny houses, his opinion of them and the people who aspire to live in them – going so far as to use the word stupid. The tiny house community, including me, rallied back to show how wrong he was in his opinionated rant and he (half-ass) apologized. (note that his rant was the subject matter and he was who they were referencing when the N-word was being used in the tiny house group I got kicked out of, the irony of all that.) What I knew as a person of color was that he’d done more damage in his position in “preaching” the nonsense of stuff as a representation of wealth and progress to our already struggling community, where so many look up to his opinion, than he had to the tiny house community. I still feel as if he owes us a separate apology and additional dialog and told him so in one of those mean tweets I sent.
But, I can relate to all of that. I was fortunate to have achieved homeownership at the age of 29; the big house with the nice yard in a nice neighborhood. But I also know the effort it took to maintain homeownership. The times when decisions were made based on having to pay a mortgage versus what was best for me, like when I wanted to quit a job because a white manager had a problem with my natural hair but I knew I couldn’t because me and my natural hair had big bills (he didn’t get away with it though, you should already know that). On this side of all that I can truly say less is more and it’s what I now preach to my daughter even if it’s not actual tiny house living, embracing the lifestyle. Tiny house living is less stress; less to clean, less to have to work to pay for, less to worry about being able to afford, less time to get to actual homeownership. It’s also more; more realistic as an opportunity for home ownership for people of color who might not otherwise achieve it, it’s more money to use elsewhere, more peace of mind, more time to spend on what’s important versus overworking to pay for the big house you may not get to enjoy. I never saw going tiny as regressing, because I knew I wasn’t giving up anything other than unnecessary space. Though I did have other people of color ask me if I was experiencing a financial hardship. For me building a tiny house represented freedom. It also presents an opportunity to customize your home, to make it your own. Don’t want a composting toilet? You don’t have to have one. Don’t want a loft? You don’t have to have one. Want to incorporate some expensive something or another you wouldn’t use in your large house because of cost? You can, your square footage is smaller and therefore your cost is smaller. My favorite saying is – you don’t have to give up luxury to go tiny!
Normal tiny house issues PLUS being brown… Two of the main issues you’ll hear tiny house people complaining about are about not having money to build them since generally bank loans and financing aren’t options and locations to park them since most areas aren’t tiny house friendly. Those challenges are often even worse for people of color.
Things like the racial wealth gap, housing discrimination and predatory lending that I talked about before also factor in here.“Homeownership is the central vehicle Americans use to store wealth.” Needless to say if people of color are less likely to own homes than their white counterparts, due to all of the aforementioned reasons, it goes without saying that they’ll have less access to finances. Considering these issues aren’t a new phenomenon, that also means that people of color are also less likely going to be able to look to their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents for a leg up, as white people more often can. This financial issue obviously is also a factor and hinderance for people of color interested in joining the tiny house movement in addition to the usual tiny house financial issue and discussion.
What about tiny house parking and brown people? There are a couple of things here. Because with homeownership also comes land ownership and we’ve already discussed that point as related to people of color, that also means we’re less likely than our white counterparts to own land for tiny house parking and/or know another person of color who does. So an already difficult situation becomes even more difficult.
Then add to that aforementioned difficult situation the fact that the majority of the areas where tiny house parking is to be found are places like Mobile Home and RV Parks and country, rural areas. Often areas where historically people of color aren’t always welcome or safe because of prejudice and racism and today instead of what should be progress we see and feel these issues getting worse. Areas where Confederate Flags fly and the N-word is thrown around and yes, I’m speaking from personal tiny house experience. Those are real and scary realities in addition to the already scary tiny house parking reality. It’s one of the reasons I support those working with the zoning boards and the like to allow integration of tiny houses into cities, not just because I live in one but also because I’m brown and I live in one and I have to think about other parking considerations that my white counterparts don’t. It’s also why I talk to as many people of color about the tiny house movement as I can, so that even if they aren’t personally interested in the movement if they are homeowners and landowners they can understand our additional concerns and needs and will perhaps consider being a resource for us.
So here we are. While some of our challenges in considering the tiny house movement are the same they are also a lot different and ones that a white person will never, ever have to consider. I’m not asking for “tiny house movement pity” for people of color, we don’t need that and it’s not helpful. But perhaps in the spirit of diversity and good partnership and all the good things that this movement is supposed to represent, as a white person, this might cause you to think outside your comfort zone box, in understanding that your tiny house “expertise” ends at some point. Instead of just seeing us as a new interest tiny house sales market, to also consider our issues as we also try and want to be part of this movement and to be open to including us and those issues in your speakers panels and forums, in discussing them as part of the greater “tiny house movement” versus questioning why we want and need to bring race into the tiny house movement.