Where are all the black people in the tiny house movement?

Tiny Houses

“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! 🙂Photo Apr 06, 1 11 06 PM 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.

 

 

48 comments

  • Thank you! I have thought about this a lot as I learn about tiny homes in print and videos. I’m so interested in tiny houses, but I live in a very diverse area and have no desire to live in White Bread Nation.

  • We are white with family-by-choice in an interracial marriage. He is a tech guy; she is a teacher at a VERY small Arkansas school.

    She and I have discussed the whole TH thing (since we are in the process of building one) and I plan to send her this article and encourage her to follow your blog. There are just concerns I never thought to have and I doubt that she has either.

    Just the other day she mentioned to her husband how black women just come up to her and engage her and their baby in a way that she never expected. Her husband’s answer was, “Well, now they know you are safe.” It was enightening for her and, when she shared it, for me.

    I truly admire you and all you do for standing up for what’s right, showing us all, regardless of color (or gender!) that educating yourself and standing up for what’s right will take you to places you want to go. It’s also wonderful to see how your life’s direction has been shifted to where so many of us are getting the opportunity to hear this new and wonderful voice.

  • Thank you for saying this. All of it. My mother is a child of the Depression. She’ll be 87 tomorrow.
    She is aghast that I built this house without a ‘proper toilet’ and refuses to use it. Going down in square footage is awful to her, too. I can see why she’s upset. She strived her whole life not to stay poor, and now, she thinks I’m embracing it. After almost 2 years, she’s slightly better with my being here, but she still thinks I’m crazy.
    That really is as close as I can come to your experience, although my neighbor across the street has made it clear that he thinks of me as ‘poor white trash.’ He has made it impossible for me to stay here, and I’ll be moving next month to as yet unknown location. I’m looking at several farms in the area, and a residential camp for writers. I’m hoping to donate my expertise in life to a non-profit organization or farm for one year at a time in exchange for a parking spot and utilities. Now that I’m retired, and poor, I don’t want money, I want to be useful.
    Would it be ok for me to join your group? I have some tiny house design skills, since I designed my own for the rest of my life, I hope.
    (Steve Harvey is a woman-hater, too. Ugh!)

    • hi there, was behind in approving and responding to comments. thanks for reading and sharing, very much appreciated. hoping your parking journey works out well! we don’t necessarily have a group other than this website and our social media accounts, but we welcome you here to share with us and contribute to the ongoing conversations.

      • Thanks. Since I have a little experience, I welcome inquiries, and will add you to my list. I’m hoping to see this thrive. Keep on with your good work!

  • What a great article Jewel! I am white and my husband is Indian. We recently had a wonderful conversation with a black friend about our different cultural family structures. We learned so much from each other just by sharing and talking openly. Thank you so much for encouraging a respectful, open dialogue about race. Respect and equality can be achieved not through speaking words of anger, but through listening and learning to and from each other.

  • Oh my gosh!!! Although I am not ready for a tiny home…I absolutely love the movement. I too believe that less is often soooo much more! More freedom, less stress, more choices. When I saw your episode on HGTV, I was absolutely amazed by your whole perspective on tiny living. Tiny Luxury! Added bonus was that you were a woman of color (especially with those beautiful locs)! I must have shared the link to that episode to at least 10 of my friends. Thank you for sharing your journey. Love it!!!

    ☺️And now I know we are LockStar sisters…bonus!!!

  • Awesome points, Jewell. As someone planning to go tiny as soon as I can sell this very untiny house I own, I appreciate you sharing and confirming some of my concerns. I plan to put my house on family land, so I haven’t thought much about the issue of parking, but from henceforth will make sure to participate in efforts here in Atlanta to secure parking for other tiny owners who prefer an urban setting.

  • Well written, informative & enlightening! Excellent read for anyone aspiring change in any facet of life! So proud of you Jewel … So inspirational! You are a force to be reckoned!
    …. Jacquelyn Howard-Maloney

  • A force to be reckoned! Excellent read and well written.
    So proud of you Jewel …. So inspiring!!!

  • 🙂

    Jessica and I have recently been living full time in a fiberglass camper, and we constantly tell each other that staying in ‘nicer’ RV parks feels like living in a Klan rally. People stop to talk to us, and once they start to confide their racist feelings to us, feeling the comfort of our whiteness, we instantly let them know that our age is not the only difference between us, and we instantly make a non-friend.

    Yes, yes, yes, to everything you said here!

    • Casey!! I am honored you read and commented! I never lost sight of our early conversation and had to include it in my article. I always appreciate your honesty and realness… YES, I had “interesting” experiences during my RV Park stint for sure…

  • Thanks for this article Jewel. It’s very well written and insightful. I identify with your story and a lot of the points in your blog. I’m a black woman, also from North Carolina interested in living in a tiny house. I’m currently saving money for my build and I have gone back and forth about if it’s the right move for me. A lot of the things you discussed above are fears for me. I plan to start building next year and will hopefully add my face to the spectrum of this movement. I have been doing research for about 2 years now and you are about the only black woman I have come across in this movement. So thank you for bringing attention to this lifestyle.
    Side note – My grandmother is 97 and i’m sure if she was in her right mind, it would take her awhile to understand why I want to live in a tiny home.

  • Hello Jewel, I am so glad I found your website. I am also a woman of color and I discovered the tiny house movement in 2012 when I was researching how to live a more simple life. When the reality shows started coming out, I explained to family friends about the concept many of them see it as a crazy idea or feel that they can never downsize that much.

    I’m still working on trying to live a simple life and to buy a small home/ tiny house. Since knowing about the TH movement I also noticed the lack of color and you hit the nail on the head, the black community is still haunted/ trapped by the past and present. Yes, it’s harder for us in everything but I believe that living small or living tiny will help many in the black community.

    I would love to have a stationary small/tiny house but I don’t have land, nor do I have family or friends with land. However, I’m still determined to have a tiny house and join the movement.

  • Hi Jewel. I watched your Tiny House episode and I was glad to see someone who would be a face of diversity. But that was not my focus. I saw that your house was more of a showcase house, very fancy, and has a balcony!!! Love love love! I also noted that you had a walk-in closet. Glad to know that is an option. I have always been a tiny house enthusiast, and when I say always, I’m talking about before it became a thing…imagining that my childhood bedroom could accommodate a kitchenette in this corner and a compact bathroom in that corner…ever since I was around 10 or 11. I have tons of tiny house floor plans that I have come up with. Just waiting for the right time. Right now, I own a house, but it does not give me that cozy feel, even though my family thinks we should get a bigger place. I said as a joke that I’d fill in the swimming pool with concrete and build my tiny house out back. 😬

    But I’m glad to see POC getting into this movement because financial stability and freedom to travel is for everyone. Since your awesome episode, I have seen a Black couple whose tiny house is also their clothing line business; an inter-ethnic couple who have an acoustic loft for music in their tiny house (I don’t use interracial cuz we’re all really just one race); a same-gender couple of Black women, although their home is not mobile; and a few more inter-ethnic and diverse ‘brownness’. I do feel it is important to see different hues of faces so that everyone feels the inclusiveness in all aspects of life. I am an Asian-descent American, and seeing Black folks as a part of something is enough for me to know that at least there will be people there to accept me and my family, who is Mexican-descent. Swirl around the world.

  • After watching several episodes of Tiny House, I began to do research & was wondering where POC stood on this subject. So I Googled it & found your well written, insightful article. Thank you for your authenticity and being a trailblazer. I look forward to reading more & watching this community you’ve created grow. Thank you again.

  • I love the tiny house show and currently am decluttering and trying to take a stab at minimalist living. I’m no where near where I would like to be but recent post election antics have pushed me to look at all of my entertainment differently and while watching an episode wondered why I never saw a family of any other shade on the THN series. Who knew when I went to the internet, I would find this site. Very informative and open, so thank you for informing all who are interested. Blessings and protection to those in the movement who are of color and those that are not of color but that live colorblind.

  • That was so amazing to read! I have been going back and forth with starting an actually African American owned tiny house company.

    I have been extremely fearful of what to expect and who to reach out to in order to continue my dreams. Thank you!!

  • Thank you so much for this read. Brilliant! I recently learned about the tiny house movement about 2 months ago. While doing research, as a person of color, I did have some of the same thoughts you mentioned in this read in the back of my mind, though determined not to let any negativity stop me from the mission of building my own tiny home. This read is such an inspiration I decided to print it as an inspiration tool to help me through this mission. I’m currently in the process of buying a piece of land. Thank you again, and will definitely follow your blog and progress.

  • Oh my gosh, Jewel and all the Tiny House Trailblazers, thank you so dearly, dearly, dearly for your on-point clarification of both the self-building / self-liberating / self-fulfillment aspects of designing & owning your own tiny house, but for also so brilliantly reminding the whole community (white & or otherwise) of the additional age-old list of factors we Black tiny home-dreamers have to also contend with.

    After many a weary-eyed hours of dreaming, researching, dreaming some more, researching, and designing, and being downright giddy at the possibilities, I am right now in the wonderful process of beginning to build my Tiny House this summer! And being the artist that I am, I’m going to creatively build it all from salvaged parts! That’s all fine and dandy! And… As a 57 year old African American gay man, poet, musician, artist (i.e., previously as far from home-owning as the back-side of the moon), living in the wonderfully inspirational mountains of Vermont (i.e., yepp, that’s me. I’m that one brother), let it be said loud, until I found this article and then your gorgeous video (OMG, after all the 1000’s of white hipster testimonials on youtube, to scroll and find you Black and proud, with rooms of African art, I’m like “wowwwww! Now that’s how we do it!), I too had found myself whistling in a canyon, due to the same old tired perceptions of who-can’t and what can and can not be done.

    I think, given that neither of us have ever gotten that 40 acres or the mule, that Black folks should especially be building our own tiny houses. Miss Tubman wasn’t shy about building freedom, and neither should we be!
    I thank you, and all our brave others for blazing this / our movement forward!

    And now I know for sure that I damn-sure can put a walk-in closet in my place too!
    Thanks so much!

  • You have brought a big smile to my face this evening!! Thank you so much for the compliments and for taking the time to send some love from Vermont! I am so happy you were able to find us and me and happy that my message and thoughts resonated with you.

    I would love to connect, I absolutely want to see your masterpiece as it unfolds and here more about your story! I/we are here for you! Are you on social media? IG?

  • Thanks so much! Your informative support and simply to know of all our shared tiny house journeys is such a tremendous thing. And I love Dominique’s Nomad too! Beautiful! I’ve been sending your & the Nomad videos to everyone! Yes, let’s do connect. Email me anytime! I will definitely send photos soon.

    One thing that is really nice for tiny-housing in Vermont, is that there’s already such a long history of pre-and-post-hippie-era folks, farmers, artists living off grid, off-zoning, in all sorts of creative housing from yurts to
    to old barns to re-worked school buses. And for the most part, out in the woods, which is 90% of the state, there’s a nice sense of live and let live. Plus, it’s dang gorgeous! A really good place for the soul.

    Given the often rural parking for Tiny Houses, I certainly appreciate your letting the broader community know how often treacherously race plays-in for folks of color, living in the wilderness. Though I was raised in, and have spent most of my adult life, in the urban rental-circus of San Francisco, I spent my first 5 years in Vermont way out in the woods of northern Vermont, living in a teeny-tiny one room cabin, for $300 a month. It was just 3 hairs bigger than my car. This was long before I knew the term “tiny house,” especially since all of my wallet-chopping apartments in SF weren’t much bigger than a car either.

    But, being in this gorgeous wilderness, surrounded by endless open views of mountains and crystal clear waters, the stars, and best of all, the natural quiet solitude to write poetry and play, compose, and work on my music (I play jazz on bass clarinet) and sew (I’m a hat-maker too), and know that when I wasn’t at work, I could create whatever I wanted to, at whatever time of the day or night, and not have to worry about a peep of anyone else around– that has given me a freedom that I would have never known before. It’s been so great, especially as an African American, to learn that, contrary to the myth, that nature is a place of safety, a place of refuge for your whole being. I look so forward to having my own sweet home in those hills! I tell you, the anticipation is both thrilling and maddening! Can’t wait!

    I have occasionally had my encounters with the confederate flag here (yes indeedy, they are way up here too. I grew up seeing them in California too), but I ain’t worried about them dot-dot-dots. We are beautiful, wherever we are!

    I’m so glad to see about your upcoming conferences. That’s such a great idea. I hope more folks of color are joining in the conversation. I’m gonna try my best to make your conference in Boston, this September.

    Great peace and glamor to you!
    Toussaint

Leave a Reply