What is “Home,” Anyway?

simple-homeBy Dee Williams

When you live in an 84-square foot house, you get used to taking about home. People ask you about yours, and they want to tell you about theirs – what it is now, and what they want it to be. But no matter how many conversations I have about home, there are still things I wonder, and things I learn, because my circumstances are always changing – both in the world around me, and inside, too.

This “home” thing… it’s just not as simple as the houses we drew with crayons when we were kids. So what is home, really? And why does it matter that we ask that question?

Where Does Home Begin and End?

My friend Jenn Berney unexpectedly stopped by earlier today with her three and seven year old boys. We walked up to the grade school playground, where I spent some time hanging upside-down on the jungle gym, playing “monster” around the slides, and wondering if I’d dislocated a shoulder trying to swing on the monkey bars.

Later that night, as I lounged in the loft getting ready to fall asleep, I realized that a spontaneous walk to the playground defines home just as much as my house, itself.

Dee Williams fort
The fort I built in the woods – an extension of home!
For me, home isn’t just the sticks that block the rain. It is the backyard, the alley, the food co-op and my friends’ houses. It is the smell of low tide wafting up from Budd Bay, and the way the moonlight pokes its way across the living room, then up into the loft to find me sleeping and dreaming of the jungle gym.

Finding “home” is a huge deal, forcing us to grapple with affordability, safety, and proximity to services, friends, family, work and the environment. And as if that enormous agenda wasn’t enough, in the case of extra small houses (whether they’re sitting on the ground or on wheels), it also requires a rigorous evaluation of politics, legality and neighborly love.

This is the messy stuff in life: politics, neighbors. It is not legal to live year-round in a tiny house on wheels, and it is not legal to live in your modified garage-turned “granny flat” unless it is permitted by the city. But does that mean we shouldn’t make these things legal, or that we shouldn’t encourage our neighbors to expand their understanding of home?

Explore the Options

This sort of question is at the root of why PAD is supporting the Build Small Live Large Summit in November. We want to help people explore how they define home, how they can legally park (or plant) their small home, how they can generate income from small home rentals, or create cottage clusters and small house communities.

A house with two "detached bedrooms" by Orange Splot.
A clever community – a house with two “detached bedrooms” by Orange Splot.

When we have these conversations, there is big stuff at stake. There are people struggling to afford rising rents, and people trying to find stability while paying their mortgages. There are people who are socially isolated or lack the help and support they need at home. There are also the very real and scary environmental impacts of building big houses with big energy bills that are far away from everything, and that you have to drive a car to and from multiple times a day.

I’m passionate about this because I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about home lately:

  • Where do we place our aging population so they can continue to engage and participate in their lives? Last month, I wrote about my aging parents and how I’d love to find better answers for them in their late life than simply moving into an assisted living space. I want more for them…not because those places are bad, but because I’d love to be with them as they swim through what may be the last decade of their lives. Maybe I could park my tiny house next to their small home, and bop over to hang out during the day?
  • Where do we place our homeless vets and many others who may have intense needs and fewer resources than we’d like? I was approached by a group recently with this very question, wondering whether a tiny home community like Quixote Village could provide an answer for homeless veterans. I can’t fathom the shell shock that a homeless person might feel walking around inside our consumer culture or living without the knowledge that you’re safe through the night. Maybe we could include a cottage community inside the city limits, where folks could re-establish what it means to be home and safe.

    Quixote Village. Photo via Buzzfeed.
  • How do we live with less impact on the environment? I recently read that nearly half of a home energy bill goes toward heating and cooling the space. Our homes have grown exponentially since the 1970’s, so why not scale back a bit? Small and tiny homes are recognized as a part of the energy efficiency equation, but we need to work with our cities and counties to integrate them into the landscape.
  • Why does our society encourage people to launch into a bigger house with a bigger mortgage? I recently read an article in the Economist about how more affordable housing prices affect productivity. If getting out from under debt could solve our budget problems, maybe setting up a small accessory dwelling unit in the backyard could help homeowners heal their mortgage bite-mark each month AND help the greater economy.

Participate in the Conversation

These questions don’t have simple answers, but I think it’s important to ask them, and to discuss them with people that might have really different ideas than we do. Tiny houses on wheels have intrigued a lot of people and raised a lot of questions because they present attractive possibilities like cheaper housing, less debt and more mobility. But they’re just one piece of the puzzle, and we have so many other pieces to play around with to find what’s right for us, our families and our communities.

So keep looking, keep wondering, and keep asking yourself, “What is my home? Where does it start and stop? What do I need from it right now? What will I need from it later? How does it help me, and how could it help others?” Who knows what you’ll come up with? Maybe it’ll be a new, vital puzzle piece that no one’s created yet.

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