In one city in Chile an architect had a novel alternative to getting people out of slums. Alejandro Aravena designed small homes — about 300 square feet — with just the bare necessities. They were smaller than the typical public housing unit, but they had wide foundations where residents could build on when they could afford it.
The "half houses" in Iquique, Chile, were controversial: Why would someone want a half-finished house? But according to a motherjones.com report on the project, called the Quinta Monroy Houses, the mini homes have offered an intriguing solution.
When they were first built 14 years ago, Aravena's houses cost about $7,500 to build. At the time, the government was offering about that same amount in housing subsidies to families too poor to buy houses and land. It wasn't enough to buy a house, but it was just enough to buy Aravena's half-house model.
This put home ownership in the hands of about 100 families who otherwise couldn't afford it. And some families invested in their homes, little by little, as they could pay for it. One study found that in the first two years, half-home owners made an average of $750 worth of improvements to their mini houses, doubling the size and raising the value to $20,000.
One resident told Justin McGuirk, author of "Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of New Architecture", that he saved up and added four bedrooms and a bathroom to his house, and now believes the home is worth $50,000.
A build-as-you-go approach is harder to imagine in the U.S. where building codes are much more stringent. But places like Washington, D.C., have their own low-cost mini-home movements. The median price of a home in D.C. rose 15 percent over the past five years, and rental rates have reached 57 percent as working families and young people are locked out of home ownership, according to real estate site Trulia.com.
One small community in D.C. was built on a vacant lot and includes a handful of very small — most no more than 200 square feet — but design-friendly single-person homes. A National Journal story about the development, calling itself "Boneyard Studios," says that residents built their small houses for $35,000 to $40,000, which is less than a down payment for most homes in the nation's capital.
"For me, it was more of an economic freedom of not wanting to be tied to a mortgage," Lee Pera, 36, told the National Journal. Tiny home proponents like Pera argue that their dwellings provide cheap alternatives to overpriced homes, and reuse space in dense urban areas. Many of the homes are green, too, making use of solar power and composting toilets, and using little water.
The tiny house movement has gained popularity over the past 15 years, especially in expensive and forward-thinking places like Portland, Oregon, and Marin County, California. Dee Williams did an extreme downsize when she was diagnosed with a heart condition, and realized that the cost and upkeep of her 2,000-square-foot home was creating a strain in her life. She built the tiniest of tiny homes, just 84 square feet, in a friend's backyard.
She told CBS that it "reduced nearly everything in her life," including stress. "My idea when I saw this little house, was that all of a sudden it would liberate me from the things that I felt most trapped by," Williams said.
The tiny house movement still remains an experiment in the U.S. where just 1 percent of home buyers purchase homes under 1,000 square feet, according to the National Association of Realtors. And housing advocates still extol other solutions, like vouchers and housing trusts that give people better access to traditional housing.
Even in Iquique, Chile, some of the half-houses have been lovingly outfitted with balconies and tasteful trim, but others have fallen into disrepair and tend to look like the slums that designers were hoping to avoid. Still, they are a promising experiment in what's possible.
Other countries are interested in Aravena's half-houses, and Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru are testing the idea, McGuirk told Mother Jones: "These are places where Aravena can still make a difference," he said.