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‘Tiny House Hunters’ and the shrinking American dream

“It is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams”

It all started with House Hunters, an HGTV franchise where couples, generally in terrible marriages, pretend to look for a new home even though to appear on the show, the participants must have already purchased a new home.

When I am sitting on my couch, probably pretending to work, there is something soothing about the implausible yet aspirational sheen of this show where everyone wants an open floorplan and ground-floor master bedroom with en suite bathroom and ceiling fans they can swing from or whatever.

As a woman with Midwestern sensibilities, I am always forced to suspend my disbelief. While the show does feature couples with modest budgets, all too often, house-hunting couples have outrageous budgets and jobs that do not seem to be able to support those budgets.

Never do house hunters admit that they might have family money making their home-owning dreams possible. One couple, searching in the San Francisco Bay Area, blithely shared that they had a $4 million budget, as if that is an entirely normal amount of money to spend on a single-family home.

And then, HGTV began airing episodes of Tiny House Hunters, where people pretend to look for a new tiny home and act like it is reasonable to live in a space with fewer than 400 square feet. I thought this fixation was primarily a “white people thing,” until I saw an episode featuring a delightful black lesbian couple, newly married, who bought an adorable tiny home in Southern California with a bay window.

On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams. They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.

As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”

I regularly yell at the television during Tiny House Hunters. I have a vivid imagination but it is not so vivid as to let me imagine living in a home with a compost toilet, nor is it so vivid as to make me comfortable with using the kitchen sink also as the bathroom sink. I don’t want to stand up and hit my head on the ceiling of my house. I don’t want the kitchen table to transform into a bed. I don’t want a climbing wall on the side of my tiny house.

The episode that really pushed me over the edge was one where a single father was looking to move into a tiny home with his tweenage daughter. Frankly, it was a bit repulsive and unseemly, but the father tried to make this bizarre choice palatable by sharing that he and his daughter wanted to use the money they would save traveling around the world. Having traveled a fair amount, I was, as I watched this episode unfold, quite certain there is no wonder, anywhere in the world, that would merit this kind of domestic sacrifice. Alas, the choice was not mine.

As is often the case on Tiny House Hunters, the single father had an impossibly small budget and wanted to find a home that was under 400 square feet and looked “rustic.” Jim, the father, and his daughter looked at three different “homes,” which is the script for the show, and settled on an ugly storage shed. You might think I am exaggerating but I am not. He literally chose an ugly storage shed that looked like an abandoned industrial nightmare on the inside.

There was, to be fair, a loft, with “dividers” so both Jim and his daughter could have separate sleeping spaces, but the entire affair was absurd. Jim’s friend, who accompanied him and his daughter on their fake house hunting, thought Jim was crazy. The realtor thought Jim was crazy. Even his daughter offered some indication that she thought her dad was crazy. Jim, however, was undeterred. He bought his tiny home and at the end of the episode, seemed emboldened by his choice.

Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain.

When I try to imagine living in a tiny home, I get viscerally upset. I have too many books, for one, and I am not willing to part with them for the sake of a social experiment. I also have friends. I enjoy full-sized toilets that flush into a municipal sewage system. I sleep in a big king-size bed that comfortably accommodates my big queen-sized body and, sometimes, another body too. I am not so enamored of clever storage that I want drawers built into a tiny staircase that leads up to a tiny loft where I would, undoubtedly, injure myself. And I do not yet aspire to homeownership. It is only in the past two years that I have even been in a financial position to own a home. I was a late bloomer in figuring out what I wanted to do to support my writing habit. I was 35 when I finished graduate school and then I was an English professor at a regional Midwestern university with a six-figure education mortgage. I live in a three-bedroom, 1,800-square-foot apartment, for which I pay $1,300 a month. When something breaks, I call the property manager. It’s all very manageable.

When one aspires to own a tiny home, they have a corresponding tiny American dream. On each episode of Tiny House Hunters, the tiny house hunter explains why they are downsizing. There are the adventurous types who want to be able to drive their tiny home around the country, seeing the sights or whatever. There are the retirees who no longer have the energy to maintain a big home. There are the outdoorsy folk who prefer to be in nature, instead of enjoying climate control and cable television. There are the free spirits (white people) who want to live in a treehouse or on a boat or in a mud hut off the grid or some other whimsical domestic configuration.

Often, though, couples and families want to downsize to save money. They say they need or want less space, but what goes unsaid is that they likely can no longer (if they ever could) afford the mortgage on their traditional home. Or they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities where the median price of a home is more than a half-million dollars and well out of reach for a lot of folks.

There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.

There are class implications in the nomenclature of tiny homes which are, not-so coincidentally, the same size or smaller than mobile homes. In fact, mobile homes are not new. As early as the 1870s, mobile home owners would move their homes with teams of horses. These homes really gained cultural traction after World War II. Manufacturing innovations made it possible for mobile homes to be mass-produced, with many of the comforts of traditional homes available for a fraction of the cost. There was also significant demand for housing as young soldiers returning from the war wanted independence — aka, didn’t want to live with their parents anymore.

But there is a stigma attached to the mobile home, not merely because of its impermanence or questionable quality but because these homes reveal that sometimes, compromises must be made when it comes to the American dream. Sometimes, a mobile home is all a family can afford. Sometimes, a mobile home is the dream and is the place to where a family moves on up. But Americans are very uncomfortable talking about poverty, and treat it as a contagious condition and moral failing. Seventy percent of Americans consider themselves middle class when, in fact, only 50 percent are. Moving into a tiny home allows people to hold firm to their middle-class sensibilities.

A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.