The tiny house movement is booming. There are off-grid tiny houses, Airbnb tiny houses, tiny house villages and now a tiny house hotel. The first of its kind (we believe), Caravan Tiny House Hotel, in Portland, Oregon, comprises six tiny houses in the Alberta Arts District.
While many tiny house projects intentionally stay under the radar, Caravan is commercially zoned, legally-permitted and connected to the city systems. The houses, which are custom built by local builders, have flush toilets, hot running water and electricity. Tiny hotel guests can rent one tiny house or rent the whole hotel which sleeps 20.
Deb Delman and her partner Kol Peterson, the creators of Caravan, are passionate about simplicity, sustainability, and tiny houses. They both have experience with tiny living too. Delman has lived in yurts, trailers, a garage she converted into a cabin and more. With a background in environmental planning and design, Peterson is a leading advocate for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in Portland.
Shareable spoke with Delman and Peterson about their mutual appreciation of tiny dwellings, tiny homes as an urban housing solution, how Caravan came to be, and how knowing that you don’t want to live in a tiny house is as important as knowing that you do.
Shareable: I understand you’ve lived in several tiny structures including yurts, trailers, cabins etc. What is it about tiny living that appeals to you?
Delman: What appeals to me is probably what appeals to a lot of people. It started when I was 13 and I moved into basement and turned it into my own little world. I subsequently lived in a lot of funky, off the beaten path kind of places. What appeals to me is a sense of ownership over the space and the design; a feeling that it’s really mine. There’s a sense of ease; you’re not beholden to caring for a space that you don’t need. And the creative use of space; figuring out a way to make a small space work and be functional and be beautiful. It’s just a fun challenge. I do all the furniture and design for the six tiny houses and it’s a head and heart kind of combo.
Caravan is a convergence of Delman and Peterson’s backgrounds and interests
The tiny house movement is booming right now. What is it about the tiny lifestyle that people find so interesting? Where do you see this tiny living movement heading?
Delman: In some ways there are some basic reasons that a lot of people are connecting. There’s an appeal that’s universal and I think that on some level, at least in this part of the world, there’s this childhood draw to small spaces, like dollhouses and forts. There’s something about this miniature world that as kids maybe we were drawn to.
On the practical side, a lot of it is economics. People on one end of the socioeconomic side of things that have very large homes and were drawn to that because they could afford it and it was a status symbol, now are really overwhelmed and burdened by that style. On the other end, there’s a very serious situation with people living on the streets. I’m not sure that tiny houses on wheels are the solution to that, but a lot of people are looking into initiatives to create tiny house communities as a solution.
If you look at the continuum of people without homes and those with massive homes, it seems like what’s happening, and why there’s such mass appeal, is that it kind of meets right in the middle and I don’t know of too many movements that do that.
There are other aspects that are appealing to everybody: the freedom to live in a house on wheels, be mobile, be able to move around and live in different places. And a big part of the tiny house movement is people wanting to downsize. All over blogs and documentaries about tiny houses, people are saying the same thing: I’d rather have a life full of experiences than things. There’s this turn away from consumerism toward more meaningful living. And a lot of people lost a lot of money over the last five or six years. Even if it’s not a lifestyle choice, by necessity, people can’t live as large as they’ve been living.
There’s a movement to create off-grid tiny houses in rural places, but here you are, in the middle of an urban setting. What’s your experience with tiny living in the city been? What are some of the benefits and biggest challenges?
Delman: We’re a hotel and zoned as a hotel so it would be hard to say what living at Caravan would be like. We have very short term stays. We’re the first commercially zoned application of tiny houses and as far as we know, the only legally-permitted tiny houses that are connected to the city systems. We have flush toilets, hot running water, electricity, we’re totally tapped into the grid and permitted to do so. In terms of living off-grid or being in a rural area, we’re kind of the opposite of that.
For our guests, Caravan is a fantastic introduction to tiny house living, which is a big part of why we exist. People want to come to Portland and they need a place to stay but they also get to experience tiny house living. If we had Caravan set up outside of town on some land, that would be awesome in some other ways, but we wouldn’t probably have the same popularity. It’s hard to compare.
How did the tiny hotel come about?
Delman: It’s a convergence of my background and interests and Kol’s background and interests but Caravan really came out of how we met. I was living in my garage cabin and on our first date Kol came to pick me up and was totally taken with my cabin. We joke that he fell in love with my cabin first. He and I quickly became a couple and ended up building an ADU on property he bought.
Caravan is really connected to the ADU movement. The city of Portland has been leading the systems development charges, really encouraging urban density and infill. As we built our ADU we documented it extensively on a blog and got a lot of traffic. Now every month Kol leads workshops on small housing. He’s gotten involved on a policy level and is a leading ADU expert in Portland now.
I owned the house next door [to the lot Caravan is on]. We approached the owners of the lot and amazingly, they sold it to us at a very affordable price. We went to work convincing the city to let us do something really unusual and innovative. The beauty was that there was no precedent—it was the beauty and challenge of it. We were persistent; we were like mosquitos, we just would not leave them alone. We both have backgrounds in nonprofits and social service and we’re just the type of people who like a challenge. We really believed that this was going to fly so we went through the permitting process, tore up the lot, looked for tiny houses and a year later, we’re booked months in advance.
What kind of response has there been to it?
Delman: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been kind of a feel-good experience for all of us. We’ve had thousands of people in the last year come see Caravan. We had an open house where over 1,000 people showed up and 850 people signed up for an ADU tour we partnered with the city on. We’re definitely well-positioned in this movement right now to continue to serve our purpose, which is to showcase tiny housing as an option.
The tiny houses are all extremely beautiful and well-built and very unique and unusual. We get to showcase some of the most beautiful spaces out there. I think that’s why the response has been so positive because people get to experience tiny house living while being in this really fun, funky place that has a firepit and all you can eat s’mores and get room service from the restaurant across the street and the houses are right on Alberta Street so they can meet people.
Tiny hotel visitors get to experience tiny living and Portland’s unique, funky vibe
Do you think the hotel helps build momentum around the tiny house movement? Do people test drive the experience at the hotel before they take the plunge into tiny living?
Delman: Definitely yes. And the reverse, which is just as important to us. Some people come to Caravan absolutely sure that they want to live in a tiny house but they’ve never been in one and certainly never slept in one. Plenty of people, by staying at Caravan, have realized that tiny house living is not for them, that it’s not realistic.
Tiny housing offers an interesting alternative for city housing markets that are impacted and wildly expensive. What potential do you see for tiny houses and the tiny house movement to transform urban settings and create affordable housing options?
Peterson: As the regulations stand in every city that I know of, tiny houses on wheels will not be able to play a significant role in providing a viable affordable housing option. Residential occupancy isn’t currently allowed in tiny houses on wheels, except in RV parks. In Portland for example, there’s a pretty cut and dry Illegal Residential Occupancy code that restricts residential occupancy to permitted structures.
Tiny houses on wheels, and other non-permitted alternative dwellings (yurts, garages, studios, tents, buses, RVs) will still continue to play a significant role underground, but the Illegal Residential Occupancy code essentially blocks these non-conventional housing types from ever becoming a truly viable option at a larger scale. Without the code and legal backing of the city, institutions such as banks, lenders, insurers, and appraisers, can’t provide the same kinds of benefits that they provide to legally recognized housing forms such as multi-family, SFD, and ADUs.
Depending on a range of economic and cultural factors of a city, these less expensive, non-permitted dwellings may continue to play an increasingly significant underground role in cities everywhere, but because of their murky legal status, they may not be be able to provide a truly viable housing role in cities anywhere.
Micro-apartments and condos will continue to do well in cities, but many people like me don’t want to live in multifamily settings. So, what reasonably affordable options are there for living in detached dwellings in single family neighborhoods? ADUs are one viable, legal pathway to developing creative and small (detached) housing options. Unfortunately, very few places have policies that allow the development of ADUs, let alone encourage them.
Portland, Oregon is indeed on the cutting edge of ADUs. Other cities, including D.C., New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, that don’t have feasible development pathways for ADUs, have tens to hundreds of thousands of non-permitted ADUs, whether the planning officials like it or not. This is the market expressing its needs and it would behoove everyone if the rules were in place to capture the value of the ADUs being developed, and ensure that they were safe to be lived in.
The Caravan tiny houses are custom built by local builders
From a design and environmental planning perspective, what are the benefits of tiny house living? What would you like to see in both Portland and other urban settings when it comes to supporting tiny house dwellers.
Peterson: The biggest benefit environmentally is that downsizing one’s residential footprint is the most significant and simplest way to minimize one’s energy footprint. Following this technique is moving to an area that is more walkable and bikeable.
In cities that need to create more dense development to meet their housing demand, they need to figure out how to embrace more ADU-friendly regulations. For tiny houses, I’d like to see a regulation that allowed for homeowners to legally have mobile dwellings parked in their driveway, in which people could legally live, and to which there could be a legal sewer connection. This dispersed form of housing in residential areas would have the ability to provide very low cost habitation, and provide an additional source of rental income for the homeowner. Mobile ADUs could be incredibly nimble and responsive to changing planning and design codes.
There would be NIMBY issues that could arise—there’s a old guy living in that RV next to my home—gasp! One design code to address this NIMBY concern would be to require 8 foot fences around the mobile dwelling, and the homeowners would have to seek a permit from the City to use their driveway for this use.
This type of regulation would provide truly affordable and flexible housing options in increasingly unaffordable cities, and open up a huge marketplace for creative housing choices to meet the changing housing needs of city’s changing demographics.
Tiny houses offer great potential for affordable housing
I understand that you are active in teaching people about ADUs. What do your classes focus on?
Peterson: This class is intended for homeowners interested in building an ADU on their property. For most homeowners, building an ADU is not simple or straightforward—it’s essentially the job of being a land developer, a job that most people have ever done, or will likely ever do again. The class daylights the complex ADU development process. It results in a better project by helping owners and developers understand the ADU design, management, and building process.
We cover planning and zoning regulations, financing, contract management, small space design, rebates, and the chronological step-by-step design and build process, and a host of other topics. We also tour a couple ADUs in each class.
What role do you see ADUs playing in creating affordable housing and how does the tiny house movement intersect with ADU building and living?
Peterson: There’s an interesting and complicated answer to this question. ADUs don’t provide affordable housing, according to the conventional definition of this term. However, they do organically end up providing affordable housing in that a small but significant percentage of homeowners end up giving their ADUs to friends and relatives at a reduced cost or at no cost. In other words, the ADU homeowners are not being told that they must provide affordable housing through Section 8, but statistically, about 10 percent of them are basically giving away their ADU at low values.
At $20,000-$40,000 average cost, tiny houses have even more potential to provide low cost housing, but until there is a viable and legal marketplace for residential tiny house living through allowing for tiny houses on wheels to be legally dwelled in, and tapped into a sewer on a residential driveway, this market will not emerge fully. If a zoning rule like this one happens in a city with a very strong rental market such as D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles etc., an incredible ecosystem of tiny house builders, suppliers, renters, and owners will start to take hold.