Las Vegas Sun

December 14, 2017

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Minimalism: Folks ditching their possessions for tiny houses and the simple life

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Mikayla Whitmore

Jennifer Taler and Brad Johnson give a tour inside the Fergusons Project in downtown Las Vegas, Nov. 14, 2017.

Tiny Homes

A glimpse inside the Fergusons Project in Downtown Las Vegas, Nev. on November 14, 2017. This is the exterior of a tiny house on property. Launch slideshow »

American homes are growing ever bigger, but a separate mindset is causing some to leave their possessions behind and embrace much smaller digs.

Minimalism is a movement away from excess and toward keeping only vital, important items.

Experts such as psychotherapist Linda Esposito write that this can help people achieve greater happiness and less stress by removing distractions, giving people the space and resources to focus on necessities and experiences.

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who have gained a following promoting their pared-down lifestyle as The Minimalists, say people like them search for happiness in life rather than through possessions.

“Today’s problem seems to be the meaning we assign to our stuff: We tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves,” they write. “Want to own a car or a house? Great, have at it! Want to raise a family and have a career? If these things are important to you, then that’s wonderful. Minimalism simply allows you to make these decisions more consciously, more deliberately.”

Tiny homes

5 tips to get into your tiny home

Tiny homes are a fraction of the size of a traditional house, some with less than 200 square feet of living space — about a 12th of the size of the average single-family home built in 2016. The average single-family home built in 1973 was more than 1,600 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2016, that number topped 2,400.

• Figure out how much you want to invest.

• Determine whether you want your tiny home on wheels or on a foundation.

• Find out what the local codes are for the area where you’d like to place your tiny home.

• Review tiny home construction guidelines for materials and design requirements.

• If you want to rent out a backyard tiny home, check to be sure city code allows it.

Living a minimal life doesn’t necessarily mean ditching almost all possessions to live in a 200-square-foot home, but that’s exactly what some people are doing. Though it’s unclear exactly how many people live in tiny homes or variations of them, states like California have worked to make it easier for people to build these units. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September 2016 to add accessory dwelling units to state law and guide local communities in setting up their own local rules.

Awareness of tiny homes has picked up since the foreclosure-packed recession, with shows such as HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living” debuting in the years since to give people an inside look at what it’s like to live in these small spaces.

Whether it’s an investment property, a primary residence or an entire organized community, living tiny comes with benefits as well as difficulties. Proponents tout tiny homes as debt reducers that keep people mobile and reduce their impact on the environment.

Some see these houses as investments on property they already own, putting them in backyards as rentals. As rents rise and cities become more dense, tiny homes are seen as another option for families and a potential solution to living in high-density, high-cost cities like Seattle.

In downtown Las Vegas, what started about three years ago as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s experiment of about 30 Airstream trailers and tiny homes has turned into a community that is now called Fergusons Downtown. It includes 15 Airstreams and tiny houses, seven micro-apartment units, a performance stage, pool, media room and shared kitchen, about a dozen dogs, three cats, an alpaca and many other features.

“The vision of this community is just really to create this incredible communal space where everybody lives in more of a tiny living situation but utilizes the community space to collaborate and have fun, and we all take care of each other,” said Brad Johnson, who, along with Jen Taler are Hsieh’s business partners. “We’re really a family.”

The living small experience

Create healthy habits

Physical and mental clutter can lead to unhealthy habits, obsessive thoughts and anxiety, according to Psychology Today. So how do you fix this? Start with your surroundings. You may not be ready to dump your possessions and jump into a tiny house, but there are small changes that can help you clear your mind and promote calm surroundings.

• Start small, like with a drawer or bookshelf rather than the whole garage. People who are new to minimizing might find it daunting to tackle every space on their to-do list, so picking the least intimidating task is a good way to get started and feel accomplished.

• Take breaks between projects to avoid getting rid of items you’ll wish you’d kept. Once people start tossing items, they can get overzealous in the quest to be done with the chore. Go slow to avoid making rash decisions, and ask yourself what each object brings to your life.

• Reduce closet clutter by focusing first on clothes that are damaged or don’t fit. Donate them or trash them. This is an easy way to eliminate items quickly, without agonizing over whether Aunt Ethel will be offended that the Christmas sweater she gifted didn’t make the cut.

• Ditch it if you can’t remember the last time you used it. Some items can stick around for years before you realize you never use them. Be judicious about whether these items are really contributing to daily happiness.

• Invest in experiences rather than objects. Take that trip and buy those tickets rather than investing money in objects. Consider whether an experience will bring more value than hanging onto that stash of spare shoe laces.

Taler lives on the lot in an Airstream with her two cats. She said tiny living seemed daunting at first, considering her plentiful clothes and shoes, plus her pets.

“Even though I had an apartment that was a nice size, I was just never home,” Taler said. “I liked the challenge of paring down and being more minimal. I still have a lot to shed.”

Taler said her cats can go out the back of the Airstream, eliminating the need for a litter box in her small space.

“It’s really awesome to be living small,” she said. “It helps me (say), ‘I don’t really need this,’ or kind of get rid of all that clutter. For me it’s definitely the community, the people. It’s a huge family, and it’s just nice because even if you’re having a bad day, you can come out and talk to somebody, or if you want to be in your house and excluded, you can totally do that.”

Taler said the community has been in its new location between Ogden and Fremont and 10th and 11th streets for about two months. She said the new space has been built with more intention.

Johnson said every door in the new space opens to the community center, with a covered patio leading to a 16-foot door that opens to the kitchen. He said lessons were learned the first time around, with residents telling him that they’d need amenities like a laundry room, kitchen and media center in order to stay long-term.

“My favorite thing has been watching everybody interact with the place,” Johnson said. “I spent myself a lot of time invested into the thinking about how this place would work and how people would utilize it, and to see it, it’s been a lot of fun. Some things have worked, some things haven’t, but it’s been great to watch.”

Rigo Cardenas, an e-commerce professional selling items online and working from home, lived in a condo on the Strip before he moved into one of the community’s Airstream trailers in 2015. He said he’s lived next to these neighbors for almost three years.

“I would say hi to someone at the dog park ... and they’re like, ‘Who is this weirdo?’ They look at you really strange,” Cardenas said of his condo complex. “Not just here but throughout the downtown community, everyone’s very friendly and has the same mindset with that logic. It spreads from here out to the rest of downtown, and that same type of mindset is what’s kept me here.”

Cardenas moved with the community to its new location, and says the cooperative atmosphere draws him more than the attempt to live a minimal lifestyle. He said he put most of his possessions into storage when he moved into the Airstream, and realized after a trip to Burning Man that he didn’t use or need the items often.

“I was like … I haven’t been here for almost two months,” Cardenas said. “Why do I need all this?”

He decided to to get rid of the storage unit and what was inside, including his snowboards, and says he regrets getting rid of just a few things.

“I realized what I didn’t use and I didn’t need to bring it here,” Cardenas said.

Cardenas keeps winter clothes and items for Burning Man under his trailer. He uses mason jars to store his dry foods and laundry detergent. He said his living space is about 275 square feet.

“The Airstream has a lot of space, cubbies and stuff, that makes things really useful,” he said.

Cardenas said he’s thought about what he’d do if he started a family, and says tiny homes and Airstreams might not be the best fit.

Johnson, who is married with two sons, two cats and two dogs, says he has an Airstream on the property but he doesn’t live there with his family full-time.

“I would love to live here, 100 percent, but it doesn’t fit our lifestyle as a family,” Johnson said. “For some families it works, but I think a lot of those families go into it together.”

A solution for packed cities?

Martyn Hoffmann, CEO at Kasita, a company that builds prefab tiny homes, says the “modern micro home” startup company is eyeing the Reno market. He says housing is tight there, with an alarmingly low vacancy rate and growing populations of employees from companies such as Tesla and Google.

“There is a tremendous need for housing in Reno, and we see that as a market,” Hoffmann said.

The vacancy rate for rental units in the Reno and Sparks metro area was just under 1.2 percent in the second quarter of this year, according to a report by real estate appraisers and consultants Johnson Perkins Griffin. A Reno forecast report said the city’s apartment vacancy rate was 2.3 percent in the first quarter of 2016. Markets generally reach equilibrium at 5 to 7 percent, the report said.

“Rates below 5 percent indicate demand for new inventory, especially with growing rents,” according to Denver-based consulting firm Economic & Planning Systems Inc. “A vacancy rate of 2.3 percent indicates that vacant units are likely just a result of turnover of renters, which means there is essentially no vacancy in the market.”

Kasita was founded by former environmental sciences professor Jeff Wilson, who sold everything he owned to spend a year living in a 33-square-foot dumpster. The experience gave him the nickname “Professor Dumpster” and taught him how space could be more efficiently used through a minimal and uncluttered lifestyle.

The Texas-based company recently received state licenses to sell its product in Texas, California and Nevada, and its 352-square-foot unit units are rolling off the line now, Hoffmann said. A Kasita recently installed in Austin took six hours to become livable from the time it left the factory. The state-level permitting means building inspectors do not need to inspect the unit.

“The amount of time it’s taken us to get through the state-level permitting has been significant,” Hoffmann said. “That has caused us to not get to market as fast as we would have liked to, but now the gates are open.”

Kasita is also looking to expand to higher-density projects, essentially stacking the units as high as four stories to create complexes of 50 to 60 tiny homes. The company is looking at pursuing this type of project for the downtown Reno core, where Kasita would likely own the project and lease it to a technology company for its employees.

Tiny living costs

Benefits of minimalism

1. Promotes health. When worries related to material possessions are no more, stress decreases and time is available to focus on your health and mental wellness.

2. Relationship boost. The same goes for your relationships. More time means more focus on loved ones and experiences.

3. Financial wellness. Material wealth becomes less important, so in many cases, you’ll spend less and save more.

4. Decreased environmental impact. If we consume less (energy, space, packaging, products), we produce less waste.

5. Sense of freedom. When you have less to lose, it minimizes worries about failure or loss.

— theminimalists.com; lifehack.org

The switch to a tiny home isn’t exactly a bargain, said Cardenas, the Airstream resident.

“If you’re looking at price per square foot, it’s not cheaper,” he said. “But I think … it’s how you take the value of being here. If someone’s like, wow, 300 square feet, you’re paying X amount of money, that’s crazy, you can get a house for this price — well that’s not what you’re looking at. You’re looking at the value of what is creating happiness here.”

Prices depend on product, level of finish, and add-ons, said Hoffmann of Kasita, but the units generally start at $95,000 and can reach $139,000.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. lists units for sale on its website as low as $65,000 and more than $80,000.

“We are developing a new product that people are not familiar with,” Hoffmann said. “They oftentimes confuse manufactured housing with a standard mobile-home-park type house that is on a chassis, and what we’re doing is something of significantly higher quality and significantly higher design, (with) finished materials and appliances. So it’s much more of a permanent structure, with very thick walls and very good soundproofing and very good insulation.”

Hoffmann said the company’s tiny homes have resonated in a demographic that desires simplicity. People can find storage under the floor, under the stairs, and even behind other cabinets.

“Everything that Kasita is is a simplified way of living,” he said. “It’s taking a small space and designing it, designing every cubic inch of it, so that it is usable and reusable as much as possible, so that what is a 350- or 370-square-foot space acts and feels more like 450- or a 500-square-foot space because of the way we have designed the interior of the unit.”

Tiny homes fit city code

Cities vary on permitted uses for these backyard units. In Las Vegas, tiny backyard homes with kitchens can be rented out for at least 31 days if the owner of the main home also lives on the property, among many other requirements for construction, setbacks and other details, said Peter Lowenstein, acting planning director for Las Vegas.

To put an accessory structure in a Las Vegas backyard that has a kitchen, Lowenstein said, requires a special use permit.

“It depends on what zoning district you’re trying to place it in,” Lowenstein said. “Obviously the residential uses have to be in residential zoning districts.”

Homes have a parking requirement as well, Lowenstein said. Decisions on topics such as permitting and connecting to utilities would be up to a building official.

Hoffmann said the Kasita backyard units that the company manufactures do not come on a chassis with wheels. At the Fergusons site, the city treats the Airstreams and tiny homes on wheels as recreational vehicles in a camp. Lowenstein said they are required to have enough room on the lot to back up and move the units.

“If you wanted it to qualify as a single-family dwelling and be permanent, you’d have to take it off the wheels,” Lowenstein said.

The city’s existing code has covered these tiny homes without any new policies needed, he said.

The future

Taler and Johnson said they are about 90 percent done with plans to develop the rest of the city block. The entrance to Fergusons Downtown is marked by a vertical big rig installation by artist Mike Ross, and the goal is to turn the area into a kind of oasis possibly fed by underground water tanks.

The next phase of work will focus on the entrance and is expected to take about six months, and the third phase will occur next to the residential portion. There, Taler and Johnson say the goal is to rent to travelers, and perhaps eventually fill the space with longer-term renters.

“Millennials and people who are traveling now, they want to truly engage and have those experiential trips so then you know where the locals hang out,” Taler said.