How tiny houses are becoming a big idea on Nantucket.
As the affordable housing crisis on Nantucket nears a tipping point, the dire need for rentals has yielded an extreme alternative. Just out of sight, in backyards and quiet sandy driveways, a few determined islanders have opted out of the dreaded seasonal rental shuffle, swapping overcrowded apartments for a new generation of mobile homes. They’re called tiny houses, and on Nantucket, they’re shingled, environmentally friendly, and made to move. There’s just one problem: They’re not exactly legal.
Tiny houses typically fall somewhere between 80 and 500 square feet, over 2,000 feet smaller than the average single-family home. Megan, who agreed to speak with us under a fake name, is among the tiny house converts on Nantucket. She’s in her early thirties, and a few years after moving to the island, she decided to spend the off-season teaching herself basic carpentry to build a tiny house in a friend’s backyard. Her house sits on top of a bright yellow trailer, so whenever she decides to relocate, she can hitch the house on the back of her truck and tow it away.
Inside, the space is just under seven feet wide and eighteen feet long. Aside from the bathroom, it’s a single room that combines kitchen, living area, and sleeping loft. Every inch matters, so many features of Megan’s design perform double duty. Her drop-down table, for instance, functions as both work desk and dining table. She’s also planning to have a couch with a pull-out bed to accommodate guests. “It’s a quaint Nantucket cottage,” Megan says.
Other tiny houses exist in the shadows on island. They’re beautifully designed, outfitted with shingles, dormers, Dutch doors, and, in one case, a figurehead. Not only are they consistent with Nantucket’s aesthetic, they’re also relatively cheap. Depending on labor, quality standards, and whether the materials are salvaged or bought new, Nantucket’s tiny house budgets can be less than a year’s worth of island rent. Others can cost as much as $50,000. For those hoping to avoid debt and sidestep a mortgage in a post-recession world, tiny houses look pretty good.
The idea for living small isn’t new. From Mongolian yurts and Romani caravans to covered wagons and modern campers, whether by choice or necessity, people all over the globe have lived nomadically in small, portable shelters. In the United States, the “small house movement” started in the 1990s led by architectural pioneers such as Jay Shafer, but the idea gained national visibility after Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, designer Marianne Cusato developed the Katrina Cottage as a “dignified alternative” to emergency trailers, and demand spread well beyond Louisiana.
Today, the Internet is littered with blogs, how-to guides, and photo spreads lauding tiny houses. The idea dovetails naturally with the sustainable movement, partly because, as a rule, smaller spaces are more energy efficient, but also because living in a tiny house means accumulating less stuff. The transition to living in a tiny house involves weeding out the closet and paring down one’s book collection.
The whole point of tiny houses is: enough,” Megan says. “Enough space for everything you need, and maybe a little space for something you want.” Perhaps most importantly, if you’re moving in with a partner, it means compromise, and not just when it comes to closet space. In tight quarters, there’s no escaping an argument. You really have to love the one you’re with.
On top of those challenges, tiny houses are still effectively illegal in Massachusetts. Since state building and health codes are intended for more traditional dwellings, most tiny houses violate several provisions. For one thing, the human habitation code requires that any dwelling must contain one room that measures at least 120 square feet. That’s a conflict for tiny houses on trailers, which must fit certain specifications if they’re to be towed on the highway. Plumbing is another problem. Sewer water, known as “blackwater,” can be solved with composting toilets, but dirty water from showers and sinks, known as “greywater,” poses another issue. Both are legal, but in Massachusetts, it can be difficult to get blackwater-greywater systems approved.
Investing time and energy into an illegal tiny house is a risk. So far, Megan hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s just building the house. But, if she’s ever discovered living there, she could be fined, and the house would likely be declared unfit for human habitation.
That responsibility falls on Nantucket’s health director, Richard Ray, who was preparing to retire when I spoke to him. “Not a pleasant position to be in,” he says. News of tiny houses first crossed Ray’s desk six months ago, warning him that they might start to appear in his county. It caught him off-guard. “It’s a bit of a firestorm,” says Ray. “We’re trying to figure out how to deal with these units.” Still, he isn’t fundamentally opposed to tiny houses. Ray understands that the island is desperately in need of affordable housing, but the power to revise the code lies with the state Department of Health.
Still, islanders are taking action. This past spring, Isaiah “Izzy” Stover, a local construction manager, drafted a motion that would have allowed potential tiny house owners to apply for a special permit. “I was inspired because I saw it as a reasonable means for people on Nantucket to have a stepping stone to move from the rental market to owning something,” Stover explains. He postponed the article for a year to fine-tune its language, but he aims to try again at Town Meeting next spring. This time, he’ll organize a working group to help draft the article. It’s a thorny, complicated process, and Stover wants to be careful to avoid unintended consequences.
“We shouldn’t overdevelop,” Stover says. “I don’t want it to become something where someone throws a couple of these together really cheaply and charges market rate to rent them.” He knows he can’t please everyone, but he hopes that the article will help those in need of a stable place to live.
Even though tiny houses will need state approval, if Nantucket voters adopt Stover’s article next spring, that’s still a good step forward. “It’s time, Nantucket,” Megan says. For her, a tiny house is more than just a home. It’s a way to live optimistically, to leave less of an environmental footprint. Megan’s betting on her generation to show how small living can have a big impact.
A version of this story originally aired on WCAI, the Cape & Islands NPR station.