For This Tiny-House Owner, Living Small Means Being Flexible

Jan 12, 2018

Part 2 of a series on tiny houses

Reba Parker was living in Charleston, S.C., when she first learned about the tiny-home movement. She started searching online, looking into where in the country she could legally live in a tiny home.

Spur, Texas, popped up No. 1,” Parker says. “So I flew out to Spur, checked it out, bought some land. Within a year, I was in Spur.”

Part 1: Developers Respond To Austin's Growing Housing Prices With More Tiny Homes

Parker left her 2,300-square-foot home in Charleston and moved into a tiny home in the town, population roughly 1,300, about 70 miles east of Lubbock. She downsized quite a bit, but it was enough space for her.

“My home was 215 square feet,” she says. “It was beautiful, so a lot of huge windows, and living in West Texas with the wide-open spaces, it was so incredible to live in my home. ... I had a little house, a little dog and a little car.”

'Tiny House Capital Of America'

There’s a reason Spur popped up near the top of Parker’s Google searches. The town has actually declared itself the "Tiny House Capital of America."

“We’ve sold roughly 100 lots since we started this venture,” says Danny Schallenberg, a tiny house builder and developer.

"The tiny-house world here has helped the town and the community."

In 2014, Schallenberg worked with city officials to designate Spur a tiny-house-friendly town, complete with special zoning and simplified permitting.

“Spur allows tiny houses on fixed foundation and tiny houses on wheels as long as the ordinances are followed,” he says.  

In many cities, tiny-home owners have to rent land to put their houses on. In Spur, officials are emphasizing land ownership. Schallenberg says Spur first made space for tiny homes by selling off tax-delinquent properties. He says officials are in the process of acquiring more land, and there are even plans for a new tiny-house subdivision.

“The tiny-house world here has helped the town and the community,” Schallenberg says. “You know, people coming in are spending tax dollars. They’re spending money at the grocery store. It is possible and feasible to live here and be self-contained right here in Spur.”

To date, Schallenberg says 17 residents have rolled their tiny houses into town and permanently settled in Spur. Dozens more have bought land, but the transition hasn’t gone off without a hitch.

A Simplified Lifestyle Gets Complicated

Shortly after Parker moved into her new tiny home, she found herself facing some unforeseen challenges.

“I had some problems getting hooked up the way I needed to,” she says, “to the grid and to internet, but also to infrastructure as far as sewer and things like that.”

Parker taught online classes for a living, so internet access was nonnegotiable. After just three months in Spur, she moved her house to the Austin area in October 2016. Parker found a space in a tiny-home community in Del Valle called Austin Live | Work. Months later, it was shut down; local officials cited permitting issues.

“We were pretty much turned upside down when we found out that we had to move,” Parker says. “We basically got an email. They gave us a couple weeks’ time frame to actually get our homes and move, so that was very disturbing.”

Reba Parker's tiny home at Evergreen RV Park in Northeast Austin.
Credit Courtesy of Reba Parker

Parker moved her tiny house again, this time into an RV park. But she started to feel like the simplified lifestyle she was seeking was getting way too complicated.

Every time she moved, Parker had to pay someone to level her house, and she had to adjust parts of it to fit local regulations. Take the rules around bathrooms, for example.

“In Spur, you have to have a conventional toilet, which I did,” she says. “And then I moved to Austin, and they said, ‘No conventional toilets; you have to have a composting [toilet].’ And then when I moved to the RV park, they said, ‘No composting; you have to have conventional.’ So, I switched my toilet again. So, these are the kind of things that people don’t think about.”

Less than two years after buying her tiny home, Parker decided to sell it.

A Challenge Finding Space

The scarcity of available space has become more apparent as the tiny-home movement gains traction. But the idea of living small isn’t new. City Council Member Pio Renteria's district in East Austin includes a number of mobile home parks. In many cases, they follow the same model as tiny homes: Residents own their houses and rent the land they sit on.

Renteria says as Austin’s property values rise, it’s getting harder for many mobile home residents to afford rent. If landlords choose to redevelop, finding a new place to live is tough.

“Most people won’t take a mobile home that’s over 10 years old,” he says.

Renteria says tiny homes are facing some of the same challenges in finding space, but they’re responding to a different part of the market. In comparison to traditional single-family homes, tiny homes are a steal. Many models sell for less than $100,000. But they’re not necessarily affordable or practical for everyone.

“There’s a great need for affordable units,” Renteria says, “and it’s a good solution for young people and people who might want to live in a smaller environment where they don’t have to clean up, but for people that are raising families, we still need two-, three-bedroom houses.”

Go With The Flow

Parker may have sold her tiny home, but she’s still committed to living small. After leaving the RV park, she moved to a 500-square-foot apartment in Portland, Ore.

"I do miss my home,” she says. “But again, I moved three times within a year and a half in my home, mostly due to circumstances outside of my control.”

Parker still owns the land in Spur where her tiny house used to sit. She says she’d consider moving back there one day. She has one major piece of advice for anyone interested the tiny-home life: Be flexible.

“Because it’s so new, you don’t know what kind of roadblocks are going to be put in front of you,” she says. “You don’t know, and you need to be willing to adjust and maneuver around those. And I was up for it. I was ready to do that, but after the second time having to move, I just kind of said, for my work, I need to sell this.”