Tiny House Daydreams: Unlocking Resistance Through Radical Off-grid Ecology

In the summer of 2012 my parents sent my younger sister and I to their hometown, Somerset, New Jersey, to live with my grandparents.

“But why?? There’s nothing to even do down there. It’s just a bunch of strip malls,” I whined.

“Because you should spend time with your grandparents, and you could learn something from them,” my mom responds.

“Am I going to have to help them work their cell phones, and stuff? UGhhhh.. I just don’t get it, why can’t I stay here?”

“Girl, you’re going, so we’re not arguing about it,” my mom retorted, in her “don’t play wit me” voice.

In the heat of July my nuclear family lumbered into our Acura MDX and took the Garden State Parkway to Somerset. My sister and I sulked in the back seat, shooting looks at one another, commiserating in the dismal future of our summer.

I thought that summer would never end. Every morning my grandmother woke up around 5:30. She did laundry, made breakfast, watched the news, and read a book, all while I was asleep. The first day we were there I woke up at 9:00, and sloppily hobbled downstairs with sleep in my eyes, and she’d asked, “Did you make your bed?”

“Uh no..” I mumbled.

“Go on upstairs and make that bed, and then come back down here,” she ordered.

I could already feel hunger bubbling in my gut, so I raced up the stairs, hastily reassembled my duvet, fluffed some pillows, and flung myself back down to the kitchen to pour some orange juice.

“Good, now doesn’t that feel better, now that your bed is made?”

“Yeah grandma, what’s for breakfast?”

As the day continued, and the sun peaked in the sky, I grew bored, until my grandma called to me, “Nia come here! Come upstairs.”

I rolled my eyes and I shuffled upstairs, what is it now?

“I see you’ve made your bed, but this isn’t how you do it. You’ve got to tuck the corners and make sure the duvet is right. You’re fitted sheet is wrinkled.”

Why do we even have to do this if I’m just going to mess it up again tonight?

“Make sure you take care of your things, it’s important. You never know when you might not have them.”

My grandmother speaks in proverbs, life lessons, and inspirational quotes. Yet amidst her proverbial language, also resides proverbial action. Her proverbs live in every moment she spends ironing her sheets, and precisely folding her laundry. They live in every minute that her and my grandfather spend stoically and meticulously tending to the lawn. They live in her placemats at the kitchen table, that change almost every month.

At the time my grandmother’s proverbs merely evoked adolescent eye rolls. However, in retrospect my previously childish disdain for her particularities has shifted to reverence. The way she and my grandfather take care of their home signifies the magnitude of having ownership of something worth protecting.

Home ownership is one of the key factors in wealth, health, and education outcomes in the United States. It is a pillar of the American “bootstraps” narrative–if you work hard, you can buy a house, and you’ll be propelled into the middle class, leaving something great behind for generations to come. Yet black, native, and latinx folks have been consistently denied this crucial financial agency. The examples go on and on and on and on.

I understand why older black folks in my life, including my parents, have cared so deeply about the appearance, luxury, and longevity of their homes with such tenacity. My grandparents worked hard to obtain all of the financial, cultural, and social capital it took to achieve success as defined by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. They had two choices: buy into America Inc. or be discarded in the rubble of disenfranchisement. As an act of survival they bought in–heavily.

Fast forward to 2018, and where does this leave me? I’m a Capricorn, so I’ve had a five-year plan mapped out since I was in 6th grade. But even then, at age 13, I knew that adulthood was going to be a mountain of chaos, especially with blackness and womaness dollopped on top. In my youth I could already feel the sacrifices of my grandparents weighing on me as I developed my sense of purpose. I was sure I was going to be a doctor, although artistry throbbed in my palms. My five year plan was a map for success, not self-expression.

Now as an adult I am attempting to unlearn the American narrative and redefine success by radicalizing my own daily practice. But with this in mind, my five-year plan isn’t as easy to conjure. Thankfully to my predecessors I have more choices: more capital for taking risks and maybe even divesting from “capital” all together. I am middle class wondering what to do with my privileges earned as a result of sacrifice, agony, and discontent.

Should I nourish my identity and future in a way that honors the horror of my ancestry? And how?

Often I feel as though I’m not doing enough. I’m an out of touch bougie black girl with a four year degree and friends who go to Cape Cod on vacation. My reality is vastly different from my grandparents’. So when I graduated college I revisited my five year-plan with the intention of reshaping it to be as ethically conscious, morally sound, and financially practical as possible, in hopes of fully utilizing my millenial privilege wisely. I have centered survival just as my grandparents did, but this time it is different.

On a fateful Friday afternoon my determination for a future that memorializes the hard work of my family, led me down an unexpectedly ironic path toward something that is one of the whitest cultural phenomenons out there: tiny homes. So before y’all revoke my black card, let me just say this: homeownership is changing, and traditional housing solutions may no longer be our key to success. Hence why tiny homes are highkey the shit!

If you so desire, a tiny home can be its own little ecosystem with everything from a greenhouse to an outhouse. There are tiny house communities where people share resources and start families. Tiny homes promote healthy living and eating. My favorite thing about them is that you can live sustainably without having to sacrifice the assets of modernity. If you want to be a makeup YouTuber in a tiny home, go for it! If you want to make a four course meal in your tiny home, do it! If you want to make it wheelchair accessible, do it! Tiny homes are deeply compatible with anyone’s personal and physical needs because you can take them anywhere, and design them exactly to your liking for far less money than a traditional home. Yet almost all of the tiny home videos, television shows, and media that I’ve consumed features able-bodied, new age, unfashionable, bleachy, white-dread-having wypipo looking for “adventure” and I’m thinking, why aren’t people of color doing this?

But then I picture my grandmother attempting to live in a tiny house, and that don’t look right. If a system puts up incessant roadblocks to thwart your success by stripping away your humanity, and then you eventually overcome them to attain agency, would you want to live in a tiny house? Probably not. And I imagine that this is one of the many factors deterring folks of color from the tiny house movement. Often it is a privilege to (without fear of your safety) invest in divestment from systems at large. While crunchy white folks are traipsing in the wilderness channeling the melodrama of Thoreau, we are digging ourselves out of the trenches of oppression. So I get why tiny home lifestyles are predominantly reserved for white nonsense.

But I’m here to make a case for a tiny home movement led by folks of color. For young POCs the definition of monetary and social success is drastically changing with the waves of the internet. If black girls can find ways to sidestep higher education by becoming Instagram famous and accruing gobs of money, then I can certainly start finding innovative ways to sidestep all predefined rigged societal pathways. Generations before us have been fed falsehoods about survival and success. We all know that just because a person of color achieves middle class, or even billionaire status, does not mean they are immune to systematic racism.

Going off grid provides a real pathway for radicalization. Tiny home communities provide wholly non-corporate and non-governmental meeting spaces. Tiny homes provide mobility, and the ability for vulnerable people to flee dangerous and unsafe situations. Off-grid lifestyles promote non-capitalist forms of food, water, and energy resources since they have the ability to function in closed loop ecosystems, not connected to local municipalities. And tiny homes are creative! You can do just about anything you want with it, there are no rules. Well…sort of….  

So the catch is, that going fully off grid is illegal in many states, likely because the State fears resistance through independence. In 2015, the off-grid home of Tyler Truitt was condemned because he failed to connect to the utility grid in Huntsville, Alabama. Truitt took the case to the circuit court, but the judge ruled that his home violated zoning regulations within the city limits. Despite Truitt being a white, male, U.S. veteran the court failed to side with his argument for off-grid living as an affordable housing option.

Robin Sperolis encountered a similar issue in 2014 in Cape Coral Florida when she became fully energy sufficient. While the court allowed her to maintain energy independence she was still required to hook up to the city’s water supply or else her home would be in violation of the International Property Maintenance code. Both Tyler and Robin owe the State money for something they have no business paying for, all due to archaic building codes that keep people from living sustainable and affordable lifestyles.

The barriers at play in off-grid living, beg the question: is going off-grid really worth it, if we have to resist in a way that makes us vulnerable to State scrutiny and quite possibly violence? My answer is yes. If we’re resisting at all, then we’re going to encounter State violence regardless, it’s just a matter of when and how.

The off-grid movement is unique enough to fly under the resistance radar. As the nation obsesses over controversial topics we can focus on changing dry, unsexy, zoning and building policies that make off-grid lifestyles more accessible, allowing for vulnerable people to create livelihoods adjacent to the State. This is a movement that environmentalists could and should be focusing on, because it highlights a cross section of social justice issues rooted in State dominance and control of resources. This is a topic that can help remedy affordable housing issues, housing discrimination, health issues, food justice issues and more.

My five-year-plan includes purchasing or building a tiny home, campaigning for legislation changes in my local area, and helping black and brown folks unlearn the American path to success, which is really just a path to capitalist white supremacy, or at least an emulation of it. I urge everyone reading this to look up their local building codes, and pay attention to what your legislators’ stances are on it. For those looking to truly disembark from capitalism and white supremacy, I think I’ve found our magic bullet.

For more to get you started on tiny homes:

Mark Alford (pictured above) and his tiny home

Seized tiny homes repurposed for previously homeless individuals

Jewel Pearson: black woman in a tiny home, and my whole inspiration

Tiny house costs

 

 

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