Establishing Community In the Tiny House World

As long as I can remember the question has been posed on Facebook pages, in FB groups, on blogs, in real-time conversations, and in workshops.

If a tiny house community existed would you want to live there? What do you think of living in community? 

The answers of course, as varied as the people responding with them. Overall though I feel as if I have seen more people align with the notion of living on their own slice of Earth than living in community. And allow me – as has become tradition – to note that the phrase “tiny house” does not necessarily denote a tiny house trailer in the style of a Tumbleweed Fencl, but rather any sort of non-conventional, small space, established as a domicile.

When my wife and I first established residency in rural eastern North Carolina we did so knowing it was a bit of an isolated environment. Afterall, we had collectively lived in 9 countries and 16 or so states including Paris, Kona, Israel, etc. We had even both lived on the road as well out of backpacks of 3000 cubic inches. Part of the allure of the countryside though was for the “breathing room” we felt we had been missing. We also wanted to do a little homesteading and micro-farming. By about the third month in NC though I began to realize there was a huge difference between the aforementioned “breathing room” and utter isolation. Sometimes days would pass where we would see only each other. At the time we hadn’t established our legal address on the land so we didn’t even have the benefit of seeing a postal carrier. If it weren’t for the Interwebs we may have been little more than exiles in a foreign land. To have interaction with even family members we typically had to travel by car a minimum of 17 miles one way. That inability to connect quickly led to doubt, boredom, concern, mild depression, and even resentment and then manifest itself in weight gain, stress headaches, short tempers, and complacency. By the sixth month I was realizing how utterly important community and interaction is to the human experience. Anthony J. D’Angelo – teacher, leader, and curriculum developer – is quoted as saying “Without a sense of caring, there can be no sense of community.” I had ceased to care and therefore I had ceased to search for a sense of community.

In order to escape the funk I realized something had to give so I dug in deep to researching the notion of community. I was wanting answers to the tough (and perhaps unanswerable questions) of:

  • What is a community?
  • Who comprises the community?
  • What is the history of the community?
  • What are the needs of a community?
  • What are the relationships within the community?

After what seemed like a combination of books, articles, blogs posts, and the like I was still stuck on the primary question.

WHAT IS A COMMUNITY?

While we traditionally think of a community as the people in a given geographical location, the word can really refer to any group sharing something in common. This might refer to smaller geographic areas — a neighborhood, a housing project or development, a rural area — or to a number of other possible communities within a larger, geographically-defined community. Community can be established by race or ethnicity, professional associations, religious beliefs, cultural notions, and even shared backgrounds. In fact, if you are reading this post and following this blog chances are you feel connected to the tiny house community. You have daily exchanges with others in the community. Personally I identify most with the Christian community, the tiny house community, the RV and fulltime family community, and the Florida State Alumni community. Those are the groups I find myself wanting to spend time and energy with and around. Community doesn’t have to be insulatory though. Various communities can certainly overlap.

An African-American,  Catholic, art teacher, for example, might see himself (or be seen by others) as a member of the black, arts, and/or education communities, as well as of a particular faith community. An Italian woman may become an intensely involved member of the ethnic and cultural community of her Jewish husband. I don’t think a person belongs to just one community when observed under the microscope. And a person should not feel the pressure to do so.

In those first months of tiny house living I was missing the larger picture. I was trying to desperately to take my whole existence and make others accept it. I was making little to no attempt to become part of my new “life.” The result was I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. I was removed from my interest communities and my geographic one.  I was a square peg trying to force myself into a round hole. I was missing an understanding of the community I had moved to and how the new relationship could be mutually beneficial.

Farmers

My new home was – and still is – a unique place along the eastern seaboard mixing the farming world with the beach world. Jeans are formal wear. Flip flops are sacred. Wal-mart is the community meeting hall and the most predominant landmark for travel. Johnny Cash is on par with the 4th Beatle and the 13th disciple. My community is full of folks who can put their hands in the dirt and tell you what will grow and what won’t, what the pH level is, and how to improve it all. My people can make a feast of cornmeal and anything that once had a pulse and can find fresh fish in a puddle leftover from an afternoon shower. They are kind but like most groups, stick to their own kind. Understanding this was paramount to understanding community. Once I began to embrace them they began to embrace me and we quickly formed a friendship. I had found community and again found peace.

What about you? Do you value community? How have you found community in your environment? 

Next week I hope to talk about 5 Effective Ways to Become Part of a Community. Y’all come back now, ya hear?

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

 

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Tiny Living (Barb) - September 18, 2014 Reply

Andrew, this is the best article I’ve ever seen as far as what making the transition truly means. I hope people’s eyes are opened and that we can use these common human emotions to effectively progress toward experiences that are both joyful and fulfilling God’s purpose for creating us.
Thanks so much for expressing your internal struggles which revealed themselves in the process of seeking a simple life. Excellent insight!

    Andrew M. Odom - September 18, 2014 Reply

    WOW! Thank you so much Barb. I truly appreciate that. I try to write in a transparent voice. I am not a tiny house robot. I am a human who sometimes does good and sometimes leaves some margin for error and has huge vulnerabilities.

    Thank you so much for reading.

Heidi - September 18, 2014 Reply

I’ve always wanted to establish some sort of tiny house community where there is a “main house” but separate living quarters. Where duties and garden work can be shared. Sort of like the shared communities that have been developed in Ithaca, NY. I think it’s a wonderful concept.

    Debra - September 19, 2014 Reply

    Heidi, I too have dreamed of exactly what you have posted. I live in Canada and am nearing retirement (but am not dead yet) and would love to live somewhere just like this.

      suzette - September 26, 2014 Reply

      I am in Canada as well and would love to start a Tiny house community.
      Suzette

Sue - September 18, 2014 Reply

By the time I build my tiny home–hopefully within 2 years–I SO want to be part of community! Having taken Hari & Karl’s eCourse to plan for it, I’ve downsized SO much, have very little stuff, & it feels wonderful. Now all I need is a supportive, like-minded community surrounding me in my tiny home. And may it be so.

    Andrew M. Odom - September 18, 2014 Reply

    Sue the community will hardly ever be like-minded. The community I am referring to is not a specific tiny house arena. It is a town built on the differences and commonalities of all people. You would be surprised where you will find support if you open yourself to it.

Rebecca - September 18, 2014 Reply

I think this is the best question being asked about tiny house living. I have several communities, but moving to five acres in the mountains has physically distanced me from them. I have a new wildlife community that is very important to me. I am creating a dream. The economy broke my work community up and I am creating a new community while keeping touch with the best of the old one. My family community is working on moving to this area… hard in this economy but it will happen. I want to create more local community but only know a few people, my fault because creating a career and home and holding to my own is burning most of my energy. Still… my local community is growing slowly.
Our communities are the most important aspects of our lives. I feel most people either admire what I am doing or are entertained by the spectacle. I laugh with both groups.

    Bob Ratcliff - September 18, 2014 Reply

    My wife and me are SO similar to you complete with our five acres. Our includes a 114 year old farmhouse we’ve basically rebuilt from scratch. When I lived in town right next to our neighbors, we never knew anyone. Now that I’m WAY out in the country, I actually have a little circle of friends. Most of them are the walkers, but there’s also who those who love riding their horse, bike or ATV. People assume that living in the country is about being alone. We’ve found it quite the opposite. There’s a need to work together. My closest neighbor uses all of my equipment while in exchange maintaining them in top running condition. Odd how we had to leave town before becoming part of a “real” community:) May your days be filled with wildlife and a wild life.

Lisa E. - September 18, 2014 Reply

I’m a writer. Getting time away from ringing phones and people dropping by makes the difference between getting something accomplished or constantly having your thought processes interrupted. That being said, I think one’s concept of TH living is key to the success of your personal experience.

If you are someone who relishes shared experiences and are very social, your TH living will require one type of encampment with shared gardens, shared chores and common areas, but if you are a self-entertainer then probably a TH Park (like a trailer park) would be a better idea with a sense of community but enough personal space to not feel put upon.

One thing I have learned is that one haircut does not fit all and to go into a TH encampment expecting that there won’t be personality differences or differences of opinion or all of the things that have us living in separate housing is a bit utopian. Therefore, I recommend that as TH communities spring up, a board listing the encampment or park and what it’s like will be helpful to many before one gets committed to any particular group or locale.

    Bob Ratcliff - September 18, 2014 Reply

    GREAT comment! While there’s a certain charm in tiny living, I agree with your comment about an RV being perhaps a better choice (very experienced RV’er). More storage, full plumbing & better yet A/C. Having lived in everything from a 19′ to a 35 double slide out park model trailer, I loved trailer parks that gave me just enough room while at the same time enjoying a bit simpler life. TH living at times appears to be SO wrapped up in “idea.” Once a person starts using composting toilets and a wardrobe of five shirts and a two burner stove, I wonder if the reality lives up to the dream? Meanwhile I love some design ideas TH shares that I’ll be implementing in a guest house we’ll soon be building.

alice h - September 18, 2014 Reply

A tiny house community might be more harmonious than your average village since there does seem to be some similarity of mindset. Odds are it would be just as crazy though. There are people who rub each other wrong way for no particular reason and lots of head butting when it comes to group decisions. I think a lot of people want to live on their own little patch of paradise because of an intense desire to shape their lives the way they want without constant negotiation. We have to do so much compromising in our regular lives, it’s nice to have the least confrontational nest possible. Doesn’t always work out that way and there are advantages to doing things communally but it’s not for everybody.

Olga - September 18, 2014 Reply

Thanks for (another) great post, Andrew. My partner and I had a similar experience when we bought a cabin in the mountains of Western North Carolina. On the positive side, we loved the woods and the mountains, the arts and culture of WNC, and going to Asheville for a night out. But we hadn’t realized how isolated rural life can be. We had to drive miles to do anything. We had a few neighbors, and although we got along fine we didn’t share many values or interests. And we had to take care of everything ourselves: maintaining the well, repairing the road, clearing fallen trees, etc.

I am a city planner, so that was an a-ha moment for me. Why not live in this beautiful rural area, but in a community setting where people share values, interests, work–and play! That was the beginning of our intentional community. After years of looking, we found the perfect land–mostly forested but with some pasture for farming. Beautiful and peaceful, but close to several towns. (No zoning, though!) We plan to have our own (tiny) village center one day with common space, a cafe, art studios, a couple small businesses. In the meantime there are lots of opportunities to get together for meals, classes, working on the trail network or in the community garden, making apple butter, playing Scrabble, etc. (Or not. Some people prefer time alone, and that’s fine too.)

We are not strictly a tiny house community (although I do live in a tiny house). As part of our environmental ethic we believe houses should make efficient use of resources, but also be durable and beautiful enough to last for generations. Tiny, small, and medium-sized houses are all welcome–provided they are built green, well designed, and well crafted.

I agree with your observation that the tiny house community seems to lean toward individualism rather than community. In my experience, community makes it easier to live happily in a small space. For example, we have shared spaces where people can keep their tools, bikes, kayaks, etc. (Or you can borrow a tool, bike, or kayak if you don’t have one.) We hope to have a vehicle-sharing system one day, although our informal system works well enough–a neighbor will happily lend a truck, or pick something up at the grocery. There are probably as many ways of defining community as there are communities. Ours is oriented around the arts, environmental stewardship, and lifelong learning. We practice community in many ways, but perhaps best through impromptu gatherings around food, drink, and lively conversation. If anyone is interested, there’s more information at http://www.HighCove.com

    Lori - September 18, 2014 Reply

    Very drawn to Highcove, I had the most wonderful opportunity to share in a like minded community here in TN. Many may have heard of The Farm, a wonderful oasis of like minded folks, very conscious, green, kind and intelligent as well as creative. I am hoping to return there to live out my days. Although at the moment living in a campground, trying to remodel my older camper, Never regreting this opportunity iether, though the most difficult part was figuring out what to dispose of, pass on to those who may need or enjoy what I had collected over 30 yrs. Once realizing people are way more important than things, contentment set in. Along with loneliness all too often. It is not the size of my space hindering my good spirits, it is the loneliness, lack of interaction with others, what I miss most living at the farm.
    On a disabled income, and without transportation, first time in my life, has definitely been the worst. Getting out only for dr. appt. and groceries once a month. With winter setting in, it would be nice to have a circle of like minds to ease the darker season ahead. Love to cook, and share /break bread with friends. It would be nice to be a part of a community where I would feel I could be an asset, instead of a liability. After years of working with severe behavior, mentally ill, even the criminally insane, then taking care of my elders till their passing, I always felt I received more than I gave by helping others. Now being disabled myself, physically limited, it is difficult daily to emotionally accept wearing these moccasins now. I feel community, is essential to my healing. I hope to find my place once again on this mudball/earth. Feeling useful soon.

Rob - September 18, 2014 Reply

One of the biggest challenges (for me) has been where to put a tiny house? Vacant city lots are scarce, expensive, and sometimes subject to zoning restrictions (sq. ft. min, house on wheels can’t be primary residence, etc.). Vacant land outside of the city has it’s own frustrations (isolation, water/sewer/electric constraints, etc.). Trailer Parks have their issues too (I don’t want to park my Tiny House next to an RV that looks like it’s from Breaking Bad).
Finding the right community to place a tiny house in is challenging.

Mary - September 18, 2014 Reply

Great article! I moved to a new state a year ago and have been living in around 300 ad in the country. The lack of community has been a challenge to me… I always lived in towns and in a state with a MUCH different set of ideals, and connecting here has been difficult at best. I still find myself where you were at the six month mark, a square peg in a round hole. I’ll be very interested in your next article about effective ways to become part of a community.

frank - September 18, 2014 Reply

when I was 19 and 20 years old in 1978/80 I was a member of the young adult conservation corps Y.A.C.C. formerly known as the ccc in the 1940s .I first stayed in high bridge n.j. at Voorhees state park and then went to the Ocala national forist in Ocala florida. both camps I lived in a community much like the ones mentioned in this article. after seeing the first tiny house in about 2006 or 2007 I had envisioned a tiny house community much like my living situation in the Ocala forist .with the exception of actual tiny houses instead of centrally air conditioned block dwellings that housed as many as 4 people. my vision was to have a huge circle of pie sliced pieces of property that one could own as apposed to renting. that way one or 2 could have a garden or an out building .in the center of this pie shaped community would be a huge roof covered fire pit were all of it’s resident’s could congregate any time they saw a fire . they would also have access to a public shower and laundry room.

Lynda Swanson - September 19, 2014 Reply

You have touched on a couple of important considerations here that I think about quite a lot. I wonder where everyone will go with their tiny houses, yurts, trailers and the like that has finally given them freedom. If you don’t have a hunk of property and you are looking for others who are seeking a “new family” experience then where do you go to find them? I have looked for years in Washington State. Options seem to be either create your own (which I’m all for and seeking others to talk to about this) or join an existing Intentional Community which is usually but not always a well developed group complete with their own bylaws etc. Most of them are of the eco village variety (not that there is anything wrong with that) or of a certain spiritual ilk. I think that it’s high time that we (as the trailblazers) branch out into much less exclusive and more inclusive models of community. Where do you find the folks who are feeling the same way? Maybe start a centralized list here of seekers where we can share what we seek? What do you think?

Susan - September 19, 2014 Reply

Really nice article, and really good points. I look forward to the next in the series. My family and I just purchased a tiny, off-grid cabin in the mountains of Colorado. I found myself being glad, on our first couple of drives up there, that we have neighbors relatively nearby (but not within seeing distance :), and wondered why I was glad. I think your article answered the question for me. Kind of gives me the same feeling I get when running outside on a beautiful path, and nodding or smiling to runners going the other way – we’re in something together, there’s a kind of silent camaraderie, and a sense of belonging without being joined at the hip. A couple of our new neighbors at the cabin walked over to say hello, introduce themselves, let us know how much they love their places and the beautiful area, and to offer help of any and all kinds should we ever need it. They’re not in our back pockets, but they’re there, as will we be, and that makes us happy.

Raelynn - September 21, 2014 Reply

Andrew, thank you so much for articulating this point so well. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this very topic. We are in the beginning stages of building our tiny house, with the intention of saving money to buy land. We have ideas where we want to be (Washington/Oregon), but the more affordable land is generally more rural, and one of my desires is to still be able to build community and avoid that isolation you expressed. We are already experiencing the isolation of country living in the location where we’re building our house. With people spread out and busy working the land, it takes a bit longer to form those relationships, we’re finding. We have plenty of time to think and talk more about this, but it’s nice to get other perspectives.

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