Dee Williams Lives Large in a Tiny Footprint

by Kent Griswold on March 27th, 2013. 17 Comments
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By Alyse Nelson

How much house does it really take to be happy? Some people are taking a hard look at the question, and discovering that the answer is: not much.

These “tiny housers” are bucking the idea that “bigger is better.” Their homes, ranging from 800 square feet to less than 100 square feet—a far cry from the 1000 square feet per person that has become the North American norm—take many shapes and sizes. And the people who live in them are as diverse as the homes themselves. Some hope to save money on housing; others hope to “live green” by choosing a smaller space; some are trading living space for a neighborhood they love; and others want to live closer to family or friends.

Dee's house with class

Dee Williams talking to a group outside her tiny house

Photo by Flickr user irooshka

Dee Williams’s story starts with her questioning her lifestyle choices. After helping build a school in Guatemala and watching a close friend fight cancer, Williams reevaluated her priorities. “He was getting sicker and sicker, and I didn’t have the time or the money to really throw myself into helping him. I was spending a lot of time and money on my house. So the house was the easiest thing to try to get rid of,” Williams told Yes! Magazine.

“I started really wondering if the cost of owning a house, of maintaining a house, of remodeling my house, was really kind of socially what I wanted to be about. So I decided to bite the bullet and go for it!” Williams said in this video. So she sold her 1,500 square foot Portland home and built an 84-square foot tiny home for $10,000.

Her 8-foot by 15-foot home is parked in a friend’s backyard in Olympia, Washington. She helps out with household chores in exchange for the space and drinking water. She lives with just a few outfits and shoes, but also is mortgage-free. This has allowed Williams to work less and spend more time and money investing in giving back to her community.

Williams’s story has spread far; because she’s been featured in national news more than 20 million people have viewed (in person or via video) her tiny home. She received the 2008 Governor’s Award for Sustainable Practices in Washington State. Now she co-owns PAD—Portland Alternative Dwellings—a tiny house company that holds workshops to help future tiny housers get their start.

Dee showing her house

Dee Williams shows off her tiny house.

Photo by Flickr user irooshka

But the help tiny housers need most isn’t advice about building or living in a small space; it’s navigating the maze of regulations they’ll confront as they downsize.. Some cities set minimum size requirements for dwellings. Others say a recreational vehicle can’t count as an ADU, which is typically how a tiny house is categorized. This means “you can camp in your little house, but not live in it,” writes Williams. Williams helps other tiny housers navigate the regulatory barriers that come with tiny house living.

Through her activism—and her lifestyle—Williams is helping create a wave of interest in tiny homes that local governments cannot ignore for long. Williams proves that even if your house has a tiny footprint, you can still live large.

Bio: Alyse Nelson is an urban planner for a small town in Kitsap County, Washington. She is a Writing Fellow for Sightline Institute. This post is adapted from a full article published here:

17 Responses to “Dee Williams Lives Large in a Tiny Footprint”

  1. Nice job! A point of interest is that we have health clubs and gym franchises here that are only $15.00 a month and they have great neat and clean toilet and shower facilities. So if people live in micro homes, trailers, vans, cars or whatever, they have a warm and clean place to clean up for fifty cents a day. I know that several people are homeless at the gym I belong to and live in their cars. If you need a way to save money and get a fresh start It’s not a bad idea. I know a person who saved up a down paymednt for a home by living in an old trailer in the woods. You do what you have to do to survive these days. There are going to be a lot more people downsizing these days because that’s the way things are going in the world now.

    • Molly says:

      Wow! I live in the Midwest, where the cost of living is lower than average, and still gym memberships cost at least $50 a month for an adult. $15 a month is a great deal!

  2. -billS says:

    Love the movement and been a fan for years now. But I would like to know how one gets past the city codes and restrictions. I see she won a Governors award so clearly a second home on an R-1 zoned property must be allowed there. In many neighborhoods one cannot park a pop-up camper in their driveway for more than 48 hours without a fine/ticket. I guess you really need to do your homework and have really great friends. I think about our current tax system and with more and more people checking out, worry about infrastructure costs down the road.

    • Christine Ferguson says:

      Hi Bill,

      Hi Tiny Home folks everywhere! This permission – bugging is a real spoiler. But its only average people like us who make rules so maybe one has to go to these also average people and check out their thinking then make new proposals. At the moment with the world’s fraudulent economy in joke time the one joke cannot be being homeless and indebted. Let your local authority consisiting of ordinary people be challenged by that. If it is a hobby thing and not a necessity, make a club of enthusiasts. ‘Clean (hygenic)and screen’ needs to be the main focus for the environment ; outside of that whose business is it how you live? We are confronted by offensive buildings all over the world so find out how they got permission first. What are the criteria? Get the names of the permission- givers and deniers. Now you’re starting to get real and know where the objections start. It’s untimately your will -v- theirs. Great good luck and travelling.

    • Christine Ferguson says:

      Bill, some other thoughts. I do not live in the UK at present but there a movement has arisen referring to ‘freemen of the land’ which refers to legislation about people originally being free and not restricted by later legislation which is in fact illegal. Interestingly you mention parking tickets…this group observes that parking ticket offences are dealt with by commercial courts; not those sanctioned by the Crown and re therefore illegal. (and therefore overturned). Suggest you scan You Tube and reconsider where things are really at. US, Candada and Australia are in fact controlled by the UK under the governance of the British Crown. Eye-opener. Few of us realise how far we are being conned. You happy to give up your personal sovereignty to some other living being? Tch!

      • Donald Costello says:

        For one thing, the US has not had UK Governance since 1776!
        Canada and Australia also are independent from the UK!
        Actually the acronym UK does include Scotland , Ireland and Wales and to say the countries to which you referred are controlled by “the UK” is incorrect since the governance to which you referred was actually England which, in the middle ages was the greatest empire, an empire so large that the sun never set because in every time zone the English (British Empire) controlled a country (colony).

  3. Linda Jo says:

    Nice work. I am putting a cabin shed on a rural piece of property. It is great to see all the different tiny houses go up!

  4. Mar says:

    I have never lived anywhere that would allow a second dwelling on a single lot, or for someone to park a mobile dwelling in someones backyard and live in it. I don’t know how these folks get away with it.

    As far as gym memberships go, Planet Fitness is $10.00 per month, no contract. They are all over the country.

  5. Bob H says:

    Every community has RV parks or campgrounds suitable for these types of RV’s. You pay a nominal fee that includes water & electric. If you build an RV I do not think you will every get code approval as a house. I do think that building a small or tiny house has a better chance at approval if, you own land, you have your own water & sewer, insurance and just maybe pay some taxes.

  6. dave says:

    Code restrictions are one of the things holding back the tiny house movement. Many people live “under the radar”, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I remember a guy on youtube in upstate NY who built a beautiful Fencl, only to have to sell it cause his neighbors reported him and the Fencl neither met RV or house code.

    It’s often easier to stealth van dwell than live openly in a tiny house. Chad has been doing it for two years in a VW in Southern California.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQJVBezbVok

    Glenn is minor internet celebrity who is downgrading to a VW from a more luxurious RV to simplify his life even more:

    http://www.tosimplify.net/

    I envy both of them.

  7. DeWhit says:

    Who wants to live like an illegal refugee flying under the code and trying to stay a step ahead of the authorities.

    I like small builds and efficient housing.
    That doesn’t mean i am antilaw or anti establishment.

    You can live with a smaller footprint to save money and be part of the community, but you can’t flount the laws when you HAVE to live small on property not zoned for two buildings.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    Small Housing Freedom shouldn’t mean that you are the new age renegade snubbing your nose at authority have a problem with rules protecting what was there before you .

    I don’t want trailers with no bathrooms and service cords and hoses around me in a established community either .

    • Bob H says:

      Very well put. Small & tiny houses are great. However most of what we see can not be classified as a house. These are classified as RV’s and should be treated as such. Lots of people live very nicely in there RV, Campers or park models in a park with no worries from the code inspectors.

  8. Cheryel Grundy says:

    I’ve been folloewing Dee for a few years now… and find her lack of personal belongings unsettling… The is nothing there! I think she is a fraud… Just saying…

  9. Sam says:

    I hate to leave a comment like this here but Jay Shaffer claims that you cannot build a tiny house for under 10,000 dollars. I am currently building a tiny house with my own plans and designs with a 7,000 dollar budget. he claims that Dee Williams has done it the cheapest so far. She has no plumbing in her Tiny house and a composting toilet. I will have full plumbing in my house, it will be a park model style due to having a family of 4 living in it. I see the tiny house movement as a good thing but people are asking ridiculous prices for these homes. If I can do this with a smaller budget and make a larger home then most of the ones I see available there is someone making money hand over fist somewhere.

  10. mike says:

    Ive read about Dee for sometime now,,,and I hate to be critical at this time but she says the same thing over and over again,just because she built one house doesn”t mean shes an expert,,try to be a little creative Dee,, have more credentials on more what you can do and build something different for a change,, like Jay and Deek, they have more an imagination when it comes to building other projects…besides this isn’t your creation about your house, it’s Jays plans you used to build your own home….be more imaginative Dee!!!

    • Phil says:

      I think part of the accomplishment here is that she’s managed to live in the home for so long, overcoming rampant materialism in our society & the day to day ‘inconveniences’ of a space that small, translating both into freedom.

  11. Victor says:

    Wow, I commend Dee for doing this. I think that it is great that she thinks that way that she does. The house is tiny but it is all one really needs. No need at all to be frivilous with all that you have. It shows that someone can be happy with just the small stuff. More people need to be like Dee that is for sure.

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