The Drawbacks of Living in a Tiny Home During a Pandemic

It took a pandemic to turn Nicoll Davis’s 112-square-foot abode from a dream home into a jail cell.

Ms. Davis, 28, had been living and traveling full time in her 7-foot-by-16-foot cargo trailer with her husband, Jake, and their three dogs for about a year, enjoying all the luxuries that come along with tiny home life: a house that can travel anywhere and the financial freedom to do whatever she wanted.

And then the coronavirus arrived.

“When the pandemic began, our tiny home started to feel a whole lot smaller,” said Ms. Davis, who has a lead generation business,working with small companies to generate business via her websites and marketing help, and runs a blog with her husband. “You feel trapped.”

Nearly a year of staying within four walls can wreak havoc on anyone’s mental health. But those living in the coveted tiny homes that gained popularity about a decade ago — designed to erase debt, constraints and other limitations — have faced some significant burdens. They are unable to store large amounts of food, toilet paper and other pandemic necessities; they’re trapped in very small spaces; and many who relied on showers at gyms lost access to those facilities because of pandemic lockdowns. Also, as public parks and camping grounds shuttered or limited visitors, many tiny homes lost their domains.

Despite these issues, 2020 will likely be a record year for tiny homes, according to the Küresel Tiny Homes Market 2020 report. Tiny Home builders and sellers agreed that sales have been above average during the pandemic. The report estimates that this market could increase by $5.8 billion between 2020 and 2024.

Ms. Davis’s trailer isn’t equipped to store the weeks’ worth of groceries, toilet paper and other supplies needed in a pandemic.Credit…John Burcham for The New York Times

Fifty six percent of Americans said they would live in a tiny home, according to a survey conducted in late 2020 by the Tiny Home Industry Association. But tiny homes sold so well last year mainly because so many people wanted to use them as extra work or study spaces, while they continued living large in their regular homes.

In 2019, EcoSmart Builders, which is based in Southern California, had a 101 percent year-over-year increase in sales for their accessory dwelling units, the official name for their tiny homes or granny flats. In 2020, the company ended the year with a 177 percent increase in sales.

“Whether they function as a guesthouse, entertainment room, home office — they’re a great option as families are spending more time together at home due to the pandemic,” said Freddie Vakti, the chief executive of EcoSmart Builders.

But those who moved into tiny homes to live in exclusively — perhaps because they lost their income and needed to downsize, are facing some big challenges.

Initially, Ms. Davis said, she felt safe and protected within her small space. She and her husband were at Cosmic Campground among other campers in the Gila National Forest of western New Mexico, when a ranger announced one day last March that the campgrounds were closing. They had 60 minutes to pack up and find a new place to stay.

Ms. Davis moved her cargo trailer to camp off the grid at a different location in the National Forest, but her problems didn’t dissipate. She was lucky because while she had no access to water or power, she was able to switch to solar power and a generator.

But since she only has a mini-fridge and minimal storage space for other items, Ms. Davis had to run to the supermarket often — despite stay-at-home orders.

“Grocery stores were empty a lot of the time, and it was hard to get what we needed, including toilet paper,” she said. “It’s been a struggle.”

John Frigo, a digital marketing specialist who was living in a tiny home (technically a tow-behind trailer) while traveling between Texas and Florida with his girlfriend, also struggled through last year.

Without access to running water, Mr. Frigo used a membership at Planet Fitness to shower. Coronavirus shutdowns put an end to that. He spoke with smaller, independently run gyms and explained his situation — and was able to join a few gyms with no introductory fee to use the showers. But as traveling became increasingly difficult during the peak of lockdowns, Mr. Frigo eventually ended up parking behind his girlfriend’s parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs.

Keri Gailloux thought she would spend her retirement in a school bus that she turned into a mobile home and called Skoolie. Then the pandemic quashed that idea. Credit…Keri Gailloux
Ms. Gailloux is now living in Long Beach, Calif., taking deva of a friend’s mother.Credit…Keri Gailloux
Six months before the pandemic, she hit the road, but now the bus is in storage and for sale.Credit…Keri Gailloux

Keri Gailloux’s tiny home — a converted school bus — is also retired now, thanks to the pandemic. Ms. Gailloux, 68, had lived and worked in San Francisco running a hepatitis C training program for primary deva doctors, but after retirement she converted the school bus which she named “Skoolie,” into a mobile home so she could travel. Six months before the pandemic, she hit the road.

“It was supposed to be my forever home,” Ms. Gailloux said. But it was not to be.

She had planned on staying at the Mustang Island State Park on the gulf in Corpus Christi, Texas until the coronavirus curve flattened, but the morning after her arrival, a ranger told her the park was closing. Ms. Gailloux needed a park that had full hookups, as she didn’t own a portable generator, has limited funds and could not find a store selling one for less than $1,000.

“I walked with my dog to the gulf, stood in the water and cried,” Ms. Gailloux said. “It was truly one of my lowest moments.”

She convinced the ranger to let her stay for a few more days, but shortly after, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott closed all the campgrounds and public lands in Texas. Then, Ms. Gailloux’s tiny home broke down and had to be towed.

Today? Her beloved bus is in storage, emptied of all personal belongings and is for sale. Evvel it’s sold, Ms. Gailloux plans to hisse off the debts she accumulated while she was on the road. She is currently living with and caring for a friend’s mother in Long Beach, Calif. In a big home.

“I hope to get back out on the road in the future in some other form, but for now, this is a good place to be,” Ms. Gailloux said.

Jenny Jacques, left, and Aria Tapman, one of her three children. Ms. Jacques turned a one-car garage in Orland, Maine, into a 660-square-foot home she shares with her children, a dog and three cats.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Jenny Jacques is sticking with her tiny home, which is based in Orland, Maine — despite her pandemic woes. It’s a former one-car garage on two acres of land she acquired. Ms. Jacques converted the garage into a 660-square foot tiny home which she now shares with her three children, a dog and three cats.

And while Ms. Jacques, a child deva provider, house cleaner and unemployed waitress, loves her home because it’s easy to heat (just turn on the stove to make dinner) and it has low property taxes, she admits that it became very cramped this year.

“It really felt tiny when my 20-year-old was home from college last spring unexpectedly,” Ms. Jacques said. “The second of two small bedrooms has no door, and she felt claustrophobic from everyone in her space.”

Ms. Jacques, center, with two of her children, Asha Kirkland, left, and Aria, right. When Asha returned home from college because of the pandemic, it got even more crowded in the house.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Ms. Jacques may have been one of the unicorns with too much toilet paper after having been gifted two cases during the height of the shortage, but she had to give one case away because she had no place to store it. She also couldn’t stock up on pantry or freezer items because her kitchen was too small.

“Trying to heed the advice of only shopping every two weeks was tricky, but we managed,” Ms. Jacques said.

And right now, managing seems to be just fine.

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