Why it's becoming cool to live in your car – or a 150-sq. ft. apartment

High housing costs have prompted some in the middle and upper classes to rethink what they value – and be willing to give up the rest.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Shawna Nelson gives a tour of the back of her Ford Explorer, decked out like a bedroom, on July 20 at a lot in Woodland Park in Seattle. Ms. Nelson, an office manager at a land-use company in nearby Mill Creek, Wash., has been living in her truck for about a year. "Would I rather spend $1,200 on an apartment that I'm probably not going to be at very much, or would I rather spend $1,200 a month on traveling?" she says of her lifestyle choice. "And I was like, 'Well that's an easy decision for me.'"

When Shawna Nelson leaves her office in Seattle’s suburbs, she does what 28-year-olds often do: dines with friends, goes out dancing, or sees a show. Sometimes she hits her swanky gym.

But at the end of the night Ms. Nelson always returns to Dora, the dusty Ford Explorer she calls home. In the back, where a row of seats should be, lies a foam mattress covered with fuzzy animal-print blankets. Nelson keeps a headlamp handy for when she wants to read before bed. Then, once she’s sure she won’t get ticketed or towed, she turns in for the night.

“I still strive to have some sort of routine,” says Nelson, who started living in her car about a year ago. “Would I rather spend $1,200 on an apartment that I’m probably not going to be at very much, or would I rather spend $1,200 a month on traveling?”

For her, it was an easy choice.

She’s not alone. As housing costs soar, US communities have faced ballooning homelessness, declining homeownership, and tensions over gentrification. But the rising expense of homes, when combined with the demographic, cultural, and technological trends of the past decade, has also prompted a more positive phenomenon: smaller, leaner living. This conscious shift, mainly among portions of the middle and upper classes, springs from a desire to live more fully with less.

For some it means choosing tiny homes and “micro-apartments” – typically less than 350 square feet – for the chance to live affordably in vibrant neighborhoods. For others, like Nelson, it means hitting the road in a truck or van, communing with nature and like-minded people along the way. Proponents range in ages and backgrounds, but they all share a renewed thirst for alternatives to traditional lifestyles like single-family homes, long cherished as a symbol of the American dream.

“I think fundamentally it comes down to a shift in perception about the pursuit of happiness – how it doesn’t require a consumerist lifestyle or collection of stuff,” says Jay Janette, a Seattle architect whose firm has designed a number of micro-housing developments in the city. “They’re not really living in their spaces, they’re living in their city.”

Prioritizing experiences over stuff

John Infranca, a law professor at Boston’s Suffolk University who specializes in urban law and policy, says the phenomenon is driven largely by Millennials, who have been the faces of both the affordable housing crisis and the shift to minimalism.

Research shows that the 18-to-35 cohort continues to rent at higher rates than previous generations: 74 percent lived in a rental property in 2016, compared to 62 percent of Gen Xers in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. And while the Millennial desire to not buy homes tends to be overstated – studies suggest many want to own, but often can’t afford to – they do prioritize experiences over stuff.

They aren’t the only ones. Spending on experiences like food, travel, and recreation is up for all consumers, making up more than 20 percent of Americans’ consumption expenses in 2015. (In contrast, the share for spending on household goods and cars was in the single digits.) Baby-boomer parents, downsizing as they enter retirement, find that their grown children are uninterested in inheriting their hoards of Hummels and Thomas Kinkade paintings. The same “live with less” logic has begun to extend beyond stuff to the spaces these older adults occupy.

“There is some cultural demand for simpler living,” says Professor Infranca. “And by virtue of technology, we are able to live with a lot less.”

It’s a distinct moment for a culture that has long placed a premium on individual ownership and a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, Mr. Janette and others say.

“I think the recession changed the playing field for a lot of people,” notes Sofia Borges, an architect, trend consultant, and lecturer at the University of Southern California. “Job security, homeownership – a lot of that went out the window and never really returned. When a change like that happens, you have to change your ideas a little bit too.”

Growing culture of minimalism

That was certainly the case for Kim Henderson, who was a marketing manager making more than $80,000 a year before the recession. “I never again found a job like I had [before 2008],” says Ms. Henderson, now in her 50s. “When they were available, they went to younger people.”

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Kim Henderson plays with her dog, Olive, on Aug. 12 in her apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Ms. Henderson, who moved into the 175-square-foot unit about a year ago, says downsizing has been good for both her soul and her savings account. “There’s an energy you get from purging,” she says. “I have more money in my pocket and less things.”

Today Henderson makes about $37,000 a year as an executive assistant to a bar owner and lives in the Bristol Hotel, a mixed-use apartment building in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Her studio, which she shares with her small dog Olive, is 175 square feet – the equivalent of about four king-size beds. The walls are covered in framed artwork that Henderson collected from thrift shops and friends. An apartment-sized fridge and a fold-out couch are her largest possessions.

“It’s the same exact lifestyle [I used to live], just with less things” – and more money in her pocket, she says.

Henderson pays $685 a month including electricity – a bargain for Los Angeles, where studios average $1,500. She can save money and still have enough disposable income to eat out and travel, she says. But at least as important is the sense of liberation. “There’s an energy you get from purging,” Henderson says. “You don’t need six towels. You don’t need a ton of dishes. You pick the things out that you really want to keep in the ‘useful’ category.”

The sentiment is in keeping with a growing culture of minimalism. Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which urges people to keep only those things that “spark joy,” has sold 1.5 million copies in the US alone. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, also known as The Minimalists, have also helped take the notion mainstream with a podcast, website, bestselling books, and documentaries.

There are other forces at play, too. Digital access to resources makes living lean more feasible, says Infranca at Suffolk. Henderson, for instance, doesn’t own a car, relying instead on ride-sharing services or her own two feet to get around. And because she lives downtown she’s closer to the amenities and establishments she loves.

“It’s a value proposition,” says David Neiman, whose Seattle design firm focuses on small-efficiency dwelling units, which start at 150 square feet. “I could live for the same price in a central location in housing that’s clean, has internet, and I can walk to work and exciting things. Or I can live farther away, have more space, and it’s in a secondary neighborhood and I have to drive.”

$20,000 tiny house 

Instead of renting a micro-unit in an urban center, filmmakers Alexis Stephens and Christian Parsons decided two years ago to build their own 130-square foot house and load it onto the bed of a U-Haul. They then set off across the country in a bid to live more simply and sustainably, travel, and invest in their own place – all while documenting the experience.

The Tiny House Expedition has since become a thriving enterprise. Ms. Stephens and Mr. Parsons have interviewed tiny house advocates and dwellers across 30,000 miles and 29 states. At a sustainability festival outside Seattle in July, they sold T-shirts and copies of the book “Turning Tiny,” a collection of essays they contributed to. They gave tours of their home. And they answered questions about building and living in a tiny house, touting its potential as an affordable, sustainable, and high-quality alternative lifestyle.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Christian Parsons stands inside the entryway of his tiny home on July 22 at a local sustainability festival at Shoreline Community College in Shoreline, Wash. Mr. Parsons built and shares the home with his partner, Alexis Stephens, and together they travel the country documenting tiny home communities.

“People are empowering themselves to build housing options that work for them that are not available in the market,” Stephens says.

Tiny homes can range from about 100 to 300 square feet and cost between $25,000 to $100,000, give or take. Stephens and Parsons built theirs using reclaimed material for about $20,000, and it comes with a loft for a queen-sized bed, a compost toilet, walls that double as storage, and shelves that turn into tables. For those with more lavish tastes, vendors like Seattle Tiny Homes offer customizable houses – complete with a shower and a washer and dryer – for about $85,000.

“You aren’t downgrading from a traditional home,” says founder Sharon Read. “It can have everything you want and nothing you don’t want.”

Those who would rather not lug around a whole house while they travel, however, have turned to another alternative: #vanlife. The term was coined in 2011 by Foster Huntington, a former Ralph Lauren designer who gave up his life in New York City to surf the California coast, living and traveling in a 1987 Volkswagen Syncro. His photos, which he posted on Instagram and later compiled in a $65 book titled, “Home Is Where You Park It,” launched what The New Yorker dubbed a “Bohemian social-media movement.”

The hashtag has since been used more than a million times on Instagram. “Vanlifers” drive everything from cargo vans to SUVs, though the Volkswagen Vanagon remains the classic choice.

“It’s definitely found a renewed zeitgeist,” says Jad Josey, general manager at GoWesty, a Southern California-based vendor of Volkswagen van parts. “The fact that you can be really compact and mobile and almost 100 percent self-sufficient in a Vanagon is really attractive to people.”

People like freelance photographer Aidan Klimenko, who has been living off and on in vans and SUVs for three years, traversing the US and South America.

“The idea of working so hard to pay rent – which ultimately, that’s just money down the drain – is such a hard concept for me,” says Mr. Klimenko. Vanlife, he adds, “is access to the outdoors and it’s movement. I’m addicted to traveling. I’m addicted to being in new places and meeting new people and waking up outside.”

Small living isn't that big a trend

Still, the movement to live smaller may not be as extensive as social media makes it seem, some housing analysts say. Zoning regulations – especially in dense urban areas – often restrict the number and size of buildable units, slowing growth among micro-apartments and tiny homes. Constructing or living in a tiny home or micro-unit can still pose a legal risk in some cities.

And by and large, Americans continue to value size. The average new home built in the US in 2015 was a record 2,687 square feet – 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973, according to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Living mobile isn’t all grand adventures and scenic views, either. Van dwellers say they’ve had to contend with engine trouble, the cold and the heat, and unpleasant public restrooms. And Henderson in Los Angeles says she once lived in an affordable micro-housing development that had a pervasive drug-dealing problem.

Still, those who have embraced leaner living say what they might lose in creature comforts, they gain in perspective and experience. In crisscrossing the country, Stephens and Parsons opened themselves up to the kindness of strangers. “It’s a nice reminder that as Americans we have so much more in common than we realize,” Stephens says. They also spend more time connecting with others, instead of closeting themselves at home.

“Whether you’re choosing a van, a school bus, a tiny house, or a micro-apartment, you get a lot of the same benefits,” she says. “We need more housing options, period, in America. We’ve boxed ourselves in a very monolithic housing culture. We’re showing it’s OK to venture outside of that.”

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