The housing crisis isn’t just a big city problem. Rural areas also don’t have enough homes — for example, California’s Imperial County has one of the highest rates of overcrowded homes.
The causes of the rural housing crisis are similar to the cities: restrictive zoning, low wages, and homebuilding not keeping up with job growth.
The solutions are similar, lower cost types of housing need to be legalized. There’s no need for highrises, when small buildings can do it cheaper. These types of Missing Small Housing can also be used in cities and suburbs to provide cheap housing on leftover bits of land.
Accessory Dwelling Units & Junior Accessory Dwelling Units
Accessory dwelling units (ADU’s) became popular in California in the late 2010s as local and state laws were changed to allow more homes to be added without changing the appearance of a neighborhood. Unlike a regular duplex or triplex, the additional ADU homes are limited in size (often no larger than a modest 2-bedroom home), and cannot be sold separately. Some cities have additional restrictions, for example, limiting ADUs to a single story, or requiring they be designed to match the house.
Also known as in-law units (as they’re sometimes used as housing for a relative), in practice ADU’s house all sorts of people. Some homeowners move into the ADU and rent out the main house. This is especially popular with retirees who want the income from rent and a new, fully accessible home without stairs. Recently, cities such as San Jose and Los Angeles have pre-approved ADU plans that any homeowner can use.
As families typically have more than one set of in-laws, and many suburban lots are quite large, in 2019, California started allowing a second ADU on each lot, known as a Junior ADU. The difference between a regular and a junior ADU is that a JADU has to be mostly converted from existing space, while a regular ADU can be a freestanding new building.
Boarding & Rooming Houses
Boardinghouses were common in the US from the 1800s until the 1950s, and were a popular first stop for people moving from farms to the city. Ranging from a single room rented out by a homeowner up through converted mansions and purpose-built residential hotels, they offered cheap housing and food (food prep used to a larger part of people’s budget and time). Boardinghouses were also a common business for women living independently to run.
The difference between a boarding house and a rooming house is that a boarding house provides food (room & board) while a rooming house does not.
Political pressure from religious organizations and “reformers”, coupled with the decline in city population when suburbs were built, led to a decline in the popularity of boarding houses. Some still exist today, under a variety of models, including home shares, shared rentals where the landlord usually lives elsewhere (such as co-living), communes, and other intentional communities.
In some cities, larger rooming houses are banned, for example, Boulder, Colorado bans more than 3 unrelated people from living together. Recently, the Bedrooms are for People movement has been working to repeal that law.
Small Lot Subdivisions
Why should someone need to buy 6,000 square feet of land if they only want 1,000 square feet of house?
Lots in America are large. In Los Angeles, a typical lot is 7,500 square feet (50'x150') while in outer suburbs, half acre lots (21,780 square feet) or larger are common. Even dense cities such as San Francisco, where houses are built right up to the property line, have lots that are 2,500 square feet.
Given that a three-bedroom home has just 1,200 square feet of building, there’s room for more than one home. Multi-unit buildings are one option, however, many people prefer to own a house rather than a condo. Separate houses are also cheaper to build and easier to finance.
Enter LA’s Small Lot Subdivision ordinance. Passed in 2005, it allows lots to be divided into multiple lots as small as 600 square feet. Other cities have followed, with Denver revising its zoning code in 2010 to allow rows of townhouses on a lot, known locally as slot homes.
One drawback of this design is that because most lots are long and narrow, the result is that the buildings face sideways. This means that from the street, one sees a bunch of dead-end driveways and side walls. This led to Denver banning them in 2018.
But perhaps the problem is that we’ve been doing this piecemeal. Continue the slot through the backyard and to the other side of the block, and the dead-end driveway becomes a street that all the homes face onto.
So named because they stick out like a nail, typically nail houses are small buildings where the owner refuses to sell to make way for a large construction project such as a highway or a large building. Many of them eventually sell once offered a high enough price. However, some stick around because it turned out that their piece of land wasn’t absolutely necessary.
Modern development leave behind lots of leftover odd-shaped strips of land. Without enough flat area for a conventional house, they end up being useless landscaping that costs money to maintain, but has no recreational value. This would be a great spot for new small-lot homes.
Mobile Homes / Manufactured Housing
While the Communist countries went with concrete panel apartments for mass producing housing after World War 2, the United States, with better roads, went with the mobile home. Mass produced in indoor factories, manufactured housing could be built cheaper and better than homes built on site outdoors.
While early mobile homes were narrow and cramped, construction of the interstates and other road widening made it possible to move buildings 14 feet or wider — wide enough to have a hallway and a bedroom. Later on, double wide and triple wides created homes equal in size and shape to regular housing.
At their peak in the mid-1970s, manufactured homes made up more than 1 in 4 new homes, and almost the entire starter home market. However, NIMBYism and fewer financing options led to a decline in manufactured housing sales. Still, even today, there are over 8 million mobile homes in the USA — one out of every 17 homes, housing more families than all large 50+ unit buildings.
Some mobile homes are located in purpose built mobile home parks, which with their narrow streets and smaller yards, are more land efficient than regular suburban subdivisions. One affordability problem though is where residents have to rent the land their home sits on, putting them at risk of rent increases, and making it hard to build up home equity that can be used to trade up to other housing. In the late 2000s, mobile home residents in New Hampshire led reforms to create resident-owned communities, where the homeowners own the land, and are now able to get low cost federally-backed mortgages.
As Latinos won more elected offices in California, the farmworker housing shortage got attention. In 1992, Richard Polanco, an assemblymember from LA, introduced AB3526, the Farm Labor Housing Protection Act. Known as the Polanco Bill, it allowed employee housing with up to 12 homes to be built on farms. Few farmers did, but entrepreneurs & farmworkers figured out a way to use the new law to build small trailer parks, which they called polancos.
While they provided low-cost housing, some polancos were built without adequate utilities, causing problems such as sewage backups or undrinkable water.
After a series of electrocutions & fires, Riverside County tried to shut down the polancos. Residents and activists fought back to save their homes, some were able to convince the government to provide funds to pay for proper water & power connections.
In 2020, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia introduced AB2778, a bill to allow polancos to expand from 12 to 50 homes. This would create the economies of scale needed to modernize utilities. While it got put on hold due to the pandemic, similar legislation in the future could help solve rural California’s housing crisis.
Like regular manufactured housing or mobile homes, tiny houses are built on a trailer chassis and can be moved over roads from factory to homesite. One key difference is they are smaller — typically, they are the size of a studio apartment or a small one-bedroom. As a result, they are shorter than a regular mobilehome — 20–30 feet long, instead of the 40+ feet.
This makes is possible for them to fit on lots that already have a house. Fresno, California was one of the first cities to permit tiny houses to be placed on single-family lots in 2016. The next major city to follow was San Jose, CA in 2020. The San Jose ordinance allows tiny houses up to 400 square feet.
In 2021, Portland, Oregon is also considering a large scale tiny house legalization. Portland’s proposal would also allow groups of tiny houses, where residents share outdoor space and other facilities.
Another advantage of tiny houses vs. regular manufactured housing is that their small size makes it easier to move one — a regular trailer hitch and vehicle is all that’s needed.
Invented by nomadic people in Central Asia, yurts are portable structures with fabric over a wood frame. They can be assembled in a matter of hours.
While designed for mobility, yurts can also be used in permanent locations. In Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, more than half the population lives in ger districts. In addition to homes, these districts also have bathhouses, public toilets, and other shared amenities.
Recently, a modern take on the yurt has been invented — the Hexayurt. Like the original, they are designed to be portable and fold flat for easy transport. Heaxyurts are made using foam insulation panels.
Cottages, Cabins, and other Accessory Buildings
One cause of housing shortages is the conversion of regular homes into short-term vacation rentals. To help redirect vacation rentals to a separate building type, in 2018, Berkeley, California legalized accessory buildings, allowing homeowners to add a guestroom with its own bath, but no kitchen. These Accessory Buildings are allowed in addition to the Accessory Dwelling Units (which have full kitchens and are intended for permanent residents) that a house can have.
In countries where most people live in apartments, such as Russia, cottages are also popular as weekend or vacation homes. In this case, people will have an apartment in the city close to work, and a cottage outside of town. This lets city dwellers have yards, without having the problem of rush hour traffic and all the suburban highways needed to support it.
In Western countries, RV parks have a similar role as a low cost rural home for city dwellers. There are also people who “fulltime” in RVs, living in them year round, sometimes moving from city to city for work or recreation.
What’s stopping us from building more Small Housing?
Opposition to missing small housing is typically anti-poor NIMBYism, sometimes using excuses such as traffic or utility capacity concerns. Both of these are false excuses. Working class residents are less likely to be doing standard 9–5 commutes to downtown office jobs, and improvements in energy and water efficiency standards mean that new homes only use a fraction of power and water that neighborhoods were originally designed for.
In places not yet connected to the electric or water grids, clustered villages of Small Housing along existing roads and utility lines can keep new infrastructure costs low while also reducing the impact on farmland or the environment.