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OPINION: The canary in the tiny house

by Cassie McClure | May 3, 2021 at 1:50 a.m.

When I left for college, I was proud that I could pack my life into my car. I stuffed everything that I needed — or thought I needed — into a 1988 Volvo 240. When I shoved my lava lamp next to a stack of shirts, I never for a minute dreamed that it would be considered cool to live in your car, a van or a tiny house originally dreamt up for Keebler elves.

In college, I heard rumors about some of the worn cars in various parking lots — those cars that never moved, that were always parked under a light or the larger branches of a tree. There were plenty of those beaters in the free lot near our on-campus apartments. Supposedly, the mummified windows hid students who slept inside. Every so often as I walked to class, I'd wonder whether I was glancing at someone's version of living room curtains.

It was anecdotal until one of the students I taught at that same university explained that she'd be living in her car. In tears, she pulled me aside in the stacks of the library and explained that she was trying hard but could only get so many hours at work — not enough for a deposit.

The New York Times reported on a 2019 survey of close to 167,000 college students by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia. Seventeen percent of community college students had experienced homelessness in the previous year. Half reported housing insecurity along with paying only part of their rent or utility bills, having worn out a welcome couch surfing or having slept in their cars.

Activist Jimmy McMillan III had it right. The rent is too damn high. But we as humans are many things, including adaptive.

There's been a proliferation of videos that extol the freedoms of van life and tiny houses, and I can't say that I'm immune to their charm. There's something about life on wheels that is all-American and alluring. There's a feeling of freedom in knowing that all you might need — at least temporarily — is scattered around your car.

But the older I get, there's an immense desire to have a toilet and shower that only have my germs on them. The videos allow me to live vicariously through those with the gumption to have a compost toilet they must empty. Sure, the views are great, but what does it mean when we return to a nomadic life in the age of technological progress? It may mean that some are getting left behind.

One van-life tutorial stood out. From the outside, it was a typical work van. Inside, it was a Pinterest-ready space with better countertops than I have. However, where I keep my coffee machine does not convert into my shower. What struck me is that he also has custom blackout curtains that made the van look like a "normal" company van, which allowed him to park in empty acres of office parking lots without trouble.

The uptick of van-life tutorials feels like a crafty canary in the coal mine. It feels like with every new tutorial, every inventive hack, we cover an affordable-housing problem with a sheepish shrug and start a narrative about the possibility of normalizing living in our cars instead of fixing our communities.

The younger generations might debate that on the grounds we may not ever truly own anything, and particularly on stolen land, it's better to opt out altogether and create a new American dream not bolstered by homeownership. Increasing rent, student debt and stagnant wages have all come together to whittle away our parents' dream, square foot by square foot.

Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma (sorry, Cassie), and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. Write to her at

[email protected]

Print Headline: The crafty canary in the tiny house

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