In a 32-by-10 trailer, Amanda and Andrew Riddles have made a tiny home for themselves and their three children in Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County.
Inside this newly built modern rustic farmhouse-style home, with large windows overlooking woods, the family enjoys the type of super-small living that's turning heads in the nation's housing market.
Once a trend dominated by middle-class families looking to trim their mortgage costs, as the Riddles have, tiny homes are getting a fresh look from housing advocates across the region as an answer to scarce affordable housing and growing homeless rolls.
In states that have created tiny home communities for low-income people, "they’ve been able to really, significantly shrink the number of the extreme homeless," said state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington.
Singleton has cosponsored a bill, S177, that would create a pilot program for tiny home communities, a place he envisions would get people struggling with homelessness off the streets for good.
"The examples we've seen around the country have been exceptional," said Singleton. "We think it's time for it to come to New Jersey."
In January 2018, there were at least 9,398 people experiencing homelessness in New Jersey, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homeless. Among them were 555 homeless veterans, according to the council.
States across the Northeast face similar problems. In 2018, Pennsylvania reported more than 13,500 homeless residents, Delaware more than 1,080 and New York nearly 92,000 homeless individuals, according to the council.
Want to stay in a tiny home to try it out, but don't want to commit to a purchase? Peak inside this tiny vacation home at Egg Harbor River Resort in Atlantic County.
Singleton said he would like to see such a tiny home pilot program used to help these people, especially homeless veterans.
The New Jersey bill, if passed, would enable up to two willing municipalities to temporarily suspend local zoning restrictions and allow the development of a tiny home community.
The homes would be rented to very low-income families or individuals. In return, the municipalities would receive credit toward their fair share affordable housing obligations — the number of affordable housing units the local governments are required to accommodate.
The bill would direct the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency to seek federal money to support the efforts.
Columnists: Most CPAs telling clients to relocate out of NJ
It's a concept embraced by Sue Harris, executive director of Port Hope Delaware Inc., a project that seeks to bolster self-sufficiency and self-respect for homeless and low-income people, the vehicle being affordable 200-square foot homes.
“We really needed to address the problem of affordable housing," said Harris. "This really needs to be looked at for a solution for a whole lot of people.”
Median gross rent in Delaware between 2013-2017 was $1,076, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Harris wants to rent tiny homes to low-income individuals for about a third that cost. Nearly 14 percent of Delaware's population lives at or below the poverty level, according to the Census.
Harris said housing costs in Delaware outstrip the incomes of many low-income older adults, people with disabilities and individuals with part-time jobs. These people often cycle in and out of the same homeless shelters but lack access to any housing that they can afford.
In contrast, tiny homes would make housing for these people truly affordable, she said.
Each can be built with about $8,000 worth of materials, plus a trailer, she said. Churches and local schools are often willing to donate the labor required for assembly, she added.
"(The program will) not only house people and clean up the streets, but these folks can change their lives," said Harris. "The more you’re independent and responsible for yourself, the more you become a better person and you want to change other parts of your life."
Leadership at Port Hope Delaware is looking for a community to place the tiny homes, but they have so far been met with resistance and zoning restrictions. In many places across the Northeast, minimum lot size requirements and existing housing codes make tiny homes illegal.
"We just want to create homes that people can afford," Harris said. “There’s such a need for it. … It’s becoming an issue where people are looking at different out-of-the-box solutions.”
Small scale living
Middle-income residents in some locales are embracing the movement.
Andrew Riddles, who shares the Egg Harbor Township tiny home with his wife and three children, was able to work less and spend more time with his family when the couple gave up their traditional home and chose to live small.
"For us, we'd rather have my husband home more," said 32-year-old Amanda Riddles, standing outside their tiny home, which the couple completed in January.
Neatly packed inside is the material of their lives: a crib for 11-month-old Angel folds against a wall in the bathroom. A high chair is tucked into a closet. A kitchen bench doubles to hold shoes for this family of five.
There's even a loft where Andrew Riddles, a pastor, prepares his sermons. The children — Zion, Judah and Angel — can crawl over the couple's bed to a hidden stairway, one that leads to a second loft and play area.
"You compromise space, but your quality of life is much better," said Amanda Riddles.
Andrew Riddles, 41, said the $170,000, 30-year mortgage on his former house would have cost the couple more than $480,000 by the time they paid it off. The calculation caused the family to rethink their living situation.
"How can we possibly become debt-free and free up time?" he said. "We had money, but we were time broke."
They chose to downsize, save money and win back more free time. Their new, tiny home cost just $35,000 to complete over five months using Andrew's knowledge of the building industry and Amanda's flair for decorating. The Riddles said they now spend far less time cleaning and have more free time for the family.
The benefits have outweighed the loss of space, they said.
"This is precisely what we need," said Andrew Riddles. "Everything was built specifically for the five of us."
"We're just kind of free to go wherever we want to go," Amanda Riddles said.
Hit with vacationers
Also in Egg Harbor Township, Bill Gross rents tiny homes to vacationers at the Egg Harbor River Campground Resort. He said people will pay a premium to stay in a tiny home over a traditional rental.
Inside the newly completed campground's tiny home, a loft bed is spaced over the bathroom and kitchen. Luxuries can be downsized compared to a traditional home. A hot plate takes the place of an oven in the kitchen. Headroom above the bed is low.
But for tiny home users, it is the experience that matters.
"I ask the people, 'Why would you pay $175 a night to stay in this (tiny) home, and I'll give you a whole home for $145?'" Gross recalls. "Ninety percent of the time, the answer is, 'We want to see what it's like to stay in a tiny home.'"
Kari Cooper understands the interest well. She spends part of the year living in a 700-square-foot apartment in Hackettstown, Warren County, but her true passion is spending weeks in a round, canvas-enclosed yurt.
"I’m crazy about yurts," said Cooper, 51. "I take them around to tiny house festivals, ecofestivals … and (love) talking about living lightly on the earth and going tiny."
Cooper, or "Yurt Grrl" as she is known within the tiny home community, advocates for the merits of the lifestyle.
"I love yurts because of how gentle they are on the earth, how easy they are to put up and maintain," Cooper said. "They can be made of so many fabulous materials, as far as recycling goes.”
A sudden, debilitating illness inspired Cooper to look into living small and cheaply, and the mission gave her a positive focus through her sickness. Soon, she was building her own frames for yurts with the help of a friend and learning to use power tools.
The illness "led me to a lot of things," she said, "like the tiny house movement.”
“When you’re staying in them, it feels like you're outside even when you’re inside," said Cooper. "They’re really portable."
The challenge to making tiny homes more available is restrictive zoning laws throughout the Northeast, said Cooper.
She along with members of the American Tiny House Association are working to change that. The organization's mission it to make tiny homes legal throughout the nation.
“You should be able to go to your local zoning or planning guy or gal in your township… (and say) 'what laws and zoning codes do I have to follow when I build my own tiny house,'" Cooper said.
It's a housing solution that Pastor Steve Brigham, an advocate for homeless individuals in Lakewood and Howell, wants to see embraced in New Jersey.
“It’s something our society needs," he said. "There’s a lot of people who are working jobs out there who can’t afford a place to live, especially at the Jersey Shore, an area where prices are so high."
Brigham said many towns create minimum home lot size requirements that discriminate against poor and lower-income individuals. He said there is a strong need for smaller, lower cost homes on smaller lot sizes.
"We need a place in every town where the zoning laws allow smaller homes to be built," said Brigham. "What the homeless and the poor want (is) they want to be normalized. They want to feel normal. They want to feel part of society."