A tiny home takes shape in New York, but it’s unlikely to stay

Miko Mercer would seem to be a good candidate for a tiny house — single, tidy, 5-foot-3. And indeed
Miko Mercer, 30, with the tiny home she is building in a warehouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Miko Mercer, 30, with the tiny home she is building in a warehouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Miko Mercer would seem to be a good candidate for a tiny house — single, tidy, 5-foot-3. And indeed she has joined the Tiny House Movement that has swept the country the last several years.

The salvaged windows of her little home do not, however, look out onto a misty forest, or a community garden.

They look out on cinder-block walls.

For the last year, Mercer, 30, has been building a 160-square-foot house in a cavernous warehouse in Brooklyn. Mercer works at Birchbox, a startup in Manhattan that sends people personalized beauty samples, and after work and on weekends, she often bikes to the warehouse on an industrial stretch of Bergen Street, where it is flanked by an auto body shop and a wood shop.

“The guys at the auto body shop think it’s funny,” Mercer said. “They’re like, ‘Wow, you’re building that all by yourself?’ ”

Tiny houses, generally defined as homes smaller than 400 square feet, often built on wheels, first appeared in the early 2000s and have become mainstream since the 2008 recession. They offer the thrill of homeownership without the burden of a mortgage, and their resemblance to actual houses has helped lift the stigma long attached to compact, economical housing alternatives — like trailers, studios and single room occupancies, or SROs.

Fascination with the homes has spawned a minor industry. Television camera crews follow intrepid souls as they “go tiny” while blogs, books and podcasts chronicle “the build,” the move — and when things go wrong, the divorce, the theft. People post and share tiny house photos with the same passion they have for cat videos; there is a photo blog called Cabin Porn.

Mercer is building her house in Brooklyn, but probably will not live in it there. It’s on a trailer, and when she is done, she will tow it away, possibly upstate, where a tiny house colony for techie types and a left-leaning tiny house collective have appeared.

In New York City, the trend toward living small takes the form of the micro-apartment. The city recently waived its 400-square-foot minimum for residential dwellings for a developer in Kips Bay, which offered 14 below-market units, each roughly half the size of a subway car; 60,000 people applied. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently approved affordable housing plan has opened the way for more such units.

But tiny houses are not popping up in New York City. It is too densely built, said Ryan Mitchell, who runs the blog The Tiny Life. There is no room. Moreover, tiny homes are often built on wheels and classified as recreational vehicles to slip by minimum-square-footage requirements. That solves one problem but raises another: In many places, you’re not allowed to live in an RV; and in New York, it’s harder to hide.

“I don’t know anyone who lives in a tiny house in New York City,” said Tim Tedesco, one of the organizers of the NYC Tiny House Enthusiasts group on Meetup.com.

Of the group’s 270 members, only about 10 have tiny houses. One lives in a century-old cottage on Staten Island that predates the 400-square-foot minimum, which was enacted in 1987; others have tiny houses outside the city and visit, or commute. Tedesco recently sold his 190-square-foot tiny house in Stony Brook, New York — to go on the road with a 35-square-foot microhouse.

Last year, the average price of an apartment reached a new high of $1.7 million in Manhattan, surpassing its last peak, in 2008, before the housing market collapse. “In New York, if you want to buy, you have to couple off, unless you have an inheritance,” Mercer said. “This is a conceivable way to do it with a single income.”

She estimates her tiny house will cost around $30,000.

Simplifying was easy.

But she had never used a power tool.

When Mercer decided to go tiny, she was dating a furniture maker, Stephen Muscarella (they have since broken up, and he has started a cast-iron skillet company). “I don’t want the story to be about a girl whose boyfriend is a carpenter who built a house for her,” Muscarella said. “It wasn’t like that.”

Mercer would study each step of the building process, he said, and then “I could come in and teach her how to use the tools to make it happen.”

“She got it right away,” he added.

She planned with exactitude.

She went with new lumber, not used wood, but she had every cut planned so she wouldn’t waste anything. (Her wood scraps easily fit under the lip of her trailer.)

She found recycled denim insulation, windows from an old farmhouse.

And from the model on her laptop, a real, solid house appeared.

Which makes it sound easy.

“On TV,” Mercer said, “it’s all about the drama of reducing their shoes or whatever and then 10 big guys come and build it in 10 days and there’s a big reveal and it’s over. And I’m like here nailing the shingles on my house, by myself, by hand, taking months.” She laughed.

This spring, she will add the roof and everything inside. Then the search begins for a place to park. She has considered Far Rockaway, Montauk and points north, within biking distance of a commuter train. Though a weekend retreat might be “the more reasonable plan,” she said, “I want to live in it.”

“That’s the idea,” she continued. “I want to live in it and have it be in nature and not in a concrete warehouse.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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