Living 11 years in 84 square feet: What one woman's tiny house taught her

It's been 11 years since Dee Williams settled her newly-built house onto an expansive backyard shared between two other homes in Olympia, Wash.

The communal arrangement allows her to watch the neighbor's children play, help out nearby residents with projects and spend time with friends Hugh O'Neill and Annie McManus, who own the land.

The home has been specifically designed for her, and was even outfitted with solar power.

It is also 84 square feet.

(Williams sleeps in a loft above a living room the size of a large rug.)

"I used to have a big house, a three-bedroom down in Portland, Ore.," she said. "I was pretty good friends with my neighbors, but there's something different about when you step out the door and you're sharing space. My garden is our garden. I love that, that little difference of what it's like."

Williams is one of a growing group of people who choose tiny homes as a way to live without frills. She had only 305 possessions when the New York Times profiled her in 2014. Her bathroom has a composting toilet. Her stove is a single propane burner, her sink outfitted with a jug for catching waste water.

There are established tiny communities in Washington, Oregon and North Carolina, but the Atlanta movement is still in its infancy. Will Johnston, who runs the 300-person group Tiny House Atlanta, said bringing tiny homes to Atlanta would attract those who can't afford expensive apartments and homes in the metro's most popular areas.

"Here you have this group of people, successful 30-somethings to 50-somethings in these neighborhoods, but millennials and older people can't live there," he said. "If I only had to spend $400 a month (on rent) and I only make $2,000 a month, that's a better life than working my keister off for $1,200 a month and I only make $3,000 a month."

Johnston said he doesn't know of existing tiny homes within city limits. The Atlanta group is hoping meetings with city council will open residents to the idea of urbanized tiny homes, such as mini-condos with bike racks instead of parking lots.

But the movement is more than just downsizing possessions, Johnston said. It's also about sustainability outside your home — finding alternate means of transportation, living cooperatively with your neighbors.

"I'm challenging people — yes, you want a tiny house, but what else do you want besides the tiny house?" Johnston said. "Do you want a community garden? What other entities do you want to add to this equation to make sure you're building a solution to what you want in life?"

Williams echoed this: Living tiny and relying on her neighbors for amenities like showers and ovens keeps her ego in check, she said.

"Not having water puts me on par with most of the earth's population, and that little dose of humanity is really good for me," she said. "You get busy. You forget that there's this other part of humanity that's struggling. As I'm dragging water from one spot to the next, I'm reminded that I'm doing the same thing many others are doing."

But humility is not the only thing Williams gains by owning a tiny home. After she suffered a heart attack at 40, doctors diagnosed her with cardiomyopathy, Williams told the Times. The last thing she wanted to worry about was a mortgage. So she made her home largely out of recycled materials.

It cost $10,000 to build, including the solar panels.

 "In my heart of hearts, it was exactly what I needed at the time and it continues to be what I need," she said. "My parents, who live in the Midwest, they have an area where they have a piano, and as far as I can tell, no one ever plays that piano. All of that is based on the idea of reselling the home, the idea of 'what would someone else want?'"

That lesson avoiding traditional trends that don’t suit personal needs is one Williams said can be learned even without downsizing. She urges clients at her business, Portland Alternative Dwellings, to prioritize experiences over stuff.

"I think a lot of people think that moving toward a tiny house is going to make them happy, when going through what you have and getting rid of what you don't need can be good for people sometimes," she said. "Maybe what you have right now is exactly what you need."

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