Detroit, better known as “Motor City,” was a pioneer of America’s bustling economy well into the mid-1900s. But in the face of a globalized economy and financial austerity, Detroit struggled to maintain its position as the center of the American automobile industry, leading to an outflux of more than half of the city’s original population and the disappearance of any source of economic prosperity. Despite what otherwise seems as a bleak future, “tiny homes” have made their way to Detroit with promises for a better future for the city and its people.

Today, Detroit is home to a little under 700,000 people, which is less than half of the city’s original inhabitants at the peak of its former glory. Previously known to be the heart of America’s automobile industry, Detroit was one of the country’s cities that took the full blow of the 2008 economic recession. With endless rows of abandoned homes, crime rates the highest in the United States, and severely inept infrastructure, Detroit’s citizens struggle to make ends meet.

With the departure of scores of local business, there were no tax dollars to continue paying for infrastructure, neither were there any jobs to sustain life in the decaying city. However, Cass Community Social Services‘ – a Detroit-based non-profit organization – a tiny home initiative seems to be a light at the end of the dark tunnel that Motor City has been driving through, helping Detroit’s people become homeowners.

Tiny home initiative in Detroit

Workers are seen changing shifts at the Ford factory in Detroit in the 1950s (CC: Library of Congress)

A tiny home is usually 250-400 square feet (76-122 meters) and roughly 7.5 feet wide, 18 feet deep, and about 10.5 feet high (2.2 meters wide, 5.5 meters deep and 3.2 meters high), leaving tiny home owners with approximately 125 square feet (38 square meters) to inhabit – or the size of about four double mattresses laid down. As limited as their space may be, these tiny homes are growing in popularity – and not just because of their low cost.  

Because of Detroit’s economic hardships, many of the city’s homes were abandoned and left to decay, leading to scores of homes being torn down. But with the rise of these tiny homes, many of Detroit’s low-income individuals and homeless, who previously could not own a home, have expressed interest in owning one.

The way that the tiny home initative works is that for every square meter, homeowners-to-be will pay a dollar per square foot in “rent.” Along with taking monthly financial literacy classes and participating in their neighborhood watch program, home-owners will continue to pay “rent” until they officially purchase their homes after an average of seven years. What this points to is how tiny homes can substitute – not replace – conventional housing, which was previously inaccessible to most of Detroit’s people for one reason or another.

A tiny home in Detroit

A row of tiny houses in Detroit (CC: NowThis)

While the rise of tiny homes in Detroit can be attributed to the city recent hardships, other cities around the United States have begun considering building tiny homes with hopes of making homeownership easier. In cities like Reno and Lehi, talks of the development of tiny houses and even tiny house “villages” are underway. Tiny homes are often seen as a response to growing homelessness in American cities. However, they also allow the elderly to downsize their houses while maintaining an appropriate living standard, as well as for millennials who cannot otherwise afford to purchase a house.

Despite the rise of tiny houses as an alternative solution to one of the many difficulties the city continues to face, Detroit’s housing crisis is a complex issue that is far from being resolved. In 2013, the city did the inevitable and declared bankruptcy, resorting to government bailouts just to be able to pay governmental employees. And while Detroit and its people have a long way to go in light of this declaration, these tiny houses seem to be contributing to a tiny yet forceful move towards a Detroit of tomorrow.