LAS VEGAS — American homes are growing ever bigger, but a separate mindset is causing some to leave their possessions behind and embrace much smaller digs.

Minimalism is a movement away from excess and toward keeping only vital, important items.

Living a minimal life doesn’t necessarily mean ditching almost all possessions to live in a 200-square-foot home, but that’s exactly what some people are doing. Though it’s unclear exactly how many people live in tiny homes or variations of them, states like California have worked to make it easier for people to build these units. Awareness of tiny homes has picked up since the foreclosure-packed recession, with shows such as HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living” debuting in the years since to give people an inside look at what it’s like to live in these small spaces.

Some see these houses as investments on property they already own, putting them in backyards as rentals. As rents rise and cities become more dense, tiny homes are seen as another option for families and a potential solution to living in high-density, high-cost cities like Seattle.

In downtown Las Vegas, what started about three years ago as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s experiment of about 30 Airstream trailers and tiny homes has turned into a community that is now called Fergusons Downtown. It includes 15 Airstreams and tiny houses, seven micro-apartment units, a performance stage, pool, media room and shared kitchen, about a dozen dogs, three cats, an alpaca and many other features.

“The vision of this community is just really to create this incredible communal space where everybody lives in more of a tiny living situation but utilizes the community space to collaborate and have fun, and we all take care of each other,” said Brad Johnson, who, along with Jen Taler are Hsieh’s business partners. “We’re really a family.”

THE LIVING SMALL EXPERIENCE

Taler lives on the lot in an Airstream with her two cats. She said tiny living seemed daunting at first, considering her plentiful clothes and shoes, plus her pets.

“Even though I had an apartment that was a nice size, I was just never home,” Taler said. “I liked the challenge of paring down and being more minimal. I still have a lot to shed.”

Rigo Cardenas, an e-commerce professional selling items online and working from home, lived in a condo on the Strip before he moved into one of the community’s Airstream trailers in 2015. He said he’s lived next to these neighbors for almost three years.

“I would say hi to someone at the dog park … and they’re like, ‘Who is this weirdo?’ They look at you really strange,” Cardenas said of his condo complex. “Not just here but throughout the downtown community, everyone’s very friendly and has the same mindset with that logic. It spreads from here out to the rest of downtown, and that same type of mindset is what’s kept me here.”

Cardenas moved with the community to its new location, and says the cooperative atmosphere draws him more than the attempt to live a minimal lifestyle. He said he put most of his possessions into storage when he moved into the Airstream, and realized after a trip to Burning Man that he didn’t use or need the items often.

He decided to get rid of the storage unit and what was inside, including his snowboards, and says he regrets getting rid of just a few things.

Cardenas keeps winter clothes and items for Burning Man under his trailer. He uses mason jars to store his dry foods and laundry detergent. He said his living space is about 275 square feet.

“The Airstream has a lot of space, cubbies and stuff, that makes things really useful,” he said.

A SOLUTION FOR PACKED CITIES?

Martyn Hoffmann, CEO at Kasita, a company that builds prefab tiny homes, says the “modern micro home” startup company is eyeing the Reno market. He says housing is tight there, with an alarmingly low vacancy rate and growing populations of employees from companies such as Tesla and Google.

“There is a tremendous need for housing in Reno, and we see that as a market,” Hoffmann said.

The vacancy rate for rental units in the Reno and Sparks metro area was just under 1.2 percent in the second quarter of this year, according to a report by real estate appraisers and consultants Johnson Perkins Griffin. A Reno forecast report said the city’s apartment vacancy rate was 2.3 percent in the first quarter of 2016. Markets generally reach equilibrium at 5 to 7 percent, the report said.

“Rates below 5 percent indicate demand for new inventory, especially with growing rents,” according to Denver-based consulting firm Economic & Planning Systems Inc. “A vacancy rate of 2.3 percent indicates that vacant units are likely just a result of turnover of renters, which means there is essentially no vacancy in the market.”

Kasita recently received state licenses to sell its product in Texas, California and Nevada, and its 352-square-foot unit units are rolling off the line now, Hoffmann said. A Kasita recently installed in Austin took six hours to become livable from the time it left the factory. The state-level permitting means building inspectors do not need to inspect the unit.

“The amount of time it’s taken us to get through the state-level permitting has been significant,” Hoffmann said. “That has caused us to not get to market as fast as we would have liked to, but now the gates are open.”

The Texas-based company is also looking to expand to higher-density projects, essentially stacking the units as high as four stories to create complexes of 50 to 60 tiny homes. The company is looking at pursuing this type of project for the downtown Reno core, where Kasita would likely own the project and lease it to a technology company for its employees.

TINY LIVING COSTS

The switch to a tiny home isn’t exactly a bargain, said Cardenas, the Airstream resident.

“If you’re looking at price per square foot, it’s not cheaper,” he said. “But I think . it’s how you take the value of being here. If someone’s like, wow, 300 square feet, you’re paying X amount of money, that’s crazy, you can get a house for this price — well that’s not what you’re looking at. You’re looking at the value of what is creating happiness here.”

Prices depend on product, level of finish, and add-ons, said Hoffmann of Kasita, but the units generally start at $95,000 and can reach $139,000.

Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. lists units for sale on its website as low as $65,000 and more than $80,000.

“We are developing a new product that people are not familiar with,” Hoffmann said. “They oftentimes confuse manufactured housing with a standard mobile-home-park type house that is on a chassis, and what we’re doing is something of significantly higher quality and significantly higher design, (with) finished materials and appliances. So it’s much more of a permanent structure, with very thick walls and very good soundproofing and very good insulation.”

THE FUTURE

Taler and Johnson said they are about 90 percent done with plans to develop the rest of the city block. The entrance to Fergusons Downtown is marked by a vertical big rig installation by artist Mike Ross, and the goal is to turn the area into a kind of oasis possibly fed by underground water tanks.

The next phase of work will focus on the entrance and is expected to take about six months, and the third phase will occur next to the residential portion. There, Taler and Johnson say the goal is to rent to travelers, and perhaps eventually fill the space with longer-term renters.

“Millennials and people who are traveling now, they want to truly engage and have those experiential trips so then you know where the locals hang out,” Taler said.


Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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YVONNE GONZALEZ
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