When the University of Maine announced in spring 2020 that it would close for the semester in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Jennifer Jacques’s daughter Asha, a first-year at the Orono campus, came home unexpectedly early.
Unlike most parents, however, Jacques then had four people — herself, her oldest, her younger daughter and her toddler son, along with a loud dog and two cats — in a tiny house containing 660 square feet in a former garage in Orland.
“The teenager is living in the toddler’s room on a couch, and the baby’s back with me,” Jacques said. “It’s a little cozy right now.”
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For some Mainers living in tiny houses, the shelter-in-place orders due to the coronavirus stretched the limitations of their living quarters.
“In a larger house where there’s like a second floor and doors on everyone’s bedroom, I think people might find more privacy and it might be easier to support people’s boundaries,” Jacques said. “We’re all kind of on top of each other. It’s kind of hard to create and enforce that space.”
Jacques said her teenage daughter was experiencing some culture shock after experiencing the freedoms of college life, on top of transitioning to online learning in a small space with limited Internet access.
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“Online learning isn’t her forte, [especially] with a 2-year-old hollering in the background with an 11-year-old competing for your attention,” Jacques said. “That room doesn’t even have a door on it. That’s one thing about tiny house living is that there is no autonomy.”
However, many tiny house dwellers, Jacques included, said that their lifestyle has not made their quarantine experience any worse than it would have been otherwise. Despite some overarching similarities, though, the experience of living in a tiny house during a pandemic is as varied and diverse as the families themselves.
Tiny house families
Alan Plummer has been living in his 205-square-foot Chelsea tiny house for four years with his 45-pound dog. He sees advantages to living with few possessions during a pandemic.
“The big thing about tiny living is that it’s simple,” Plummer said. “I don’t have a lot of stuff. I don’t have a lot to clean and sanitize. I don’t have to be concerned with bigger [household] expenses.”
Living simply does come with disadvantages when it comes to storage, especially when you are trying to limit your grocery runs.
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“I have no pantry and no closets and only a small fridge with no additional freezer or root cellar or cellar at all,” Jacques said. “That means going to the store more often than I would like, maybe every seven days instead of two weeks.”
Plummer, on the other hand, said he is not wanting for space between him and his dog.
“I have plenty of space for all of the food that I need for a couple of weeks and then some,” Plummer said. “That being said if someone lives in a tiny house, they probably should have some kind of storage shed or a garage or something.”
Social distancing in tiny houses
Plummer, who still works outside of his home during the week as a code enforcement officer, said that the biggest challenge of the coronavirus era for him is social distancing, which would be hard even if he didn’t live in a tiny house.
“I don’t really look forward to the weekend because it’s just a lot of time to fill,” he said. “I like to be out and about.”
Christine and Mitchell Muehlhausen, who moved up to their 300-square-foot tiny house in Wayne with their two geriatric dogs, cat and seven chickens last June, feel that their lives haven’t changed much either.
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“We have actually tailored our life to live quietly,” Christine Muehlhausen said. “We like being home. I don’t know if this would work for a lot of people, but we’re doing alright.”
But managing conflict can be challenging for the relatively new tiny house dwellers, especially during the pandemic.
“When somebody gets on your nerves — and you know it happens to everybody — you don’t have as many escapes,” Christine Muehlhausen said. “You can’t say, ‘I’m done, I’m going to the store.’ That’s one thing I think is different for us. We’ve had a lot of practice in diplomacy.”
Those living in tiny houses with other people, like Jacques and the Muehlhausens, can agree on one thing: headphones are essential. Jacques said she bought her teenage daughter noise canceling headphones at the outset of the pandemic so she could “zone out from the household stuff that’s going on.”
The benefits of tiny house living during a pandemic
Tiny house dwellers in Maine have noted some universal advantages to their small experience.
Access to the outdoors, for instance, is a benefit for many. Even though many tiny houses are about the same size as city apartments, most are also located on large swaths of land with room to roam and garden without running into neighbors or passersby.
“We have a lot of acreage and yard work,” Christine Muehlhausen said. “We can go outside and get fresh air. We’re pretty spread out from our neighbors. I can imagine that would be more difficult in an apartment.”
Jacques, who has almost two acres of property, said that speaking with her friends in New York City, who live in a one bedroom apartment with their adult children, makes her “feel spoiled, almost.”
“I think if we were in an apartment in an urban setting where we couldn’t leave at all and had no outdoor space, that would be way more challenging,” she said. “Having access to outside space on our property feels very luxurious.”
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Another advantage is finances. Tiny house owners tend to own their houses and live with lower expenses. Even tiny house dwellers who have lost sources of income feel relatively secure.
Even Plummer, who rents his land from a friend, feels financially stable.
“The rent is very reasonable so that’s not a big expense for me,” Plummer said. “Because I own [my house] that’s taken care of. That expense of having to pay someone for a place to live is much less of a concern for me.”
Jacques is currently unemployed — she worked as a waitress in Blue Hill until the state shut down bars and restaurants in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — but she still feels financially stable because she owns her house and has few expenses. She said instead of charging her college-aged daughter rent, which she knows some families have had to do in order to make ends meet, she simply asks for help around the house.
The Muehlhausens are retired, but said if they had not made the decision to move into a tiny house almost a year ago, they said their finances might be rocky right now, too.
“If we hadn’t made this change a year ago, we’d be in big trouble,” Christine Muehlhausen said. “We have a military pension and so we’re living on a fixed income now. We planned accordingly to be on that income. My heart just breaks for everyone and what they’re going through right now.”