They may be a key part of the solution to Maui’s housing crisis
Tiny homes can be attractive in many ways. Some are just plain cute, while most boast appealing economic and environmental benefits. Conservation-minded nature lovers, perhaps inspired by Thoroeau’s “Walden,” like the idea of shrinking their footprint while living outdoors, immersed in the natural environment. And the lifestyle they promote—simple, minimalist, Spartan, outdoorsy—has its own appeal, especially to younger couples starting out who don’t feel ready to be saddled with a house payment, or aren’t sure if they plan to stay put long enough to pay off a mortgage.
Tiny living’s not for everyone, but it could be part of the solution to the housing crisis that has driven up Hawai‘i’s real estate prices and rental rates at an accelerated pace for the past decade or more. The appeal is multifaceted, and yet the obvious downside of limiting your living space, in terms of storing treasured possessions—or enjoying any sense of personal privacy—can be a deterrent.
The simplicity of a downsized lifestyle and the uniqueness of the hand-built structures have a strong hipster appeal to millennials. But there’s a significant downside, too. Tiny house means tinier closet, so plan on shrinking your wardrobe. And forget about hosting dinner parties, game nights, big holidays, and overnight guests.
The average size of a new single-family home in the U.S. grew from 1,780 square feet in 1978 to 2,662 square feet in 2013. Home construction on Maui has generally followed that trend, as we have evolved into an international market where local home buyers are no longer just competing with their peers. Wealthy investors worldwide recognize Maui’s appeal and want to buy in. It’s hard for a working family to compete when market demand keeps driving up prices, and with a median home price hovering above $1.2 million, even modest properties have been pushed out of reach of local working class families.
Low-income housing projects get a lot of press when they are proposed, but often meet community resistance and can take decades to gain final approval and break ground. And when they are completed, the units are typically allocated by lottery years in advance.
For all of these reasons, the tiny house trend has taken hold in Hawai‘i. These trailer-mounted quasi-RVs are an especially good match for the islands’ rural districts.
We’ll define “tiny” as less than 1,000 square feet, although most are closer to half that size. Because they are mounted on wheels, off grid, and self-contained, they are not subject to building permits. However, they are treated like any other housing unit when it comes to zoning density.
Since they are, in essence, an RV or travel trailer, they must be properly registered with the DMV. In order to transport the home on public streets and highways on its way to its destination, the DMV requires a manufacturer’s certificate of origin, weight stamp, safety inspection, and the usual taxes and fees for title and registration. Once the home is in place, one could conceivably put the plates in storage with the DMV and avoid paying taxes until the next move.
The tiny house movement has roots as far back as the 1960s. Interest was renewed by the financial crisis of 2007-08. A generation disillusioned by their diminishing financial prospects further fueled its growth—not just as an affordable alternative for working families, but also for their potential as transitional housing for the growing unsheltered population.
Maui has been fertile ground for the movement, with several businesses now manufacturing or importing tiny houses of all kinds, from craftsman-style cabins built by hand out of imported timber, to homes made from used shipping containers.
Kamie Davis brought a tiny home with her from Idaho Falls when she moved here seven years ago to be close to her grandchildren. Her daughter married a local boy from Molokai and they are raising their kids on Maui.
“I saw his family…having to move off the island and I just wanted to be part of the solution,” said Davis. “People from the mainland can’t be greedy and buy [tiny homes] and then turn around and sell them for five times their value. It stays level. It’s a way to control the inflation.”
Davis has an evangelical air about her as she talks about all things tiny. Lately, she’s less focused on importing the homes themselves and more intent on securing land to create small communities where tiny homeowners who don’t have their own real estate can lease space. One such site is a residentially zoned parcel next to McDonald’s drive-in in Pukalani that Davis has negotiated to locate several units on. She envisions it as a temporary site for buyers to live and keep their tiny home until a permanent scenario manifests, so she’s talked the owner into offering short-term month-to-month leases for about $1,000 a month.
“The people who work at McDonald’s or Serpico’s or Ross, you know, they cannot afford an eight or nine hundred thousand dollar house,” she said. “There’s a breaking point, and people just start moving to Las Vegas and moving to Utah. They can’t take it any more. How many people are we going to lose?”
Tiny doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. The building cost per square foot is higher than four full-size houses. Maybe that seems obvious, since a bigger house enjoys a greater economy of scale, bringing down overall costs. But a tiny home still has to have amenities, just in a smaller space. You have to buy all of the large appliances, fixtures, air conditioning and whatnot that a full-size house requires. Add with the high cost of materials in Hawai‘i, even a fairly small, basic design could cost upwards of $100,000 in materials alone.
Davis remains undeterred. She recalls her most difficult challenge—delivering a house to Hana. “It took us 17 hours to get it there. It had to be followed by a forklift and it had to be lifted over all those bridges on every corner, and we had to have pilot cars the whole way. It took forever.”
“But the people living there, they had 18 people living in a one-bathroom house. And we delivered that house and everybody came out bawling their eyes out, they were so happy. We can make a difference.”
The owner of the Pukalani site which Davis is coordinating is now leasing space to two of Joey MacDonald’s buyers who’d had an agreement to place their prefab homes on property elsewhere that fell through. (A reminder to make sure you have a place to park a tiny home before you start shopping for one.)
In addition to building custom trailer homes, McDonald’s company, Aloha Tiny Hales, is one of several on-island that import prefabricated expandable container-shipped homes manufactured in China. His base model is a 20 x 20 ft. two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a full kitchen. A second model is twice the size at 800 sq. ft. and can be configured with up to four bedrooms.
Once removed from the container, both of the sides expand outward lengthwise, tripling the volume of the structure. The modular walls are painted stainless steel, but quite thin, and insulated with a core of styrofoam. The interior looks sleek and modern, but basic. The outside looks, well, prefabricated.
McDonald can deliver and install one of the smaller units for about $65,000. The larger 20’ x 40’ unit runs about $88,000 delivered, he said. Fully trimmed and finished with a corrugated roof, solar electric, appliances, and plumbing, it will set you back about $130,000. Still, not bad for a four bedroom.
McDonald was inspired by a conversation with Aunty Patty Nishiyama of Na Kupuna O Maui under the banyan tree in Lahaina one day, in which she lamented the housing problems faced by her niece and nephew. “I started looking into it and it’s friggin’ nuts, it’s just insane,” he said.
A former shop manager for Aloha Tiny Hales, James Bruggeman left to start his own business. Having started out building tiny homes for McDonald in Wailuku, he and his wife Tennille Chapa decided that they’d prefer to work for themselves and opened AAA Tiny Homes. They now have shops in Wailuku and Lahaina where the couple builds some of the most handsome tiny homes around, handcrafted from the axles up.
They also import a few compact container homes, including one with a pop-out, all-glass sunroom called the “Skyview” that James predicts will be their next big seller. He has it on special now, he said, for $44,000.
The smaller 20 x 10 “Honu” unit sells for $35,000, fully outfitted and installed. He has a couple of financing options with reasonable terms available. He also sells a 20’ x 20’ pull-out similar to those which MacDonald imports for about $40,000, including siding and an A-frame roof.
Seemingly driven more by passion than profit, James and Tennille are longtime advocates for the homeless and drive to Lahaina weekly to volunteer feeding the hungry. They view tiny homes as housing solutions for the low-income and homeless.
Bottom line, said Bruggeman, is that “the county needs to remove the restrictions that do not make sense and that they, themselves, don’t follow,” citing lax enforcement of existing laws. He’d start by lifting restrictions on agriculturally zoned land.
Davis agrees. She’d like to see the law changed to allow mobile housing for farmworkers, who are sometimes forced to sleep in tents, she said, simply because reasonably priced housing is unavailable.
Mandala Eco Homes is owned and operated by Paia shop owners Bruce and Satya Douglass, who rank among the island’s first tiny home enthusiasts, having begun importing bamboo kit houses from Southeast Asia more than 20 years ago. Their latest “Tiny Temple” homes on wheels, hand crafted in spectacular detail by Balinese woodworkers, are among the most beautiful tiny homes anywhere and cost about $130,000 delivered to Maui.
While a few builders on Maui are making tiny homes from scratch, to find manufacturers actively turning out finished homes in meaningful numbers, you have to set sail for Hawai‘i Island, where inexpensive land has made for fertile ground for the movement.
Paradise Tiny Homes currently has eight houses under construction, all of which are slated for sites on the Big Island, but two of the first five units they built were shipped to Maui. The inter-island trip by barge cost about $5,000 the last time they shipped one, but the rates can shift dramatically, so it’s important to consider that added cost when shopping for a house on wheels.
It was while on a road trip to a family reunion in Michigan that owners Dan and Ellie Madsen decided to partner in a tiny home building business. Dan had built a fairly basic tiny home previously, and Ellie was exploring interior design. “It just had a little kitchenette kind of deal and a sleeping quarters,” she recalled. “But it got me to thinking. I’d always wanted to build a tiny home for myself. So, we started talking about possibly getting into a project together.”
Returning home to Hawai‘i, they started the business in 2019. They sold the first tiny home they built to the first person who came to their open house, so they built two more just like it. They have now delivered five finished homes and have eight more under construction.
As part of the movement, Madsen feels an obligation to promote acceptance of tiny homes in the community. “One of the ways we do that is by building to the highest standards that we possibly know how to and also by making them beautiful so that people aren’t complaining about something ugly going in next door,” she explained.
In regards to the resistance, she’s pragmatic. “The more structures like this are out and about, the more they will be trying to regulate them, I would presume,” she admits. “But we are in a housing crisis. It’s not like they’re going out and giving people violations for having unpermitted structures and things…it would be a really cruel world if what they were up to right now is giving people violations for living in certain structures when we just don’t have the housing and this is a solution.”
Chad Unrein owns Mockingbird Homes, the Big Island’s other major player in the tiny homes game. He thinks the trend is simply a matter of economics.
“On the Mainland, it’s more of a minimalist back-to-basics trend. Here, I think it’s just cost of living,” he said. “Most of our customers are buying these because they can’t afford even a condo with HOA fees.”
Mockingbird’s website summarizes the lifestyle well: “Living in a small but tailored space with fewer possessions can be liberating. More time, money, and energy can be spent on relationships and experiences. For many people, minimalism can be a very meaningful decision that increases happiness and reduces stress.”