Definition of "What is alternative housing?"

Diana Newbert real estate agent

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William Raveis Real Estate - New Milford

When you think of an alternative way of living, the limits are, quite literally, limitless. Alternative, by definition, regards a sort of out of the norm concept. Living by the norm is what is considered normal living. By this, we can understand that normal housing is your everyday housing options; town-homes, single-family homes, apartment complexes, or condominiums. These are all options of normal housing, buildings that have been developed to provide housing or dwelling units for their residents. Normal accommodations are those types of dwellings that come with a mortgage or monthly costs of living.

When you think of alternative housing, you should think outside the norm. So what housing options are there that don’t fall in the categories mentioned above? Well … the possibilities are limitless. The only limit is the one provided by limited creativity. Unlike the normal housing options, alternative housing comes with an added freedom factor regarding cost and what they inspire.

The History of Alternative Housing?

Alternative housing today is far from where it started. If we want to look at how the whole concept was created, we have to go back to the First World War and the Great Depression that followed. The beginning of alternative housing wasn’t the glamorous and trendy idea that we come across now. 

As US citizens lost their jobs and homes during those years, there was a desperate need for affordable housing. People were left without a roof over their heads, and besides the need for food and other necessities, the need for shelter was one of their main concerns. People back then didn’t have money to afford to buy or even rent a dwelling, so dire necessity gave them the alternativethey needed. That is how the Hoovervilles came to be, and there were hundreds across the country in the 1930s. 


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Labeled after President Herbert Hoover, who was considered culpable for the dire situation, Hoovervilles were shantytowns or settlements that were generally trespassing on privately owned land, tolerated and mostly ignored. The struggling sectors of the population, equipped with the know-how and need, built homes from the ground up using stone, wood (from crates), cardboard, scraps of metal, or any other type of material they could find. The financial situation was desperate, and people needed to survive at the time. They cared little for comfort, and luxury was irrelevant to them.

Why choose Alternative Housing now?

Alternative housing is growing in popularity not only throughout the country but throughout the world, and many factors influence it. The purpose for them changed drastically, but one element remains alive within the concept. The cost of owning and maintaining alternative housing remains low.

In this day and age, normal housing costs are high, and they have been on an inclined slope for decades, if not centuries. Sure, there have been moments throughout history when real estate prices decreased or plummeted, but throughout, the average cost of a single-family house is still high. Without a fortune at your disposal, it’s almost impossible to purchase a house or an apartment by paying in full without having to keep up with mortgage payments or rent-to-buy options (paying large installments either monthly, quarterly, biannually, or annually directly to the owner). Prices are just too high, and even those that would want to rent end up paying more than 30% of their income on rent.

Homeownership has dropped to the lowest level from the past 50 years. Currently, around 32% of Americans 18 to 34 years old still live with their parents because they can not afford to live alone or with their spouse. This is regardless of their income. Those are the facts. 

It’s no surprise then that alternative housing grew in popularity over the last decade. Some blame it on social media, making the concept available, approachable, and appealing, but it all comes down to the cost of owning a house.

What is Alternative Housing Today?

The options for alternative housing, as stated above, are only limited by creativity. If during the 1930s people used scrap metal, wooden crates, and stone to build homes, modern society managed to combine easy to gather materials with a concept we’re all familiar with. Reduce, reuse, and recycle, the mantra of eco-friendly living and passive houses. Yes, that concept isn’t only applicable to plastic bottles.

The concept of alternative housing today nurtures the idea that almost anything can be used, reused, or converted into a dwelling unit. You probably heard of or seen on social media those amazing vans transformed into homes or shipping containers, or why not whole buildings that are repurposed. Reusing construction materials are also ways through which one could build an alternative home as people keep focusing on reducing their carbon footprint for an eco-friendly way of life. We’ll see below some of the most common alternative housing options, but know that the list is longer than we provide below. With a bit of creativity, even pallets can make a home.

Shipping container

A shipping container can be transformed quite easily into a dwelling with a good contractor on hand. They withstand harsh weather conditions, can be isolated to perfection, even for cold weather. The one drawback to them is that while the containers won’t cost too much, transforming it into a homey home may put quite a dent in your wallet.

Tiny House

Being the least expensive variant, tiny houses are also the most popular alternative housing options. The idea of tiny houses is to live small, detached from material assets, and financial freedom.

Recreational Vehicle

As mentioned above, vans turned into homes or busses refurbished into homes on wheels, RVs are still popular. Still, creativity can be a great inspiration and a much cheaper option if you already have a van or bus available. Perfect for adventurers as it also provides a means of transport.

Earth House

If you like the Lord of the Rings saga and the Hobbit, you’ll love this. To picture an earth house, think of the hobbit hole Bilbo Baggins lived in. The one downside to this alternative housing is moisture and the cost of proper water protection. On the plus side, they can also be made above ground.

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