cottage industry

Tiny House Was No Small Feat for Manhattan Man

From left to right, Tom Saat's son Deniz, daughter Emel and wife Deb, in front of their tiny house in an Astoria warehouse.
From left to right, Tom Saat’s son Deniz, daughter Emel and wife Deb, in front of their tiny house in an Astoria warehouse. Photo: Courtesy of the Saat family

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Entrepreneur Tom Saat built a teeny, tiny house in Queens.

“It has a stand-up shower, compost toilet, full-size refrigerator and a second-story high enough to stand in,” said Saat, a 57-year-old Turkish immigrant who worked on his 300-square-foot home in Astoria before moving it to a Long Island City industrial warehouse last year.

“It took my family more than a year to build,” he said. “I have a construction background and watched a lot of YouTube videos. God bless the internet.”

Tom Saat sits atop the roof of tiny house he built.
Tom Saat sits atop the roof of tiny house he built. Photo: Courtesy of the Saat family

Saat, who runs a business as a general contractor, is among those excited about the de Blasio administration’s bid to boost affordable housing by easing restrictions on backyard dwellings and basement apartments. The mayor revealed the proposal last week ahead of his State of the City address at the American Museum of Natural History.

“People should be allowed to put tiny houses in their backyard — or someone else’s backyard with their permission,” said Saat, who actually lives in Lower Manhattan. “And there should be lots assigned for tiny-house owners.”

Low Ceiling, High Hopes

Saat’s eight-foot-wide, 23.5-foot long house on wheels, with an electronic, retractable second floor, cost roughly $50,000 to build. He and his family eventually moved it out of an industrial warehouse in Long Island City on Thanksgiving Day last year and headed to a more affordable lot upstate in Stormville, N.Y.

Saat conceded that his little home, while cozy, does not comply with city building codes in its current state: The 6.5-foot second-story ceiling does not meet the required minimum clearance, for instance, and the bathroom uses removable plastic bags for waste.

“Number one goes into a separate container which can include a small chlorine tablet inside for keeping it clean, germ- and odor-free,” he said. “Number two goes into the plastic bag area and sawdust, or other natural dust made from coconut shell, is used to cover number two each time it is used. Once or twice a month, this bag is replaced.”

The interior of the Saat's small home.
The interior of the Saat’s small home. Photo: Courtesy of the Saat family

If the city were to ease restrictions, Saat said, he would consider offering classes on building tiny homes in the boroughs. He had planned to offer classes in Queens before heading north.

De Blasio administration officials predict at least 10,000 additional units, including newly approved basement apartments and tiny backyard homes, could be added to the city within the next 10 years under the proposed changes, which the City Council must approve.

‘Very Doable’

Some architecture and design experts also supported the city’s effort to allow tiny houses, called accessory dwelling units or ADUs in industry parlance.

Deborah Gans, an architect at Gans Studio and professor at Pratt Institute, noted that allowing tiny houses could be “a potentially wonderful approach, but it’s really, really different than easing restrictions on basement apartments.”

“ADUs are very doable,” Gans said. “You can increase density while keeping the people already in the neighborhood in place. An older couple, for instance, could stay in their home while renting their garage.”

Other states, including California and Hawaii, have already implemented ADU initiatives, Gans noted.

“They have cities with large swaths of single-family homes,” she said. “But there are neighborhoods in Queens, parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island that could really benefit and accommodate this.”

Peter Miller, a finalist in this year’s Big Ideas for Small Lots design competition sponsored by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development and the American Institutes of Architects New York, also gave the proposal a thumbs-up.

“We need to think outside the box about housing,” Miller said, a partner with Palette Architecture. “Light and air are a big part of the equation as well, but the city needs more places for people to live. Hey, in New York City we work with tiny everything.”

‘Living in a Closet’

Other architects, however, remained a bit skeptical.

Lorena del Río, an assistant professor of architecture at The Cooper Union who has worked on affordable housing in Madrid, said, “It’s not going to resolve the bigger problem. Affordable housing should have even higher standards in terms of design so that people don’t end up living in a closet.”

The solution to the city’s housing crunch, she suggested, involved more alliances between the public and private sectors — and the “political will” to regulate housing prices.

“That is the future of affordable housing,” she said. “Not tiny houses.”

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.

SUPPORT THE CITY

You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.

DONATE TODAY!