Elizabeth Singleton is so passionate about making a big impact with tiny homes, she sometimes forgets to pause and reflect on how far she has come in five short years. Singleton, a mom of three with a daughter at home, a son in the military, and another in college, is the first female tiny home developer to have her own factory.
The 35,000 square foot facility gives her two tiny home brands the advantage of complete vertical integration and allows her to be one of the only women in the country offering full-service tiny home development. Forget pushing dirt—Singleton moves whole mountains.
Make no mistake, mountains still stand in the way of widespread acceptance of tiny homes—and not because people don’t want them.
“Tiny houses aren’t new,” Singleton pointed out. “We all started out here in America with the wagons, to the small homes, to what we have now.”
In fact, business is better than ever for the Phoenix-based Tiny House entrepreneur. “Even since COVID-19, we have seen an increase in people looking for tiny houses, or guest houses, to move family closer,” Singleton said.
Going Tiny, One City Planner at a Time
What really stands in the way of Singleton’s vision of affordable, attractive housing is regulation. Tiny houses are the most regulated homes in the industry. Building three homes on a lot could cost Singleton only $90,000, but the regulations could balloon the price tag up to three or four hundred thousand dollars, seriously undermining the viability of tiny homes as an affordable housing option.
Interestingly, it’s not just a matter of changing laws as it is of changing hearts and minds—specifically the hearts and minds of city planning officials, who lag behind consumers in their acceptance for the beauty, efficiency, and simplicity of living tiny.
“A lot of city planners have policies that a house is no less than one thousand square feet,” Singleton pointed out, compared to the 90-400 square feet of a tiny home on wheels, or 100-600 square feet of a tiny home built on a foundation.
The hurdle about that is just people experiencing change, and getting away from the concept of planners thinking that anything under 500 sq ft is a shed.
Singleton has her work cut out for her. Her Arizona factory serves two separate development brands—Tiny House Development, a for-profit development enterprise; and Build Us H.O.P.E. (Housing Opportunities Provided for Everyone), a nonprofit that builds tiny homes and container apartments for veterans, disabled persons, and the chronically homeless.
“The business plan I originally started out with was to save the world and heal the nation with affordable housing,” Singleton said. “I’ve had to make quite a bit of adjustments in realizing that maybe I had to focus on changing some of the policies and requirements, some of the regulations.”
She’s not afraid to go right to the top, either. Singleton’s organizations work directly with Federal bureaus like the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Fair Housing Administration (FHA), even the White House to remove the red tape from tiny home development. “I’m not looking to open the door just to myself,” Singleton said, “but to leave it open for those who come behind me.”
Go Big, or Go Tiny Home
Singleton has built extensively in outlying or unincorporated municipalities with fewer zoning or occupancy regulations, but she is currently embroiled in her most ambitious project yet—the first tiny home development project in downtown Phoenix, within city ordinances. It’s a massive regulatory challenge, requiring that she do a lot of hand-holding and educating in partnership with the zoning commission to ensure them that she is not building a slum.
“A majority of people that live in a tiny house, their income range is $60,000 to $100,000,” Singleton said. “It’s a vast variety of people. You have to move away from the stereotype that you’re creating a poverty-type environment, when you’re not. You’re creating a home environment, you’re creating a lifestyle environment.”
City planners aren’t the only potential partners in her sights. Singleton also educates realtors and lenders, many of who want to participate in the tiny house market but don’t know where to start, due to the dearth of training available for this market segment.
Singleton has a message for realtors contemplating upping their tiny house game— “This is a good market for you to invest your time in, because this market is exploding.”
Tiny Homes, Big Balance
With so much on her plate, it’s no wonder that balance is important for her. Back in 2015, in the heady early days of her tiny house adventure, she discovered the entrepreneurial paradox that sometimes, the more you work, the less you get done.
“I was working so much, I wasn’t getting anything accomplished,” Singleton recalls. “If I’m not functional for the next day to be able to participate with a healthy mind, it hurts my business. You have to set aside self-care time. That self care is very important for the long-term.”
Singleton rises at 4am, takes a walk for exercise at 5am, meditates, then makes time for her daughter. She has a hard cutoff where she is done working, and Sundays are strictly reserved for family time, no work. “You’re going to have to learn to say no,” Singleton stressed. “I have to put my family first. That time is very important.”
Big Opportunities for Women
Despite the challenges of finding balance, Singleton finds deep satisfaction in both her for-profit and non-profit work, creating beautiful houses for as little as half the cost of a traditional house. And she looks forward to seeing more women entrepreneurs following in her footsteps.
“Tiny houses, as far as developers and especially women developers, is a successful business,” she said. “If you know what you want to accomplish, set those goals, be positive, don’t give up, don’t take no for an answer.”
Singleton walks the walk, as demonstrated by the way she had to be nimble in her reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her offices and factory shut down for two and a half months, and like many businesses she applied for PPP loans to keep her doors open.
“It’s almost like starting a business over again,” she recalls. “The best thing I had was that I did have a business plan, I did have some focused goals, and I had to focus on what I knew was bringing the income in. I had to refocus on what we could do better, what would bring more income in, and what would make us successful as a company.”
No enterprise goes according to plan, but Singleton weathered to storm to find burgeoning demand for her product—and she was ready for it.
Her encouragement extends to women fearful of taking the plunge due to the uncertainty inherent in being the boss. “If this is your destiny, you’re going to be successful in it by staying and sticking to it.”
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