Wichita has an affordable housing gap. One woman’s tiny home business hopes to fill it.

By Celia Hack

microMansions packages and sells tiny home kits, in the hopes that they can be an affordable and quality solution to the housing crisis.

Mary Lull, 22, is starting to look at buying her first house.

But she says her and her fiance’s budget limits them to older homes in need of a lot of work.

“Anything that we could afford right now, we would have to fix up quite a bit, which would be a lot of extra costs,” she said.

Lull is also the design coordinator for a company called microMansions, which sells ready-made tiny homes. The three-person business operates a warehouse in Columbus, a southeast Kansas town, that packages the homes into kits for individuals or developers to assemble.

One of the homes was built in Wichita’s Delano neighborhood, where Lull operates it as an Airbnb. After spending so much time there, she’s considering buying one as a starter home.

“My fiance and I are actually … discussing after we get married, building one,” Lull said. “If we built one of these, it’s still cheaper than buying a house, renovating it.”

Celia Hack/KMUW An upstairs porch on the tiny home in Delano.

Like much of the nation, Wichita and Kansas are struggling with a limited stock of affordable housing. On top of that, inflation and rising interest rates have pushed new home prices higher.

Though microMansions is just getting started – only three of the homes have been built – founder Abby Nelson is hoping her tiny houses can fill a big affordability gap in the market.

It’s a gap she says she experienced herself when she looked to buy a house in Wichita more than five years ago. It inspired her to start the business.

“Housing in that missing middle, like new construction at a price point that is more affordable, that’s less than $150,000, I mean it just — it wasn’t out there,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the tiny homes cost between $120,000 to $150.000 dollars, including land, labor and the kit itself. Long-term, she aims to bring the cost down to $100,000.

Developer Chris Caniglia is constructing some of the homes in Fredonia to sell between $165,000 and $170,000.

“Believe you me, I have had comments up the ying-yang about this,” Caniglia said. “Because there probably hasn’t been a new home built in Fredonia in I would say 40 years.”

Photo courtesy of Chris Caniglia / A tiny home under construction in Fredonia, Kansas.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to build a new standard-size single family home for less than $300,000 in Wichita, according to Stan Longhofer, the director of Wichita State University’s Center for Real Estate.

Caniglia says housing-starved rural communities like Fredonia need the lower prices the tiny homes offer. Many people can’t qualify for a mortgage to buy a $200,000 home.

“We’ve got to build something here that our workforce can afford,” Caniglia said. “And basically, I think that’s true all across the country because housing materials are so stinking expensive.”

Developers of the tiny homes save money in labor because the kits require less skilled labor to assemble. And, it isn’t as time-intensive to build them. Caniglia said he constructed one of the tiny homes in three months, where a normal house would take twice as long.

The tiny homes are typically more expensive per square foot than a standard-size house, though. microMansions offers eight different floor plans, ranging from 200 to 1,000 square feet. Different models have one to five bedrooms and can have multiple bathrooms.

“I call this kind of like a Midwest tiny house,” Nelson said. “Because it does have full eight-foot high ceilings, … full-size kitchen appliances and cabinets. You know, it’s more comparable to like an apartment size or style.”

Celia Hack/KMUW The kitchen inside the Delano microMansion.

From the outside, the microMansion in Delano looks anything but tiny –it’s just as tall as the houses next door to it. It’s only inside that the limited square footage becomes apparent.

“I try in every place I can. I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe we could fit more storage here,’” said Lull, who operates the Airbnb in Delano. “But in all the models, there’s definitely a good amount of storage in them for everything you would need. Maybe not everything you’d want. But that’s part of the tiny house lifestyle living.”

Lull said she has grown to love the home.

But that’s not the case for everyone. In 2018, microMansions proposed a community of tiny homes near 143rd Street and Harry that many neighbors loudly opposed. The development still hasn’t been built, as microMansion’s business model shifted from constructing the homes itself to creating kits to ship to other developers.

Nelson said the company is considering whether that location is right for the tiny homes development.

“Our biggest challenge right now is the perception,” Nelson said.

“A lot of it instantly is like, ‘No, we’re not putting tiny houses on trailers in town.’ Well, no, that’s not what we’re doing.

“So, it’s kind of our job to help show people that it looks nice, and it’s well built and it’s quality. And it’s something that’s going to improve your community.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.

This article was republished here with the permission of: KMUW