Welcome to the second installment of How We Live Now, our new interview series documenting the complexities of modern housing through the eyes of folks on the ground. You’ll see stories about people living in unusual spaces; stories about changing neighborhoods and rising rents; and stories that explore what home can look like in the 21st century.
Know someone we should feature? We’re always on the hunt for good stories. Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
During his final semester at the University of Texas, urban geography and sustainability student Kouros Maghsoudi lived in a 220 square foot backyard granny flat in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Kouros talks about his shift from a more traditional lifestyle to a micro one, how urban design affects our Chapstick choices, and also the secret to happiness (in case you were wondering).
Your life has been unfolding in 220-square-feet over the last few months. Tell us the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’ve had to give up some comfortable aspects of my previous lifestyle. It’s kind of annoying not having a desk—not being able to work in a totally comfortable space—but what I do like is that it forces you to live with as few possessions as possible. I have no drawers with knick-knacks and random junk. That’s all the clothing I own [points to clothing rack]. All of my socks and underwear are hanging on my bathroom door in a little compartment.
I’m moving out soon and it’s going to be really easy because I sold my furniture to the next tenant. I literally just have to pack my clothes and I’m out of here. I like that part—where you’re not possessed by your material goods.
So, you’re about to move away from Austin and you posted the search for a new tenant on Facebook. How many applications did you get for a 220 square foot space?
I got ten people messaging me immediately, but by the end of the week I had 50 messages in my inbox and people were semi-flirting with me to check out the place. They were like, “Oh, you’re from Chicago? Cool. I have a step-aunt in Chicago.” Weird things like that. It was kind of heartbreaking—I had to shut so many people down.
What do you know about permitting and how the city of Austin encourages or discourages granny flats and accessory dwelling units?
I know in 2015 there was a big debate in the Austin city council about granny flats. The urbanist forums I follow were like, “Please come to city council and speak on this. It’s important for affordability. We need small living.” All of that. But it turned out beneficial—they reduced regulations.
In your neighborhood you’ve got buses, restaurants, and coffee shops. How important are location and services if you’re living minimally?
It’s essential. If I’m living by the side of a highway with no sidewalks, no amenities, and no coffee shops and I have to drive three miles to get to the grocery store, that’s a deal breaker. I’ll live in a crap house if the location is good and I can be active and walk.
This neighborhood is a bit far from downtown and Uber is a little more expensive, but the neighborhood makes up for it. It’s really cute. There’s a grocery store nearby I can bike to. And the bus route is frequent. I use it every day.
Do you think living in a space like this is a “college phase” or is it a lifestyle you see yourself adopting from here on out?
Being at college really opened my eyes to a different way of living and it’s definitely how I’m going to live forever. I like to travel a lot and I don’t like being in one city for too long. So, I don’t even think I have the option to own a lot of stuff. Also, I don’t find owning a lot to be key to happiness. It can bring short term happiness—like, buying new shoes makes me happy, obviously—but two weeks from now it’s not going to benefit me.
The thrill is gone, right? Do you have a sense of what does bring you happiness?
I think traveling, for sure. And just…experiences. I would much rather spend my money on expensive drinks at a bar with my friends than buy a new pair of shoes. I have way less regret spending money on stupid stuff that is an experience.
Based on your experience, do you think living smaller is accessible to everyone? Is it something for eco-friendly folks like yourself who are willing to “sacrifice” or—if we do urban planning and design right—does it actually have the potential simplify and improve quality of life?
I think it’s all dependent on urban planning. I mean for extremists like me this kind of lifestyle is always going to work out no matter where you live, but if you’re living in this sprawled out suburb of Dallas, you’re not going to want live small. You’re going to want to stock up your fridge so you don’t have to drive to the grocery store every other day.
So you’re saying it’s not just an individual decision.
No, the type of neighborhood you live in inherently dictates so many of your choices. I mean, there’s no way to predict if someone’s going to have a lot of possessions, but people may live a little bit smaller if they’re in a neighborhood that’s well designed and has everything they need.
Do you think people are intimidated by the minimalist lifestyle? At the prospect of transitioning into it? For most people the shift doesn’t happen with a snap of the fingers. Did you take small steps?
Not really. I did it immediately after moving out of my parents’ house. It was kind of like: I don’t want all this stuff, I’m just going to leave it at home, and I’m going to start fresh with nothing but the essentials.
It can be a little intimidating because people are always thinking “what if” as a reason to hold onto a possession. Like my friend—when we go out—he brings a lot of stuff, and I’m like you’re not going to use 99% of this stuff, but it’s always, oh, what if my lips are chapped? I need this Chapstick. Like I said earlier: a way to tone down the “what if” is to live in a neighborhood that’s active and has everything you need within a quarter of a mile.
Follow Kouros on Instagram at @kouroast_beefsandwich.