His Homes Are Low-cash-and Carry
Bill Kaysing has a head full of big ideas. His latest is about 100 square feet-the size of a Sears toolshed. He calls it a house.
Go ahead and laugh, but Kaysing insists you can find home sweet home with floor plans measuring only 8 by 12 feet.
Over the past decade, Kaysing, a cheerful, white-haired man who looks more like a Sierra Club leader than the hell-raising subversive he is, has tiptoed mischievously around local zoning laws to become the Frank Lloyd Wright of the really small house.
He has built eight tiny houses from Monterey Bay, Calif., to Oregon, none much bigger than a highway toll booth with furniture. Each cost less than $600. He thinks he's on to something.
Kaysing calls them "micro houses." Building inspectors call him a kook.
In his book "Micro Houses or How to Get Away From It All," Kaysing, 71, envisions entire communities of the Lilliputian bungalows, providing low-cost housing to the poor, the elderly and anyone else who wants to have fun instead of paying mortgage bills.
The teeny chateaus can be constructed in two days with 16 sheets of plywood, he says, then wired for electricity and spruced up with carpet, shingles, planter boxes and decks.
Tired of your surroundings? Put the house on wheels and tow it away, he advises. Better yet, build a raft underneath and float it at a marina.
"If you can build a shipping crate, you can do this," said Kaysing. "All it takes is gumption."
A free spirit who hates the Internal Revenue Service, building codes and the high price of packaged cereal, Kaysing lives with his wife, Ruth, 77, in a trailer park off Old San Jose Road in Santa Cruz County, Calif.
For much of the past 31 years, he has roamed the American West, sampling addresses like a glutton in the buffet line of life.
He has lived on houseboats, at abandoned lumber camps and in mining cabins. Avoiding permanent employment at all costs, he and his wife have spent decades touring highways in their 1972 GMC pickup with Chinook camper shell, parking everywhere from desert plains to suburban cul-de-sacs.
"If you buy a damn 2,000-square-foot tract house for a quarter of a million dollars," Kaysing said, munching a $1.50 plate of beans at lunch recently, "you are locked in with a corporate ring through your nose for 30 years.
"Think about it. You're stuck. You're trapped making payments. You can't sail a boat around the world. Awwww hell, you can't do anything."
When not searching for free showers, Kaysing has paid expenses by writing 20 offbeat books with titles such as "Eat Well on a Dollar a Day" and "We Never Went to the Moon."
He has not paid federal income taxes since the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan's show. Most possessions are in his wife's name to keep the IRS at bay.
At least one book is still in stores. Kaysing's "Great Hot Springs of the West," written in 1974, is an underground classic, having sold 50,000 copies.
Kaysing's beliefs are a colorful hodgepodge: conspiracies involving oil companies, dimethyl sulfoxide, vitamin cures and, of course, "Did FDR know the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor?"
He is to creative vagrancy what Ann Landers is to marriage trouble. Pecked out on a typewriter, Kaysing's housing schemes range from innovative to bizarre. About half are misdemeanors.
In his 80-page booklet "Homes for the Homeless" are instructions for converting the family car to a hotel room on wheels. Tear out the back seat, lay a foam mattress through to the trunk and presto!
Free lodging also can be had at dude ranches, ghost towns and fishing boats.
Another Kaysing idea: File a claim under the 1872 mining act and live on the land. It's illegal, but there are 45,000 mining claims in the California desert and Sierra foothills and only a handful of marshals to patrol them.
Otherwise, try Zen centers, squatting on U.S. Forest Service land or communes, Kaysing suggests. Better yet, buy a derelict boat, coat the hull with cement and just shove off.
"Bill's lots of fun and engaging," said Paul Lee of Santa Cruz, who has followed Kaysing's antics for years. "But just an extreme Santa Cruz eccentric. You're not publishing his ideas, are you?"
Lee, a former University of California philosophy professor, founded the Interfaith Satellite Shelter program, which provides beds for street people in Santa Cruz churches.
"If homeless people were as venturesome and innovative as Bill Kaysing, they wouldn't be homeless in the first place," said Lee, laughing.
A World War II Navy veteran, Kaysing took a permanent detour from the rat race in 1963, when at 41 he quit a job as a technical writer for Rocketdyne in Los Angeles to take his family on a six-month tour of the West. He sold his house to the second person who walked through the door and has not owned property since.
For a while in 1972, Kaysing rented an abandoned lumber camp near Jackson for $75 a month. "Rednecks chased us away when we brought in black people," he said, shaking his head.
Afterward, he and Ruth purchased a ramshackle 75-foot Coast Guard cutter for $10,500. He plastered holes in the hull with chicken wire and cement. Then he invited Vietnam veterans aboard and sailed the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Napa River until the vessel sank five years later.
"We just whooped it up," Kaysing recalls fondly. Although he is more likely to cuss than to cite Scripture, technically he is the Rev. Bill Kaysing. He founded the Holy Terra Church, based in Aptos, Calif., in 1979 to offer food and advice to the houseless. A tax dodge? "Naaaaaaa," he said.
He has won some accolades for tiny houses. One model sits in Aptos, behind the Unitarian Universalist Church. Kaysing built it with friends in 1985. The 8-by-12-foot structure has carpet, insulation, electrical outlets and light switches. Big windows let in the sun. A deadbolt locks the front door. Total construction cost was $550.
The Rev. David MacMillan lived there from 1985 to 1987. "I'd recommend it to anyone," said MacMillan, 44, who now counsels inner-city youth in Washington, D.C. "I took a certain pride in the ascetic simplicity of it."
Six people can stand comfortably inside. MacMillan kept a bed, bookshelves and a clothes rack. When it was time to cook, use the bathroom or take showers, he used facilities in the church.
Mainstream housing groups have been slow on the uptake. "I'm not sure it would be very popular if the 70,000 homeless people in Los Angeles each built a $200 house," said Callie Hutchison, executive director of the California Homeless and Housing Coalition, based in Sacramento.
Then there's the nettlesome problem of state law. Under the California Uniform Building Code, every residence needs a building permit, no matter how small. It must have electrical wiring, approved blueprints, sanitation and heat. In most Northern California cities, a permit for a 120-square-foot house would cost about $1,000.
"Without these laws," asked Dick Stubendorff, chief building official for the city of Santa Cruz, "what would stop your neighbor from having three, four or five of these little things on his yard-along with all the parking hassles, trash and noise that would come with them?"
There is a loophole. Kaysing knows it, of course. Buildings under 120 square feet don't require permits if they are used as playhouses or toolsheds. Kaysing's advice: Disguise tiny homes as children's playhouses by draping a few dolls from the eaves and putting a tricycle out front.
Though the adventures are less frequent nowadays, retirement is not an option for a man of Kaysing's caliber. From what would he retire?
He rides motorcycles and holds a pilot's license. When he's not traveling, he listens to Mozart records and reads Walt Whitman while taking care of Ruth, who has suffered in recent years from Parkinson's disease. Puccini operas bring him to tears.
"Look at how much fun it is," said Kaysing, eyes widening. "Instead of going to work, you just do whatever you want to do."
Some people call that laziness. "How many of those people have been to Wagon Tire, Arizona?" he asks. "Until 8,000 years ago, humans were all nomads. You can look it up."
( From San Jose Mercury News ~ Published: 17 April 1994 )