Twenty-seven-year-old Sonoma County resident Joel Fleck is, in many ways, a typical law school student. For one thing, there are lots of books on his shelves. "Law books are on the bottom," he says, before pointing out works on poker, psychology and serial killers.
His kitchen is stocked with instant soup, enchilada sauce, peanut butter and tequila.
"You know, the staples in life," Fleck says.
That, however, is where "typical" ends: Fleck's living space is roughly the size of a one-car garage. This isn't a dorm room or even a small apartment. This tiny wood-framed house, 18 by 7½ feet and sitting right next to his parents' house in rural Sebastopol, is on wheels.
Fleck, who is 6 feet 4, built the house himself and has been living in it for two years. He says he loves the simple, frugal lifestyle, even if his friends think it's a bit eccentric.
"Most of my friends don't know what to do with me. It's rare that I have them come over here because there's only so much space inside for us to hang out or do anything. But that's my philosophy on the tiny house -- it's really your nighttime retreat when you need to be alone."
Fleck considers himself part of a national "tiny house movement" that embraces homes that are about 500 square feet or less. Sonoma County is one of the trend's hubs. County planning chief Tennis Wick says the relatively high cost of living is one reason: The median home price hovers around $500,000.
Wick says the county also has a history of small homes. "A number of the original homes in the Russian River area, in the springs part in Sonoma Valley, were built as vacation homes. And started off -- and many still are - very modest in size, and so the physical example is still very present in our daily lives."
Wick guesses there are a few hundred tiny homes tucked away in backyards and backwoods parts of the county.
But there's no official count -- the state building code prohibits fixed foundation homes that are less than 220 square feet. Homes on wheels, like Joel Fleck's, need special permits, and many people don't bother.
But affordable housing is in such short supply that county planners are looking for creative ways to zone for tiny homes. "Twenty-five percent of our population in the unincorporated county is still spending 50 percent of their income or more on housing," says Wick. "That's not sustainable. So, tiny homes may be one of those solutions. "
One person who has literally written the book on how to make tiny homes livable -- and legal -- is designer and builder Jay Shafer:
"My name is Jay Shafer, and my title is Your Highness ... or tiny house guy, whatever," he told me.
Perhaps that's not entirely a joke. Tiny house enthusiasts herald the Graton resident as the king of small space design. He writes books, teaches building workshops and has talked to everyone, from the New Yorker to Oprah about the virtues of downsizing.
After giving me a very quick tour of his tiny house, he shows me blueprint after blueprint of what he believes is the true key to making tiny homes mainstream: a tiny house village. He affectionately calls it "the Napoleon Complex."
"Ever since I started designing small houses, I realized that they would work best together as a cluster. Because then you can share amenities."
Shafer has drawn a common house at the center of each design. There, neighbors can share storage, laundry facilities, maybe even a pool table. And he's put the tiny homes on wheels so the complex can be zoned like an RV park. RV owners don't pay property taxes, and neither would the homeowners in this kind of setting.
Wick, the Sonoma County planner, likes the idea. He says if Shafer can find the right site, the right utility hookups and enough financing to build the community, "we'll find the right permit process for him."
Shafer says he's already found a few potential sites. Finding investors is trickier. But he hopes to have enough cash to begin construction in the next year or two. He believes that if this model takes off, a large number of Bay Area residents can one day have the best of the suburbs -- privacy, quiet and greenery -- without the burden of a large mortgage or the guilt of a large carbon footprint.