Are Tiny Houses Our Best Hope To End Homelessness?

Carolyn V. Murray

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Tiny houses are having a moment

And it has been a long moment. For the past ten years, thousands of cash-strapped Americans of all ages have embraced living in spaces under 200 square feet. It’s an opportunity to have their own piece of the American dream of homeownership as well as avoiding sky-high housing and rental prices.

But tiny houses have not only presented a solution for a multitude of wannabe homeowners but also for the neediest in society, the homeless, who now number 552,830 nationally. Seattle. Oregon. Austin. Los Angeles. Albuquerque. Denver. Milwaukee. Tiny house villages for the poor are sprouting up in the face of a nationwide surge in the homeless population.

Better than nothing?

The first tiny house settlements for the homeless were a bit underwhelming. The homes were often so small, they could be referred to as shacks or wooden tents. Problematically, they were lacking in vital amenities like heat and electricity.

Many of them were hastily assembled as quickly as possible as emergency housing for the homeless. Most of them were also constrained by local zoning regulations that prohibited the provision of larger, more livable facilities.

Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, used the restrictive zoning to her advantage and by 2017, oversaw the creation of 127 cabins, all under 120 square feet in size, and housing 310 people.

However, these Seattle settlements and others like it drew criticism as being the creation of a new kind of shantytown. A slum by any other name, lacking electricity and heat – just a notch better than being in a plastic tent.

No, they weren’t a great permanent solution. But they were accepted with gratitude by incoming residents. And they were just the beginning of a far grander evolution of this living concept.

Community First Village in Austin, Texas

This Austin facility serves as a useful model for other aspiring tiny house communities. The focus is on providing security for residents who are disabled, as well as homeless. The 51-acre compound includes 130 tiny houses, 100 RVs, a community garden, volunteering opportunities, group recreational activities, an outdoor movie theater, musical performances, art facilities, blacksmithing, woodshop, catering, and other entrepreneurial enterprises, and plans for another 310 tiny houses to be built.

Visitors from outside the village provide an injection of income as well as a welcome interaction with the larger society. The atmosphere in the village is upbeat, filled with bustling energy and purpose. It certainly doesn’t have the feel of a charity facility.

Rent levels are based on the type of structure people live in and range from $225 a month for a canvas-sided cottage, to $325 for a studio tiny home, to $375 for a fancier tiny home – all utilities included for those prices. An RV would be $380 a month and the residents would cover their own electricity and propane. It’s not a free ride, but it’s a fine range of options that are accessible even for those with a rather modest income.

Opportunity Village

This small village of thirty tiny homes was built in 2013 on city-owned land in Eugene, Oregon. The structures are smaller than the Austin compound and there’s definitely a feel that this is more a temporary resting station for people to get back on their feet and transition to something else. But if that process takes two years, then so be it. No one is going to be rushed out before they have a place to go.

Although built on city land, they are not part of a city-led enterprise. Instead, they have chosen the model of self-governance. There are village meetings to discuss community matters, make decisions, and go over applications for new residents. They provide their own overnight security patrols. (One resident on security duty spotted a fire in a house across the street, where a disabled woman lived on the second floor. Two lives were saved because of them.)

The self-governance appears to be a welcome source of pride, responsibility and offers opportunities to strengthen skills of social interaction, diplomacy, and conflict resolution. Not to mention providing the support and human connection greatly needed after such a long stretch of insecurity and solitude on the streets.

Because the residents do all the maintenance work themselves, the cost of running the facility is only $5 a night per person. Residents pay one dollar of that, for a total of $30 a month each.

Complications of a troubled population

There are a number of subgroups within the homeless population. The easiest to reach out to and assist are the approximately one-third whose only problem is the absence of affordable housing. Once they have a roof over their heads, they’re fairly self-sufficient, can seek out or continue their employment, and don’t require anything in the way of rehabilitative support.

But there is a large segment who wound up on the streets because of mental illness or substance abuse. Others may have developed those problems as a result of the danger and insecurity of being on the streets.

One small tiny house village for women in Seattle had to acknowledge this reality when it opened its gates to twenty fortunate new residents – individuals and same-sex couples. The community rules stipulate no drugs or alcohol in common spaces. But in the privacy of their little homes, their actions are unpoliced.

Many people take offense at the thought of allowing drug users to enjoy the valuable and scarce resources of these tiny homes. But as Reverend Dan Bryant, Executive Director of Square One Villages (which includes Opportunity Village) insists, you can’t help someone overcome their drug addictions from the street. The stress and fear and isolation will fuel their addiction. Nor can mental illness be “cured” while someone is sleeping on benches and having their few possessions stolen from them regularly. Only from a warm and secure haven can these problems be tackled. “Housing first.”

Small is even better than tiny

Most tiny house settlements for the homeless acknowledge that they are only meant to be a temporary transitional refuge. Some are very deliberately so by virtue of their design. Most tiny houses in Austin’s Community First Village have a toilet, but residents have to go to a central shower facility (a sturdy wooden building with separate stalls, accessible from the outside, that can all be locked from the inside). There’s often no kitchen. But most villages typically have a large central kitchen and dining room. Community First additionally has five large kitchens/grills for community use.

This is an enormous availability of conveniences for the residents. But…many people would prefer a 2-BR or 3BR residence to accommodate children or relatives. They’d like to access a kitchen and a shower from the comfort of their own home. They want a place that feels like a permanent home. Like a place they could stay in forever.

Opportunity Village in Eugene soon realized the limits of their assistance model. They could try to support and bolster their residents' mental health, assist them in finding employment, and then send them…where? An unaffordable housing market seemed an insurmountable obstacle to the desired transition to normalcy.

And so Emerald Village was born. Over one hundred individuals have passed through Opportunity Village and a lucky twenty-two families have landed a larger and more lasting home in this sister development. It’s a small number but it’s a start. Organizers recognize that a multitude of different housing types has to be added to address a wide range of different family sizes and housing needs.

Perhaps a new technology could be the cornerstone of their future planning.

3D printed houses – the gamechanger

A community in Tabasco, Mexico is being built for the poorest of its residents (monthly income under $80). It’s a village composed entirely of 3D-printed homes, each taking approximately 24 hours of work to complete. They’re not too tiny – they’re 500 square feet, with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. And they’re really appealing. I’d gladly live in one myself.

The development is being created by non-profit New Story, which has created over 2,700 homes for low-income families in Mexico, Haiti, El Salvador, and Bolivia, using traditional construction methods. Now they’re excited about the potential of 3D printing to help the homeless and poorest of the global population.

Not only are these slightly larger homes more comfortable and flexible, but a size of 500 or 600 square feet will help to sidestep the restrictive zoning that tiny house projects continually have run into.

A win for all

This is a technological step forward that not only has the potential relevance for tens of thousands of homeless in the U.S., but for all lower and middle-income renters and home-owners whose incomes are being stretched to the breaking point because of exorbitant housing costs. What if a new house could be purchased for one-half of its current average cost? Or one-third?

It’s a solution that will have the greatest application in those states with large expanses of cheap land available for development. It’s more difficult to see its applications in a place like New York City.

But where it can be used, it seems to have revolutionary potential. All of the nonprofit groups from Seattle to Austin that have devoted themselves to providing homes for the homeless will have a powerful tool to incorporate into their futures.

Community initiatives

If we wait for the federal government to solve homelessness, we’re in for a long wait. Perhaps a never-ending wait. The groups mentioned above have only been able to help a small fraction of the nation’s homeless. Just a small fraction in their own cities and states. But they have to be applauded for what efforts they’ve made. One group can only do so much. More of these groups are needed – a whole lot more. The state of California would have a new lease on life if a thousand groups sprang up, each committed to providing housing for fifty individuals.

Because it’s that small-scale that brings these dreams into the realm of possibility. No one can solve homelessness in America. But any individual or group can devote themselves to providing assistance for fifty people - by tapping into donations, crowd-funding, local goodwill, and presenting the project as an asset for the entire community.

Tiny house villages haven’t just worked in only one city. Or only two. They’ve shown themselves to be a viable model and a stark humane contrast to the sprawling, crime-ridden public housing developments of a previous era.

They say that success leaves clues. Perhaps these tiny house communities are a not-so-small signpost telling us to “Go this way.”

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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