“Tiny homes provide homeless huge hope” by Kevin Fagan (San Francisco Chronicle)

Irene “Smokie” McGhee, a woman who had been sleeping on the streets in a South Los Angeles neighborhood, listens to music on the doorway of her newly built tiny home May 7 in Los Angeles.DAMIAN DOVARGANES , THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN FRANCISCO – On a weed-pocked parking lot behind a batch of government offices, Sonoma County is about to propel California into the hottest trend in housing for the homeless: tiny homes.

The county is planning to build an entire village of them.

Faced with soaring rents and construction costs over the past few years, homeless-policy planners across the nation have been increasingly turning toward minuscule houses — ranging in size from closets to toolsheds — as a cheap solution to getting street people indoors. A dozen villages of the tiny homes, with supportive counseling services close at hand, have sprung up in Oregon, Washington, Texas, North Carolina, New York and Tennessee. Dozens of other U.S. communities are planning villages of their own.

In California, the furthest along in this process is Sonoma County. Early plans are also afoot for villages in San Francisco and Berkeley, and scattered tiny homes have already cropped up in San Francisco and Oakland.

That doesn’t mean these things are a lock — not everyone is a fan of the concept. Some, like homeless activist Carol Denney of Berkeley, say it’s demeaning to offer people homes smaller than cars while the wealthy get mansions. And tiny homes created without official sanction often are treated the same as homeless tents — shoved along and regarded as nuisances.

But the village-and-services approach, like the one planned in Sonoma County, has so far been well received. So in that county, it’s full speed ahead.

“Look, what homeless people want is a home — something better than a tent,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who conceived her county’s tiny-home village plan. “When you have as many people homeless as we do in this county — about 2,000 on the streets, living outside — you have to try everything.”

She stood in the middle of the quarter-acre parking lot site for the village and surveyed it with the passion of an artist about to apply paint to a canvas. The lot, now used as overflow parking for county workers, is in Santa Rosa and sits between the county’s Human Services Department, which handles welfare and poverty housing issues, and the Probation Department of the Sheriff’s Office.

If all goes as Zane hopes, a dozen tiny homes with up to 24 residents will dot the lot by August. The Board of Supervisors approved the land use in January, and the county has received 35 proposals from developers who want to construct the village.

“Here, people will get their self-respect back,” Zane said. “They can move in, get connected with counseling, better health, job help — and then move into more permanent housing. But in the meantime, they can have four walls they call their own.”

Tiny homes have been trending for about five years among back-to-the-land types, hipsters and middle-class people looking for an affordable home with boutique artistry to it. Television shows such as “Tiny House Nation” on the A&E Network showcase eye-popping creations that can sell for more than $100,000, or be hand-built for tens of thousands of dollars.

The homes Zane has in mind, and those cropping up for the down and out in other communities, are not of that ilk. They range instead from $40 mobile abodes crafted by an artist in Oakland from scrap materials to stand-alone houses built by contractors or the homeless themselves for $1,200 in Portland, Ore., and $5,000 in Madison, Wis.

Sonoma County planners are aiming for homes that will each cost $20,000 or so, but could go much higher depending on what’s offered in appliances and utility hookups. The tab is bigger than elsewhere because of the Bay Area’s astronomical housing costs, and the county’s desire to set an example for the state with a solid product.

Typically, tiny homes like these range from about 250 square feet to 500 square feet. Many are built on wheels so they can be easily moved. Even without wheels, most are so small they can be toted with trailers.

The big attraction for communities building them is, of course, the relatively tiny cost.

The typical tab for building a supportive housing unit in an urban setting is about $300,000. In a more rural county like Sonoma, population 495,000, it runs about half that. Construction and planning typically take two to five years.

Tiny homes not only come in at a fraction of the cost, they can be built and installed in a handful of months on public land or donated space on religious or other private property. Showers and bathrooms are often communal, and electric and water hookups are minimal compared with larger buildings.

Another option, leasing buildings from private owners, can cost up to $2,000 per unit per month. After a few years, that cost exceeds what it would take to build a tiny home.

“The cost savings are huge, and believe me, we’ve looked at all the models,” Zane said.

There is no price tag yet for her two-year pilot project, but that will come when all the bids are assessed this spring, she said. The figures she focuses on are those commonly touted in the Bay Area: It costs about $60,000 a year to leave someone in the street absorbing police, medical and other expenses, but about $15,000 to $20,000 to keep someone in supportive housing.

As a family therapist, a minister in Los Angeles and a director of nonprofits, Zane has dealt with homelessness for decades. She and other county officials subscribe to “housing first,” the practice of housing street people quickly before connecting them with counseling for whatever drug, job or mental issues savaged their lives.

“But if you don’t build the housing,” she said, “it’s hard to practice what you preach. Social service programs help, but they don’t do anything unless you have the housing and shelter. Tiny homes can help give us that.”

Tiny-home villages began springing up in cities including Dallas, Seattle and Nashville over the past three years. But the granddaddy of them all, used as a model for the technique, is Dignity Village in Portland, Ore.

Dignity began as a tent city under a bridge in 2000. Four years later, after the city was unable to dismantle the community, the Portland City Council offered residents a city-owned lot near the main airport and agreed to let them largely govern themselves.

Today, the early tents have been replaced with 43 hand-built tiny homes for 60 formerly homeless residents. The village elects a council, charges each resident $35 a month for operating expenses, and requires 10 weekly hours of work to help keep the place tidy and functional. No drunkenness, fighting or drug use are allowed on-site. Counseling and other support services are nearby at government agencies and nonprofits.

“In one sense, this is just another homeless camp — but in another sense it’s not,” said Dignity Village Councilman Scott Layman, 52. “Not all people want to remain homeless, and if you find people who want to get up and back into society, this is the place.”

Residents are generally limited to a two-year stay, with the idea that they will move into more permanent digs after righting their lives.

“They should absolutely try something like this in California,” Layman said. “Whatever works.”

Villages of tiny homes haven’t gotten significant blowback in cities where they cropped up, since local governments helped shepherd them into existence. But individual homes’ ad hoc appearance on city streets often gets a rocky reception.

In San Francisco and Oakland, hand-built tiny homes that crop up are often quickly moved along by authorities, just like tents. In Los Angeles this winter, 40 solar-powered, 6-by-8-foot wheeled homes built by a local musician were handed out near camps and highways — and promptly ran into hostility from residents and officials.

Police and sanitation workers have been vigorously clearing them away, finding guns and drug paraphernalia in some. The Los Angeles mayor’s office labeled them “a safety hazard.”

The conflict there is being closely watched by homeless advocates in Virginia, Illinois and other states where advocates are contemplating joining the tiny-home movement. The general agreement is that establishing villages with support services and government cooperation is the best way to go.

“In the past, I think people associated ‘small’ — like tiny homes — with having no dignity, but that has changed,” said Tracy Baim, a Chicago publisher and chairperson of the nation’s first major conference on the topic. The Tiny Home Summit will be held in Chicago in late April.

Baim’s goal is to help create Chicago’s first tiny-home village over the next two years and populate it with homeless community-college students.

“The tiny-homes movement has proven you can make beautiful homes for very little money, and they can be good places to live in,” she said. “It’s growing, and we want in.”

Carol Denney of Berkeley takes the opposite tack — she says the tiny home movement is wrongheaded from the start.

“Tiny homes are an insidious, seductive mechanism for pouring enormous amounts of resources into housing as few people as possible,” Denney said. An editor of the Street Spirit homeless-activist newspaper, she has argued against plans being discussed for tiny homes in Berkeley. “You can build real houses for a lot less for what you’re getting.

“But the ‘cute’ factor of tiny homes just takes people apart,” she said. “We are a rich country. Why should homeless people have to live in something super-small just because they are poor?”

Supervisor Zane said truly building enough fuller-size houses for now is just a dream, given the need to stretch dollars far and fast.

”You have to deal with what you can realistically get done, and this is it,” she said. “I think this county has been pretty unique in looking outside the box for solutions.

“And right now,” she said, strolling the parking lot that by fall will be someone’s tiny front yard, “I’d call this a win-win-win site.”

Perhaps the most important vote of confidence for Zane’s plan comes from the area’s homeless. Everyone queried about it appears enthusiastic.

“My own home? That would be a great idea,” Brian Brendon, 38, said as he panhandled on a park bench in downtown Santa Rosa. “I don’t care if it’s small. If it’s warmer and it’s dry and it’s my own, I’ll take it.”

Note from Mike Zint:

When housed homeless advocates speak, homeless people suffer. On a cold, rainy night, a homeless person will seek any shelter available. Thinking a tiny home is not a good option shows a certain lack of understanding and compassion. Please ask the homeless what they want. Only they are qualified to speak.

Carol Denney of Berkeley takes the opposite tack — she says the tiny home movement is wrongheaded from the start.

“Tiny homes are an insidious, seductive mechanism for pouring enormous amounts of resources into housing as few people as possible,” Denney said. An editor of the Street Spirit homeless-activist newspaper, she has argued against plans being discussed for tiny homes in Berkeley. “You can build real houses for a lot less for what you’re getting.”

Share This Item
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *