Are Tiny Homes the Answer?

Every day I get a Google News Feed about homelessness. There seems to be a disproportionate number of articles the past few months about tiny homes. They are sometimes called micro homes or city cottage homes or some variation. In some stories you read about an individual citizen creating the tiny home for a person that is homeless that they know. Sometimes it is a completely new development…like a “tiny home suburb”.

I do NOT think there is one housing solution for every person’s homelessness. I think we need a range of housing OPTIONS for people to choose from. I do NOT believe in housing placement. Could tiny homes be an option for people to choose from? Sure.

But let us dive deeper, and look at these questions:

1.Why do you want tiny homes? Do you want them because they are the nouveau thing to do? Have you asked people that are homeless in your community what they want? What do you expect to achieve through this built form that is not being achieved through other built forms?

 

2. Are the homes built to standards that apply to other dwellings?

Yes, in some jurisdictions this type of dwelling was not conceived in the building code and special consideration may be necessary. It isn’t that, really, that I am concerned about. What I am more concerned with: are we creating two standards of dwelling? Are we saying that there is one type of dwelling that is appropriate for “normal” folks and a lesser standard for people that were once homeless? Is health and safety and things like means of egress appropriately considered in the design of the tiny home?

 

3. What is your approach to supports and safety?

If you have ever visited a mature tent city, you know the potential perils of safety and how difficult it can be to penetrate the hierarchy of the community to deliver supports. A tent city will not be safe and sustainable if it becomes a den of debauchery. Do you have a central entry point? How and when can people have visitors in her/his home? What if the household has children – can they still live in the home? Would they still feel safe? Can a person invite their girl/boyfriend to live with them in their tiny home? Is there sufficient separation to avoid spread of fire if one breaks out? Who is responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the dwelling and the common areas?

 

4. Are you creating a community or a ghetto?

A built form is just a built form. Under what conditions would a person feel that the tiny home – surrounded by other tiny homes – creates an environment that promotes community? Is it community based upon geography or a community based upon common interest? How will residents have a voice in selecting neigbors? Or will they? How does the presence of a service provider (if there is the presence) promote and support – or stifle – community? What steps have you taken to ensure this does not just become another hodgepodge and half-assed effort to take a group of economically poor people, put them together, and request that they are grateful that they even have a roof over their head?

 

5. Is it the best use of land?

Yes, tiny homes provide a better yield than a duplex, townhouse or single family home. But do tiny homes provide a good yield per acre compared to multi-unit residential buildings? No. Not at all. Not even close. In larger urban areas and suburban areas where land is at a premium, land can represent a significant cost in the development process. If affordable housing development is so hard to come by, under which conditions do tiny homes make more economic sense than an apartment building? Have you thought through the cost per square foot in a tiny home compared to a multi-unit complex where you could still do stick build with stairs?

 

6. How will residents be selected?

So far I have not understood – in any community – the deliberate process used to select who gets the tiny home. I do not understand how resident choice is reflected in the system context. I do not understand how the service provider (when one is involved) is thinking about acuity, mix, need, compatibility, etc. Have you thought through for whom a tiny home is best designed and delivered? Have you thought about what is required to have a healthy and vibrant community?

 

 

I am not against tiny homes. They could be part of the mix. But I am not for them either. It seems to me too many communities are jumping on the bandwagon without a really thoughtful process of what they are going to accomplish, for whom, and how it fits into a broader strategy of ending homelessness.

 

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

6 Responses to “Are Tiny Homes the Answer?”

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  1. Interesting thoughts and questions for anyone considering a tiny house whether for an individual experiencing homelessness or…for one’s self. I think these homes provide an opportunity for people who feel comfortable living in close quarters to have a roof over his/her head as well as privacy and some security. I agree thoughtful consideration should be given to which individuals (or families) are placed into a tiny home. It’s not a one-size fits all solution. You’ve brought up a fair range of issues that could definitely have an impact on how these work out for people and communities. I’ve thought that the placement of these homes within and about a community might be a solution thus integrating the people living in them with others who are already “stable.” Once the person is housed (whether in a tiny home or otherwise), he/she is no longer homeless but there are many other aspects of life – mental and physical – that need to be considered – shifting paradigms from street life to stationary and stably housed life are just two areas. Possible supported living for a time would be appropriate as the individual becomes accustomed to this new way of living – of course, that can be the case for anyone moving into housing from homelessness.
    I think tiny homes are amazing! I could live in one myself – but mine would be a choice born out of a desire not the same as someone in need of a roof over his/her head. As an end-all solution, I don’t see them working, but as one option for the right person (or couple) – a tiny home might be perfect. Situated in the right place, not especially in a tiny-home city.
    The good news is we’re always looking for solutions and open to new ideas.
    Thanks for your good work, Iain!

  2. Leigh Duffy says:

    Ditto all of the above. Tiny homes are the rage and the questions you pose are the ones that I always struggle with. I have come to the conclusion that when someone brings up tiny homes as a solution I ask them to follow up with a list of very similar questions as you ask. We will not take on tiny homes as an agency, but we encourage anyone else too who finds them compelling.
    And yes, we ask out guests at the shelter. The truly desperate folks who think they have no options will say yes to any housing option we present. Most of the others could care less about a tiny house.

    Thanks!

  3. Catherine says:

    Exactly. My concern is although wonderfully fairy tale-like, I don’t have any fairy tale families/individuals to live in them. How do we prevent merely establishing even more ‘substandard housing’. Does anybody remember the days when people who lived in mobile homes en masse, were referred to as ‘living at the trailer camp’ (transients)? Not socially uplifting nor intended to be. I too am not opposed to Tiny Houses for week-end retreats, overnight emergency shelter, cabin at the lake, but not for full-time families trying to heal.

  4. JayNAusitnTx says:

    Here they came up with a micro housing campus of many acres and scores of pad sites for one’s own manufactured rig on wheels and also two models of tiny homes for 1. Wooden cabins a little too cozy for fears not to be raised regarding witches, Hans and Greta. Or choose the permanent tent looking Yurt for You. I immediately saw the place invested with residents imagining myself (Lincoln log or Golden Horde customized tent ?) easily summoning $20,000 the cabin or $8000 to live in the tent with 21st century climate and hygiene revision of the rustic settlement. The place was interesting until I realized it is a score of long miles from Austin’s downtown, and it feels like a deliberate attempt to move the canaille out where we won’t be seen. Also the narrative seemed to be pitched not to the people who would live there, but as though selling the idea to a class of people who have to be sold on even getting the vulnerable out of the rain, who wouldn’t themselves live there and who loved the way the thing sounded like it was easily surrounded by police, completely en cachete de nous memes! It sounds like self incarceration in tiny town. I shudder to think the cut off country shacks increasingly irrelevant to Austin, animal pelts curing in the yards, a half dozen jitney coach rides into the town per week. It sounds like a paternalistic happy ghetto, prison cosplay – steam punk group forming – serious member inquiries only. Any way I am chilled by the this drab hut cluster is marketed to my case manager or future arresting officer as though me – the resident – I shouldn’t mind.

  5. Thanks Iain.. Some leaders in my community are jumping on this bandwagon without this thoughtful analysis. This is a great summary of thoughts/ concerns..

  6. M Costello says:

    Yes I agree that the “excitement” seems to be overriding the praxis. I think it could be a very good option, for very specific areas where land is cheap and the ability to create an integrated eco-model for those that are looking for a balance of privacy and community. They key to me is space and landscape architecture. I work with a semi-rural population who would rather stay in their tents than live in the “city”. A properly designed “village” could be a balanced and effective solution.