If you have spent time in recent years in any of California’s larger cities, you’ve probably seen outcroppings of small, shed-like buildings beneath overpasses or on abandoned lots. These tiny homes, which have also sprung up in other states across the country, are the latest attempt to address the homelessness crisis. Los Angeles has several tiny-house sites and is building more of the structures. This comes at a time when Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council continue to clear out tent encampments under a new anti-camping ordinance.
As of January 2020, over 161,000 Californians were classified as homeless, a number that’s expected to grow because of the ongoing pandemic and escalating housing costs. More than one out of every four unhoused people in the United States live in California. In other states, especially on the East Coast, the homeless population generally has greater access to shelters. In New York, for example, only 5 percent of the state’s homeless population qualifies as “unsheltered,” which means living in the streets, in camps or in abandoned buildings.
California’s unsheltered rate, by contrast, is 70 percent. Tent encampments, where so many of the homeless live, are unregulated and unsafe. More traditional congregate shelters do not provide much in the way of privacy or stability, so even cities that have them have been looking for other options.
The new tiny homes, many of which are run by nonprofit organizations, have locking doors. Like other current solutions, including Project Roomkey, which places unhoused people in unused hotel rooms, and Safe Sleep Villages, which are monitored parking lots where people can set up their tents, they are meant to be a safer alternative.
Some of the organizations that operate the new villages also provide three meals a day, bathrooms, showers and counseling, and can help residents find employment and, ultimately, permanent housing. A typical house model may have 64 square feet of floor space, two beds and shelves. It looks, more than anything, like a shed. Often, in return for a stay in a tiny home, residents must forfeit drugs and weapons, consent to searches and spend their time inside the village under some surveillance.
In Los Angeles and the Bay Area, these structures have typically been placed more or less on top of established tent encampments. The basic reason for this is obvious: Go where the people are. But this choice also acknowledges that these places are communities where the unhoused come to rely upon one another for survival, emotional support and family.
On the surface, there’s much to admire, or at the very least, respect about the effort. But questions remain. Are these tiny homes a humane bridge between homelessness and permanent housing? Are they distractions that provide thin cover for the continuing sweeps? Or are they a tenuous solution for politicians who need to do something about unsightly tent encampments but lack the political capital or will for more substantive, permanent programs? The answer, as you might expect, is that tiny-home villages are all of these things.
Another kind of disaster
In 2016, Amy King and her husband, Brady King, were trying to get a construction company off the ground in Washington State. Brady designed a small structure that could be quickly and easily be shipped to disaster sites and assembled. He had seen what had happened after Hurricane Katrina and felt that there must be something better than housing people in the Superdome. They developed a model and began shopping it at disaster relief trade shows. They found an unexpected buyer: the city of Tacoma, Wash.
Tacoma, like many cities on the West Coast, has a large, unsheltered homeless population living in tent encampments and began offering the Kings’ tiny homes as an alternative. With this new market in mind, the couple began tinkering with their design. They consulted with their staff, many of whom had been incarcerated, unhoused or both. The Kings incorporated a new company called Pallet, which Amy now runs, and began reaching out to cities and nonprofits, offering a solution to homelessness.
Business, at first, was steady but slow. But then the pandemic hit, and cities were suddenly tasked with the need to socially distance their shelter residents while also mitigating spread within encampments. In Los Angeles, a lawsuit against the city and the county resulted in a judicial order to build 6,100 more beds. “We immediately sold out of all of our stock,” Amy told me.
It didn’t take long for cities across the country to turn to Pallet, not only as Covid relief, but also as a potential stopgap for growing encampments. New companies sprouted up to meet some of the demand. If you live in a city with a homelessness crisis, tiny homes are likely to be part of the landscape for years to come.
Some basic math
In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Martin v. City of Boise that cities could not enforce anti-camping ordinances if the number of homeless people exceeded the number of shelter beds. So if you have, say, 200 unhoused individuals in your city and 150 full shelter beds, you cannot deem it illegal for the leftover 50 to camp inside city limits.
The decision has inspired creative solutions on the part of cities that want to clear away unsightly encampments. Chico, Calif., for example, put up a so-called shelter by the airport that provided only a bit of shade, warm drinking water, portable toilets and hand-washing stations. A judge refused, though, to classify the site as a shelter. As an alternative, some advocates for the homeless in the city are asking for Pallet homes.
But because the tiny homes can get cities closer to the thresholds they need to meet before they can legally clear out camps, some critics, especially on the left, have questioned the reasoning behind their proliferation. “The sheds are basically being used as the carrot of criminalization,” Annie Powers, a local organizer who works with the homeless, told me. “The stick then becomes evicting people from the street.”