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.