Tiny Housing Units Provide a Small Answer to a Big Problem

By | Nov 22, 2010

“I heard you are housing people,” said a disheveled homeless man who appeared to be in his mid 60’s, although in street-years you never know, the harsh conditions of street life age a person faster than raising a rebellious teenager.

I was in the middle of a 100K Homes survey in Long Beach, California helping interview every person living on the streets of the downtown area. The word on the street was this new initiative was going to house the most vulnerable, hurting people who have been trapped on the streets for years.

Everyone was clearly excited, both the community volunteers as well as their homeless neighbors.

A year later, dozens of people have been permanently housed in apartments. Even though the work of the survey was grueling, with 100 volunteers getting up at 4 AM three mornings in a row to talk with homeless persons, finding permanent housing for people was even tougher.

Many people encountering homelessness have colossal struggles with mental illness or long-term disabilities. Simply encouraging a person to get a job and pay rent is unrealistic. For them, finding public subsidies that cover monthly rent and landlords willing to lease apartments to them is our societal struggle.

Building new affordable apartment units is the long-term solution to the dearth of housing in society. But the cost is incredible. Here in Los Angeles, the average cost of an affordable housing unit is $300,000. That means billions and billions of dollars are needed.

Tiny Castle

Recently, CNN broadcasted a story on market-rate housing in Tokyo, Japan. With the incredible cost of land and housing in that mega-city, young professionals are resorting to buying new homes the size of parking lot spaces. That’s right, they are building these tiny homes, the size of an American walk-in closet that fits a small kitchenette, built in beds, and under-the-counter appliances.

In America’s mega-city, New York City, the trend is similar. Young professionals wanting to live close to where they live in the Big Apple are buying apartment homes that are 175 square feet, the size of a bedroom and as narrow as a subway car.

So why not build such housing for people who are homeless? If a young Japanese professional is willing to pay $500,000 for his tiny castle, and a New York City couple is willing to plop down $150,000, why not build similar units for people without homes?

For the same price of building one standard affordable housing unit, we could probably triple the number of people owning their own homes.

People resorting to life on the streets have already turned to creative small-living options. The dramatic increase of homeless people living in Recreational Vehicles (RV’s), some the size of these mega-city apartments, is a sign that tiny living spaces is appropriate.

The fact that some homeless persons are turning to Public Storage units as a housing option is another indication that people are desperate for any private space no matter the size.

Building more, and more affordable, housing in this country is critical to ending the scourge of homelessness. But let’s increase the pace by reducing the size and increasing the number of units.

Photo credit: Tiny House Painting