A Small Way to End Homelessness

By | Feb 25, 2014

oakland-tiny-house-1When I was young, growing up in my hometown in Southern California, there was an urban legend that circulated throughout our neighborhood and across the school playground.

The legend was that there was a secret neighborhood within our own town that consisted of Little People living in cool little homes lined up along miniature tree-lined streets. It was frequently referred to as “Midget Town.”

No one ever saw this alleged town, but the stories sure sounded real. “My step-cousin’s brother-in-law once accidentally stumbled into the town, and was surrounded by Little People,” people would claim. My friends and I were always enthralled by these tales.

I sometimes think one of the solutions to homelessness could very well be found in this urban legend.

In Southern California, the average cost of building one permanent supportive housing apartment unit can reach $300,000. That is a lot of money for a subsidized housing unit. The problem is that some city codes, or capital funding requirements, mandate housing design conditions that dramatically increase the cost of the unit.

For example, sometimes there are required parking spaces for people that will probably never drive. There may be minimum square footage regulations that reflect market-rate condos, rather than affordable housing units. Or there could be required balconies and open spaces.

A $300,000 unit should be a market-rate loft in an up-and-coming downtown neighborhood, not a publicly-funded housing unit for people who could very well be paying $100 per month for rent.

Perhaps the solution can be found in the tales of Little People, and their little homes, that I once heard in my youth. We need to build smaller, more cost-efficient housing units that get people off the streets.

This approach is already being used in Olympia, Washington right now. They are building 144 square foot non-attached homes at a cost of $88,000 per unit. The actual construction cost is just $19,000 per unit, including paying prevailing wages.

At such a minimal cost, we could build 3.5 of these small units for every traditional affordable housing unit built today. Instead of building a 100-unit affordable housing development, we could build 350 separate homes.

Washington, D.C. is also building small, (200 square foot), homes. They are putting together these instant houses together as easily as if they came out of boxes from IKEA.

And, in New York City, some people who struggle to afford an apartment are moving into 175 square foot “micro-studios.”

I wrote about these tiny castles a few years ago, describing how miniature homes could actually be a small solution to ending homelessness.

Building smaller just makes sense. I would rather live in a 10’ by 15’ home, with a kitchenette, a bathroom, and a roof over my head, than spend the night in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk.

I would have never thought that those intriguing tales of little homes, told to me by a friend while we were hanging on the school’s monkey bars, could be a modern solution for people without homes decades later.