If you hang out with people who enjoy things like “clean eating,” yearlong getaways, and Marie Kondo coffee table books, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve stepped inside a tiny house.
Bear in mind, we’re not just talking about a “small” house here. Tiny houses, as most of us know them, are works of architectural whimsy that have taken up photographic residence in magazines like Conde Nast Traveler. They’re packed with features such as the shower-tub combo made from a wine barrel. Some tiny houses can be latched to the back of a vehicle and taken on the road, so if you work remotely (or if money isn’t something you think about) you could park your tiny house in the Grand Tetons for a week before dragging it over to Acadia.
The tiny house fantasy wasn’t really a thing until the aftermath of the 2007-2008 housing bubble explosion and the recession. Old school lifestyle “influencers” like Henry David Thoreau were early pioneers of leading simpler lives in tiny houses. But the notion that a tiny house could also be beautiful and innovative—an idea that emerged from the crater left by the recession—feels like a backlash to the grandiose real estate fantasies that once had Americans hot and bothered. We used to dream of spiral staircases, four-car garages, and waterfall-festooned pools that could be used for music videos or orgies. When the housing market tanked, we downsized our dreams.
Today, like many ideas that begin in upper-middle-class circles, the tiny house is being prescribed as something that all of society could benefit from. Tiny houses are often framed as an ecologically sustainable alternative to the traditional roomy house—just in time for the future era of mass displacement caused by climate change. But we don’t have to wait for sea level rises to imagine how the tiny house could be leveraged as a solution to our homelessness crisis. American cities are now building their own tiny houses to address that exact problem.
In recent history, the fix for homelessness in America has been shelter beds and, ideally, a case-manager–assisted segue to long-term housing. The trouble is that permanent housing for homeless people is in short supply. Many communities aren’t keen on building it, and those that want to build aren’t getting much support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds permanent housing projects. In search of a solution, more cities are tentatively embracing the tiny house in myriad ways.
Last year, reporting for The Outline, I wrote about a tiny house experiment that took place here in Boston—where I and thousands of other residents are barely able to afford rent, and where the homeless have endured shelter closures and abuse from the Boston Police Department. The city, no doubt seeking better PR, joined forces with an architectural fellow at Harvard who had created a product known as the Plugin House: a simple build-it-yourself tiny house. What Boston wanted to do was persuade wealthy homeowners to build these houses in their backyards—ideally so that they could be used to accommodate either a homeless person or a low-income renter facing displacement. The city actually set up a prototype plugin house in Government Center plaza (a very busy stretch of Downtown Boston) so that passersby could experience them.
The idea didn’t germinate into policy. It was part of a pilot program in which Boston studied the efficacy of accessory dwelling units as a partial solution to its affordable housing shortage. But Los Angeles is taking this idea even further. The city has been trying to loosen zoning laws so that homeowners who want to make some money can build and rent their own ADUs—including backyard tiny houses. It also launched a pilot program in which homeowners are given a 10-year forgivable loan of up to $75,000 to build the ADU themselves and house a homeless person or a tenant who participates in the city’s housing choice voucher program (meaning they would pay 30 percent of whatever income they might have, and the landlord would receive the difference between that and fair market rent from the housing authority). If the ADU owner continues doing this for 10 years, the loan is forgiven. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, for-profit startups like Rent The Backyard will supply eligible homeowners with a free tiny house in exchange for a portion of whatever monthly rent the homeowner collects from a tenant.
This is one way to do it—incentivize the comfortable to “share” a piece of their property with those who have no realistic pathway to permanent housing. (Though using the word share is a tad dodgy when you’re taking rent payments from a tenant.) Other cities, however, are sidestepping the whims of the individual homeowner and taking a more collectivist approach to building tiny houses for homeless people. Milwaukee, Denver, Sacramento, and San Jose are preparing to set up their own tiny house villages for the homeless—planned communities, funded and monitored by cities.
But Tiny Houses Won’t Fix Our Big Problem
One city in particular is already up and running with the idea. Seattle—home of Amazon, Starbucks, and one of the worst homelessness crises in America—has been building tiny house villages for the homeless with remarkable momentum. As of last March, the city had built 10 tiny house villages built on property owned by churches, nonprofits, and the government. Each one is funded by the Seattle nonprofit Low Income Housing Institute. The tiny houses are around 8×12 feet and are occupied by singles, couples, and even families. (According to LIHI, “A family of four can fit snugly in a tiny house.”) Some of the villages cater to specific demographics such as pregnant women, people of color, families with children, singles, or couples. Crucially, you don’t have to pay rent to live in one of these villages, which is a distinction that sets Seattle apart from other cities that are considering tiny houses as a workaround to building long-term housing.
There’s no time limit for how long somebody can live in one of Seattle’s tiny house villages. But according to LIHI executive director Sharon Lee, the average person’s village stay lasts about four to five months—during which time many are paired with a caseworker who tries to help them lock down permanent housing. The case workers actually work from within the village: the case management office is, itself, a tiny house. This, according to Lee, is one of the most integral pillars of Seattle’s villages. “[The case workers] work tirelessly,” Lee said. “They are so effective at getting people on housing waiting lists, Section 8 waiting lists, getting people IDs, employment, etc.” In 2018, 34 percent of Seattle’s tiny house dwellers were able to transition to permanent housing.
“Homeless people have to wait somewhere [for long-term housing] until their name comes up,” Lee says. “We [LIHI] own and manage 2,200 units of affordable housing, so we prioritize people who are living in the tiny houses into our own portfolio.”
Not all of Seattle’s tiny house villages were kickstarted by the city. One of them, Nickelsville, was actually created by homeless Seattleites themselves. Funding from LIHI helped residents of Nickelsville transform what began as a large tent encampment into a tiny-house village that was governed autonomously by the residents themselves—until recently. Earlier this year, a dispute arose between LIHI and Nickelsville. At the heart of this dispute was LIHI’s case worker provision. LIHI wanted Nickelsville residents to take more meetings with city case workers, to hasten their transition to permanent housing. This didn’t set well with many Nickelsville leaders, who felt that LIHI was trying to push them out of a community that they created for themselves. The talks fell apart. City workers were barred from entering Nickelsville. Shortly after, LIHI cut its subcontractor funding to Nickelsville.
The Nickelsville dispute brings to light many troubling questions about the efficacy of tiny houses as a solution for homelessness. But one of the most pressing is, why were Nickelsville leaders in opposition to the LIHI’s push for more meetings with case workers? According to a report from the Seattle Times, Nickelsville leadership felt that an uptick of case worker meetings would be futile because ”there isn’t enough affordable housing to make those meetings meaningful anyway.”
Let’s jump back to the stats for a minute. Last year, roughly one third of the people living in Seattle tiny house villages were able to find permanent housing. That leaves two thirds who weren’t. The city is investing in affordable housing development, but as we’ve seen in many cities across the nation, these projects are generally overshadowed by luxury development.
City leaders in Seattle and around the world see tiny houses as a bridge to a permanent housing. But how exactly do you build a bridge to something that doesn’t fully exist? And what implications does this have for the “bridge” communities themselves? The Nickelsville situation reminds us that tiny houses, while certainly a step up from shelter beds, are not meant for long-term occupancy. If you think of tiny houses as a simplified yet elegant response to the lavish and excessive houses that many used to dream of, living in a space no larger than a bedroom might seem fun—particularly if you’ve never had to deal with cramming your life into a 120-square-feet box. One of my fellow Boston residents, the writer Gene Tempest, experienced this while living in one of the “micro-apartments” that have been similarly framed as an affordable housing solution. The picture she painted wasn’t pretty.
“Even smell takes up space,” Tempest wrote in The New York Times. “We once made a meal that called for caramelizing three pounds of onions…. The eau de onion spread to everything. It clung especially to the moist bathroom towels and to the laundry drying in the bedroom. We were never clean again. Fresh from the shower, we immediately smelled of onions—of tiny house.”
The Tempest story, with its three pounds of caramelized onions, might seem a bit removed from the more elemental struggles of homelessness, but it nonetheless exemplifies one of the subtler ways in which tiny houses rapidly lose their luster. If you’re rich, tiny houses can be the equivalent of a juice cleanse. Going “small” can feel cleansing when you’re long accustomed to having more than what you need. And while tiny houses for the homeless certainly offer benefits that are preferable to shelter beds (a lock on the door, the feeling of privacy, pleasant colors, etc.) the fact that we’re not pairing them with expedited construction of housing that’s designed for long-term occupancy isn’t just a civic failure—it’s a civic regression.
Much as the modern tiny house village was preceded by sparser cabins of centuries past, the tiny house villages we’re seeing today are the descendants of Depression-era shanty towns that sprung up in American cities. Today’s villages may be regulated by the city and the residents may be supported by case workers, but what remains foundational to these villages—and the enthusiasm for them—is the consensus that right now, tiny houses are the best thing that we can do for homeless people. All of our aspirations to build housing for the homeless have failed to yield the housing stock that’s actually required to fix this problem. That’s because even today, decades after the Depression, America still doesn’t think of housing as a human right.
It’s likely that in the years ahead, the tiny house fad will start to wane, as soon as well-off people get bored and reacquaint themselves with the pleasures of more spacious living. And pending a major surge in affordable housing development, we’ll also start to see cracks in the tiny houses that cities are setting up for homeless people. That’s not to say that U.S. cities shouldn’t build tiny houses right now. As Lee put it to The Guardian in 2017, when Seattle’s tiny house villages were garnering press, “If the shelter can’t take [homeless people] where should they be?”
But in the same way that more homeless shelters didn’t change the game, more tiny houses can’t alleviate the homelessness crisis in a lasting way. So what will?
By “resistance,” I don’t mean people in the street throwing bricks (though this could happen too, if housing crises get worse). I mean people pushing back against “out of the box” policy ideas that reflect the proclivities and comfort of the rich—ideas that distract us from the obvious solutions to problems like the homelessness epidemic. When policymakers tell us “we can’t just build more housing,” we need to interrogate that idea and ask, “Why?” Is it cumbersome zoning restrictions? Or is it the likelihood that building housing for everybody would be viewed as a redistribution of wealth and resources that are currently being hoarded by a minority of wealthy people? Is the prospect of having to share those resources the biggest obstacle to fixing homelessness?
Consider Amazon—one of the wealthiest companies in the world, founded by a man who’s now one of the richest people on earth, and indisputably driving Seattle housing prices into the stratosphere. Amazon recently spent $1.5 million funding neoliberal candidates for Seattle’s City Council, in a nakedly obvious bid to drive out councilors like Kshama Sawant—councilors who’ve been supportive of not just the tiny house villages, but resurgent affordable housing development that would be subsidized by taxing Seattle’s wealthiest residents and corporations. But Amazon is also building its own homeless shelter, right in its downtown headquarters. Think about that for one minute. The most powerful and gluttonous company in Seattle won’t share its resources to build a wealth of permanent housing for the homeless (a drop in the bucket for Amazon). But it will allow homeless people to spend a couple of nights in its corporate office building. You almost have to wonder if the blankets, pillows, and cots will be provided and branded by Amazon Basics.
Now, compare Amazon’s shelter to what Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute is working on—a new village that consists of not tiny houses, but cottages that are slated to open in 2020. Each of these cottages will have a living and sleeping area, kitchen, bathroom, totaling 384 square feet, plus a loft. The bedrooms are the same size as the entire tiny house interior dimensions. The cottages are meant for families and individuals with modest income. They’re an example of what the other side of the tiny house bridge could look like, if realized on a grand scale—if subsidized from new revenue raised from “corporate citizens” like Amazon. Alas, from city to city, what we keep hearing is “tiny houses! tiny houses!”—but we shouldn’t have to scale down the idea of basic economic security to fit inside the dimensions of a tiny house. And yet, that’s precisely what we’re doing.