San Jose residents don’t want tiny houses for the homeless nearby

Several cities have looked into tiny houses for the homeless (examples here and here) but residents in San Jose don’t like the idea:

But finding sites for the tiny home villages — which could house up to 25 people — proved to be a major challenge. The city looked for publicly owned sites that were a half-acre in size, near transit and with access to utilities. But after an outpouring of complaints, San Jose officials added even more restrictions — 100 feet away from homes and creeks and 150 feet from schools and parks, leaving just a handful of potential sites.

“It’s a shame that we didn’t have more viable opportunities from this list,” said Ray Bramson, the city’s acting deputy director of housing. “But we were constrained because land is so hard to find in this community. Some of the major concerns that we heard were about the potential impacts, from traffic to noise to new people coming into the neighborhood. We’re trying to be respectful of neighbors and the community.”…

“They’re almost segregating homeless families from existing neighborhoods and that’s not what San Jose is about,” Campos said. “If we can do this right and not give in to NIMBY-ism, then we set the path for other cities in California to address the homeless crisis in their own communities. This sends the wrong message.”…

But there’s push-back on those remaining sites as well. Councilman Johnny Khamis said at least 30 people came to his “open house” office hours last Saturday to voice concerns about the tiny homes site at Branham Lane near Monterey Road in his district. Residents were concerned about security and the “vetting process for the homeless,” he said, fearing crime, especially related to drugs and assaults, will rise.

How can a city address homelessness if few local residents want to live anywhere near the formerly homeless? Cities are sometimes criticized for sending the homeless out of town but it sounds like this could be an outcome here through restrictive options without officially sending them away.

There are several options available here but they aren’t that good. Homelessness, like many urban issues, is not just present in the big city but rather is a regional issue. Could multiple communities chip in? (Unlikely.) Perhaps the city could loosen their restrictions – such as needing a half acre of land – since these are unique housing units. (The neighbors might even be less happy if tiny houses are squeezed in smaller lots.) Try to shame the public into addressing homelessness? (Not a good long term strategy with voters and whatever shame might not be as compelling as the idea that their property values could fall.)

“Tiny Houses Are Big” – with 10,000 total in the United States

Tiny houses get a lot of attention – including this recent Parade story – but rarely are numbers provided about how big (or small) this trend really is. The Parade story did provide some data (though without any indication of how this was measured) on the number of tiny houses in the US. Ready for the figure?

10,000.

Without much context, it is hard to know what to do with this figure or how accurate it might be. Assuming the figure’s veracity, is that a lot of tiny houses? Not that many? Some comparisons might help:

Between February 2016 and March 2017, there were over 1,000,000 housing starts in each month. (National Association of Home Builders) Within data going back to 1959, the lowest point for housing starts after the 2000s housing bubble burst experienced about 500,000 new housing starts a month. (Census Bureau data at TradingEconomics.com)

The RV industry shipped over 430,000 units in 2016. This follows a low point of shipments in recent years back in 2009 where only 165,000 units were shipped. (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association)

The number of manufactured homes that have shipped in recent years – 2014 to 2016 – has surpassed 60,000 each year. (Census Bureau)

The percent of new homes that are under 1,400 square feet has actually dropped since 1999 to 7% in 2016. (Census Bureau)

Based on these comparisons, 10,000 units is not much at all. They are barely a drop in the bucket within all housing.

Perhaps the trend is sharply on the rise? There is a little evidence of this. I wrote my first post here on tiny houses back in 2010 and it involved how to measure the tiny house trend. The cited article in that post included measures like the number of visitors to a tiny house blog and sales figures from tiny house builders. Would the number of tiny house shows on HGTV and similar networks provide some data? All trends have to start somewhere – with a small number of occurrences – but it doesn’t seem like the tiny house movement is taking off in exponential form.

Ultimately, I would ask for more and better data on tiny houses. Clearly, there is some interest. Yet, calling this a major trend would be misleading.

 

Irony of getting away from society: resources are needed

An interesting article about intentional communities includes this insight into why they might not be available to everyone:

And perhaps these communities are not as immune from worldly flaws as they might like. For example: Many of them struggle to be accessible to people other than middle-class white folks. Sky Blue, a Twin Oaks resident who also serves as the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, said there are “a lot of racial [problems] and racism that are embedded in intentional communities.” Even despite good intentions, “Liberal white people who have a desire for diversity don’t necessarily understand what it means to be inclusive,” he said. “They’re going to create culture in [their] intentional community that is going to be comfortable for them, which isn’t necessarily comfortable for people of color, or people with disabilities, or people who are gay or trans.” Ethan Tupelo, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who lived at Twin Oaks before he began studying intentional communities academically, said residents talked about this issue a lot when he was there. “It’s a bunch of white people sitting around wondering where all the people of color are,” he said. “It’s nice that you’re thinking about that, but it’s also frustrating.”

Tupelo sees a structural explanation for the inaccessibility of intentional communities: It takes a lot of cash to get off the grid. “Even when starting a new community, you need the capital to do it in the first place if you want it to be a legally recognized thing, as opposed to squats,” he said. As Nicolas and Rachel Sarah’s experience at the Downstream Project shows, becoming untangled from capitalism also means becoming much more vulnerable. It’s tough to imagine a comprehensive way of replacing health insurance, not to mention programs like welfare, in a world without government.

To truly get away from big government, big society, and capitalism, it really helps to be pretty well off. This is one of the disadvantages of being powerless: you are at the mercy of others rather than having options.

This reminds me of some of the attention I see given to tiny houses: it seems like many of those interested are not working-class people struggling to get by who need affordable housing but rather educated white people who want to minimize some distractions in life and focus on what they really want to do (pay attention to family, travel, etc.). Or, those interested in minimalism: they appear to be middle and upper-class people who are seeking a new way of living because of unhappiness with the “typical” American/Western consumeristic lifestyle.

How about a foundation starts giving away money and resources to those who don’t have their own means to form intentional communities?

Shaming residents in small housing units

Without data, it is impossible to know how common this might be but one family in San Diego was recently chastised for living in a two bedroom condo:

Mike and Kelly Brüning, from San Diego, CA, are feeling shell-shocked after receiving an anonymous letter from a neighbor shaming them for the size of their house. According to San Diego’s KSWB, the couple, who have a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, have been living in their two-bedroom condo, not far from the beach, for almost nine years.

In the scathing letter, the neighbor called the parents out for being too “selfish” to get a big enough home with a yard for their kids. (We are not making this up.) “Because you like the beach, your boys are trapped in a tiny, one bedroom upstairs apartment,” the message read. The rude neighbor then closed out the nasty letter by saying “SHAME ON YOU.”

This sort of article brings out the worst in the Internet: (1) a single incident that may be representative of nothing (2) paired with a bad headline and text suggesting the owners live in a tiny house (no – tiny houses tend to be something different than two bedroom condos) (3) plus discussions of shaming when this is really just ridiculous passive aggressive behavior on the part of a neighbor.

On the other hand, if tiny house dwellers suddenly ran into such a backlash – neighbors and others thought that such small spaces limited the upbringing of children – this could be interesting. There are a number of reasons people might be opposed to tiny houses, particularly zoning and property values issues. If this occurred, it could be akin to those who have claimed that McMansions – the opposites of tiny housesare bad for children.

Small house movement spreads in ADUs

One way to encourage smaller homes and affordable housing is to allow Accessory Dwelling Units:

The cottage, which won a top design award last year from the American Institute of Architects, is technically called an “accessory dwelling unit,” or A.D.U. Portland has been ahead of the curve in allowing these smaller housing units, which are illegal in many cities and towns under current zoning rules…

In 2010, during the economic slump, when many building plans were being shelved, Portland presciently began to allow homeowners the right to develop accessory dwelling units on standard 5,000-square-foot residential lots for the first time. The city also eliminated development charges of up to $15,000 for new accessory dwelling units to spur homeowners to build.

More incentives followed: Homeowners could build and even rent out a unit that did not have off-street parking; any design not visible from the street could be built without input from neighbors; and new height limits — raised to 20 feet from 18 feet — encouraged two-story units, like Ms. Wilson’s…

Not surprisingly, the concentration of accessory dwelling units has been in central, higher-income areas close to amenities like transit and shops. “Part of this could be due to the fact that people with large amounts of equity can more easily secure financing,” Mr. Wood said. “The City of Portland and Portland State University will be working on a project to encourage and facilitate A.D.U. development in more diverse neighborhoods.”

It may be helpful to compare the ADUs to other alternatives for affordable, small housing.

  1. Would residents and communities prefer tiny houses on their own lots or in communities of tiny houses? The first could be expensive due to the cost of land, defeating the purpose of the smaller housing which is supposed to be cheaper. The second could be too much of a change for some places. ADUs make use of existing lots and aren’t necessarily grouped together.
  2. Would residents and communities prefer larger apartment buildings? On the plus side, you can build more units up and everyone knows that this is an apartment structure (with its higher densities and other unique features). On the negative side, apartment buildings can alter the character of a neighborhood, may require parking, and people often have stereotypes about who lives in apartments. The ADUs hide the higher densities better than apartments – back behind the main housing unit – but don’t provide as many units.

Given the resistance of many municipalities to denser housing, I imagine ADUs could be attractive as they don’t require the density or size of some alternatives. Additionally they can use existing land and generate income for local residents. Even given all that, I think it would take a lot for many cities to adopt this. There is a large need for affordable housing throughout the United States and many communities don’t seem to be moved to do anything; I’m not sure ADUs are attractive enough to tilt the scales.

 

Bringing tiny houses to Chicago’s young homeless

A new plan involves housing homeless teenagers in Chicago in small units:

11,447 – Homeless unaccompanied youth, ages 14 to 21, according to an estimate by CCH

374 – Youth shelter beds across Chicago, according to CCH

The tiny homes, the way they are being planned by the working group, would cost $55,000 to $65,000, excluding the cost of the land or any site work like landscaping. Tenants would have yearlong leases, and the group is hoping that a local nonprofit would play the role of the landlord. Tenants would pay the utilities.

Next to funding, the biggest obstacle tiny homes advocates face is zoning. Chicago zoning attorney and Chicago Tiny Home Summit panelist Danielle Cassel said she ran out of sticky notes when logging inconsistencies between tiny home models and zoning code requirements.

Multiple communities have had discussions regarding plans to house the homeless in tiny houses – see earlier posts here and here. But, it seems that their smaller size and lower cost are not automatically enough to overcome the issues that affordable housing generally faces. Namely, there are three concerns: (1) who will finance these units? (2) who is willing to live next to them? and (3) will enough units be constructed to make a sizable dent in the populations that need such housing? Take Chicago: while it isn’t as expensive as New York City or San Francisco, the cheaper land is in less desirable areas, zoning guidelines will have to be altered, and there is a tremendous need for cheap, durable housing.

A cynical take is that several units or colonies will be constructed in a few Chicago neighborhoods and then touted as solutions. However, much would have to change for tiny houses to be a sizable solution for homelessness and affordable housing.

Disapproval of a boyfriend who lives in a van/tiny house?

One letter writer to Dear Prudence thinks that her boyfriend’s life in “a pretty impressive tiny house” may not be approved by her loved ones:

Q. Man with a van: I met a guy online, and we’re far enough along that I’ve told some family and friends, but they haven’t met him yet. Here’s the rub: He is currently living in a van, which he has turned into a pretty impressive tiny house. He’s doing it for thoughtful and responsible reasons. I think it’s cool, but I know people in my life are going to find it off-putting and judge him negatively. I want them to meet him first before I explain this. I also don’t want him to know I’m overthinking this and freak him out about meeting people in my life. Should I get it over with and tell them?

A: I think this is an unnecessary burden you are taking on yourself. Let him tell people. He can explain his thoughtful and responsible reasons better than anyone else. If your friends have questions or politely worded judgments for you afterward, you can handle them as they come, but don’t feel responsible for managing other people’s perceptions of your boyfriend’s living situation. What he does is unusual, and your friends might have questions, and that’s fine. If you come across as desperate to justify his choices, you’ll mostly just come across as desperate.

Prudence suggests the letter writer should take it easy and let the boyfriend explain things. But, this sort of sidesteps the possible issues:

  1. Is the van/tiny house not really that nice? Or, is it simply hard to tell from the outside how nice it is?
  2. Perhaps the family members and friends would see living in a van or vehicle as a negative consequence related to not having a good job or education. If so, is the issue really not the van but rather what it might signify?
  3. I wonder if some people simply wouldn’t react well to tiny houses. They may not understand how or why someone wants such a space. Perhaps they view such housing as transitory, not a long-term solution.

My guess is the issue is #2: living in your van is not a positive status symbol. But, since it is a tiny house, perhaps the couple can throw a party at the van/tiny house to introduce everyone…