Can tiny homes help solve homelessness?

Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images
Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/Denver Post via Getty Images

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Over the past few years, tiny homes have become a quirky real estate fad for people looking for a more affordable, downsized alternative to traditional houses. They’ve inspired nearly a dozen reality shows.

But cities across the U.S. are also investing in tiny homes as a key part of their answer to homelessness.

Tiny homes can vary from the size of a shipping container down to as few as 64 square feet. The best-equipped have a private bathroom, cooking area and room for storage. The simplest ones are little more than a small box with a bed inside.

Tiny home projects for the homeless have been built in areas of the western U.S. where the problem is most acute, including Seattle, Portland, Ore., and big cities throughout California. There are also tiny-home communities in places like Boston, Denver and Austin, Texas.

These houses are not intended to be anyone’s permanent home. Instead, they’re designed to serve as “bridge housing” that allows people to achieve the stability they need to transition to a long-term option.

Why there’s debate

Proponents of tiny homes say any plan to break the cycle of chronic homelessness has to start with giving people reliable housing as a first step, but sky-high costs and legal barriers prevent that first step from ever being taken. They argue that even the most bare-bones home can make a massive difference for people who are trapped in an unstable cycle of sleeping on the streets and bouncing in and out of homeless shelters.

Tiny-home advocates say it’s better to give a larger number of people a basic form of shelter than to spend more money on more elaborate housing that helps fewer people. Organizations that run tiny-home villages also say that the projects are often able to get around strict local zoning laws that prevent larger homes from being built, and that tiny homes face less local opposition than tent encampments that some cities have started sanctioning.

But critics say tiny houses don’t actually solve homelessness because they’re designed to serve as only temporary shelter and do nothing to address the severe shortage of long-term housing that has pushed so many people out onto the streets in the first place. Some homeless advocates fear that tiny-homes projects will suck crucial attention and funds away from efforts to build permanent, full-size homes for needy populations.

What’s next

Even the most committed cities have plans to build only enough tiny homes to house a small fraction of their homeless populations. But over time, those projects should provide some critical data on whether tiny homes are as effective as advocates hope they’ll be.

Perspectives

Tiny homes are a major step up from the other options homeless people have

“The advantage of these ultracompact structures is that they are inexpensive, can be erected quickly and take up little space. They afford the occupants far more privacy and independence than the typical homeless shelter.” — Editorial, Chicago Tribune

Tiny homes are shelter that unhoused people will actually want to utilize

“Tiny home villages can also reach unsheltered people who would otherwise shun city outreach: They typically have low barriers to entry — unlike most large group shelters, these villages typically don’t require sobriety, for example. Most allow pets, and in some, residents can participate in the rule-making and governing of the community.” — Hannah Wallace, Bloomberg

Of course permanent housing would be better, but that’s not realistic right now

“Some homeless advocates don’t see [tiny homes] as a good thing. Their response highlights a shortcoming among some people working in this area, whose tendencies to prioritize ideal solutions over addressing immediate needs threaten to leave [homeless people] out in the cold.”

— Helaine Olen, Washington Post

Money that goes to tiny homes would be better spent on long-term housing solutions

“Everyone says we need all of these options, and there’s no question that’s true. But at some point, the level of investment that’s going into temporary shelters starts to supplant permanent solutions.” — Shayla Myers, senior attorney at the Legal Aid Foundation of L.A., to Curbed

Tiny homes are not all created equal

“At the heart of the tiny houses debate is a question about the meaning of housing and shelter itself. As more companies rush to manufacture models with varying features — some out of plastic, some out of repurposed shipping containers, some built on factory assembly lines, others on-site or on wheels, some with in-suite bathrooms, kitchenettes, and storage space, others lacking plumbing and electricity and with virtually no amenities at all — there is little consensus on what a ‘tiny home’ is, or what standards it must meet.” — Rachel M. Cohen, Vox

Tiny homes are about placating unhappy residents, not supporting the homeless

​​“People are tired of seeing homelessness and they’re saying, ‘Do something, now.’ I think these non-congregate shelters are being positioned as the, ‘We’re doing something now.’” — Jennifer Loving, CEO of the nonprofit Destination: HOME, to CalMatters

Like all homeless interventions, shelter is just the first step

“There are several things tiny home programs can do to up their odds of success, although all of them boost costs — including connecting residents to case workers and giving them access to private bathrooms. Allowing people more time to get back on their feet also can help, as participants who stay longer than six months are more likely to move into permanent housing. But most tiny home programs are set up for stays of just two to six months.” — Marisa Kendall, Mercury News

We know how to truly solve homelessness, but instead we waste money on fads that won’t

“Evidence-based, data-driven results aren’t as adorable as a tiny house with a cute little window and a teeny planter outside, I admit. The so-called tiny house village offers what? An experiment using human lives when we have a solution that works that we simply don’t fund? A vanity project for rich or privileged people providing a bridge to nowhere, no permanent housing?” — Josh Kruger, Philadelphia Citizen