Friday, December 27, 2013

So, they've reinvented the trailer park?

I don't mean to be a spoilsport, and I admire what they are doing, but this new "Tiny House" movement is all kinds of wrong headed.  Here's the gist of it: Madison Wisconsin, like the rest of the country, has a rapidly increasing homeless problem (up 47 percent in the last three years) which includes both single men and women and also families.  Occupy Madison has created a kind of temporary solution in these tiny homes--96 square feet, toilet, electric light, bed.  It doesn't say if they have kitchen facilities.  The cost per home is 3000 dollars which obviously compares favorably to the state paying hotels for emergency housing and may compare favorably to subsidized Section 8 housing if that housing is scarce or unreliable.  Right now the Tiny Homes are set up on trailers so they can be parked on the street and towed every 48 hours.  This gets around zoning issues but, of course, adds to the cost since the homeless person now needs to have a car capable of pulling the house or needs to be networked in with a community organization that will tow and re-settle them on a regular basis.  A potential long term goal may be to place 30 or so of these houselets into a planned community which would then, presumably, offer amenities like laundry, landscaping, common areas, cooking facilities.

From a long term perspective I'm not sure I think this is better than a properly run SRO, or some other kind of quasi public, subsidized, small housing for people.  For one thing these don't have kitchens or laundries attached.  So the occupant needs to satisfy these basic needs offsite.  They appear to be one room with a toilet--so they aren't a good fix for families who are homeless.  In addition, as far as I know from presentations I've been to for the homeless female population of my own city, an enormous portion of this population has substance abuse and mental health needs which need to be met.  They aren't all homeless merely because housing prices are out of sight around here. They are also homeless because they don't have the family and social networks that keep people couch surfing or living in a room in someone else's house.  Privacy is great but it can also create isolation. In fact one low threshold homeless shelter in my city has instituted a program to enable the women who do get apartments to come back to socialize with each other during some afternoons. They found that the isolation of being housed, after being on the streets, was very difficult for this population to take since they tended to lack family, jobs, and other social connectors.

I like the idea of some kind of mini co-housing model, in which people can share cooking, laundry, and workshop spaces while limiting their private spaces to these inexpensive houselets.  We already have high end co-housing here which enables people to downsize and conserve on space while sharing and co-owning areas, like a library or a big social space, that they only need once in a while.  Co-Housing and shared spaces are both cost effective and socially desirable--in the absence of affordable single family homes or apartments, that is.   But I wonder if this model of the stand alone (or pull alone) trailer bedroom is really a good solution for generic homelessness in many places? How is it different from recreating an privatized trailer-style living situation for vulnerable people? Its not even necessarily as good as a standard trailer, which have cooking facilities.  Also, it should go without saying that a stand alone house, which does not share walls, roof, utilities, hookups etc... with other units is not as ecologically conservative as a well designed apartment within an apartment building.


  1. I agree with the general premise of the article I think that such structures in limited numbers can play a vital role in preventing long-term and chronic cyclical homelessness, especially in bitter climate areas like Wisconsin. Keeping people off the street in an initial crisis is key. Keep in mind also that many near homeless completely reject the SRO and shelter housing. Assessment and matching to appropriate AFFORDABLE housing with additional support services for those who need them. We need to add to the continuum of housing across the spectrum.

  2. Bill, I absolutely agree. There is a place for lots of solutions because there are so many different kinds of homeless and so many different kinds of potential street and backyard/field solutions to siting temporary and small homes.

    However, all that being said, its unclear to me why this little house is better than a purchased and donated mobile home. Its cheaper, sure, but that is because its not independently mobile and it lacks certain ameneties. That poses other costs and problems down the line.

    As I said, I like the idea, but I feel like its a bit more ideologically blinkered or romanced than it is practical. Where I think they are trying to be true to an Ideology of Occupy Madison is in combining a group solution, crowd sourced labor and funding, and some kind of individual ownership model in building and distributing these homes (theoretically, because I"m not sure how many they have built.) Being true to an ideology, however, can also have its good and bad points. As I said this home was cheap to build but it lacks certain ameneties and it leaves the newly housed person both independent and dependent in some weird ways--they are certainly independent from crappy government assistance, they aren't having to wait for a slum landlord to fix their apartment, the organization as a whole isn't waiting for a total solution for hundreds of people or being forced to raise the millions of dollars necessary to refurbish an entire apartment block. But that being said its a very isolated and isolating model for people who may (as I said) need a lot of social services. It also recreates a weird "houses first" dynamic. Apartments are really a lower cost and more ecologically sound solution--you can site them near ameneties, you have the numbers to draw ameneties, you can get public transporation routed to them so people can get to jobs without cars. I'm just really uncomfortable with the idea that putting people into temporary shelters that are both transient and not easily moved is going to be much of a solution.

    If the idea is that churches and charitable individuals are going to let lots of these houses squat on their property I think thats great--but again, why not a trailer? How is this different from a trailer? Other than the virtues, real and imagined, of the habitat for humanity look and feel?