Tiny homes: They’re colorful, cute, and hipster-approved, and for several years, public officials have been pushing them as a potential solution to unsheltered homelessness.
But how effective a solution are they?
The answer isn’t black and white, according to experts.
“The phrase [‘tiny home’] is meaningless because it has so many different meanings,” said Barbara Poppe, former executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. “So, when we think about [them, we picture] the tiny homes that you see on DIY shows, where they’re fully-equipped, compact places for people to live, really high-quality environments. They offer access to everything you need.”
Poppe, whose consulting firm, Barbara Poppe and Associates, studies community solutions to homelessness, said some communities embrace this model.
“There are those places across the country where they’ve developed those in a way that it feels very much like a quality residence to live in,” she said. “I’m all in favor of those, and I think the reason those have gotten developed in communities is because they come at a lower price point, or there’s available land that they fit within.”
She pointed to examples like A Tiny Home for Good in Syracuse, New York, as well as a neighborhood in Dallas.
But not all shelters referred to as “tiny homes” are cute miniature houses that provide tenants with all amenities. Many of the structures being embraced by municipalities like Seattle, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia in recent years are actually pallet shelters, which Poppe said aren’t always as comfortable.
“They don’t even have clear power,” Poppe said of some villages she’s visited. She continued, “They were kind of hotwired off telephone poles, they don’t have flush toilets, they had Port-A-Johns. They were pretty horrible places because they are so dehumanizing.”
What Is a Tiny House?
As Poppe said, there’s no set definition of a tiny home, but they’re typically smaller than 600 square feet. Some are built on wheels, but others are permanent structures with foundations like those in Syracuse.
A Tiny Home for Good has built 25 homes so far, with several more currently in various phases of construction. Working with the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County, as well as other local organizations, they acquire vacant land or derelict properties and build 350-square-foot houses, complete with a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen with a full-size refrigerator and a washer and dryer.
A Tiny Home for Good founder Andrew Lunetta said he first started looking into alternative housing ideas when he worked at a local shelter.
“I got to know the men who stayed there really well, and I had an opportunity to see a lot of the housing that was available for them, and the kind of housing that’s available for $400 a month is garbage,” he said.
In conversing with the men at the shelter, Lunetta determined what they were looking for in a home.
“Everyone just described the same thing—their own place with their own bedroom, their own bathroom, their own key,” he said. “And I thought a tiny home had that built-in.”
Tenants have access to various supports, including home health aides, mental health care, social services, and SNAP benefits, all coordinated through a tenant navigator.
Lunetta said he thinks one reason this works so well for tenants is that they live alone.
“There’s no roommate situation,” he said. “All of our houses are rented to one person at a time, so they have a little bit more privacy. There are also no requirements, so it’s not as if someone needs to stay sober or people need to be hunting for jobs. I think that’s a big piece of why we’ve had our tenants stay with us for so long.”
Moreover, thanks to different revenue streams, A Tiny Home for Good can keep rent low while maintaining high-quality housing.
“Rent is either based on our tenant’s income, or it’s $350 if they’re employed and don’t have a fixed income,” Lunetta said. “And we can do that because we raised money through the typical ways that not-for-profits do. So that can allow us to keep the quality of our housing high to be on-point with property maintenance.”
So why aren’t more cities embracing this model?
“There’s a significant risk in taking this on,” Lunetta pointed out. “We’re building these houses and then managing them long-term, and there’s a pretty significant upfront cost to doing that.”
But Lunetta pointed out that the long-term savings far outweigh the upfront cost.
“We’ve had a couple of really robust surveys done with our tenants [that suggest] our houses save the public tens of thousands of dollars every single year, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “And I think that there isn’t enough information out there about how cost-effective it is… to get someone out of the shelter system, out of the ER [and into] housing.”
Pallet Shelters: A Temporary Solution
While Syracuse’s tiny houses are permanent structures, the pallet villages going up in cities across the country are not. Instead, they’re meant to provide temporary, transitional shelter for 90 to 120 days. A representative for Pallet, one of the companies that provides materials for these shelters to municipalities across the country, emphasized that.
“These are meant to remedy a situation that is critical and remedy it quickly,” said Mike Mena, publicist for Pallet. “An ideal situation would be to have a much bigger place, more room, the bathroom is inside an actual kitchen. But what we have found is doing those things is problematic not just because of building materials, but because of the permitting that is involved to do that.”
Pallet’s structures are eight-by-eight-foot structures that can be assembled with simple hand tools in less than an hour. Based in Everett, Washington, Pallet has helped construct more than 1,500 such shelters in 63 villages in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. Some 80 percent of the company’s permanent workforce has faced homelessness, incarceration, or both.
Originally, Pallet’s shelters were meant to provide temporary housing for those who had lost their homes due to natural disasters. But during a staff meeting, an employee who had experienced homelessness said he would have appreciated a similar shelter when he was living on the street.
“He said it would have been good if he’d had a place that had a bed, if he had an address so that if he had a job application, people could find a way to reach him,” Mena said. “Good if he had a locking door so that if he went out to work, he could be sure that his belongings were safe. Good if it was temperature-controlled—if there was air conditioning in the summertime, if there was heat in the wintertime, things like that.”
When the pandemic hit, Pallet’s shelters came to be in high demand.
“One of the things that happened is that building materials started to become scarce,” Mena said. “So building permanent housing was problematic, and doing something like [what] Pallet [is doing] became more applicable.”
The biggest appeal of Pallet’s shelters is that they can be assembled quickly.
“You could assemble a whole village of cabins in a week,” Mena said. “And that has happened in a few instances, like… in Los Angeles. They had to get people off the sidewalk who are living in tents. They said, ‘We need 40 cabins that can be put up in a week,’ and we accommodated.”
According to Pallet’s website, the shelters—always built in clusters, or “villages”—are “designed to rapidly address unsheltered populations with a resource net of on-site social services, as well as food, showers, laundry, and more helps people transition to permanent housing.”
The villages include communal bathrooms with showers, a communal laundromat, and an office. Residents have access to a full spectrum of service providers, and three meals a day are provided on-site.
“In an ideal situation, wouldn’t it be better to be in something that is larger and has more space? Of course, and we recognize that,” Mena said. “We’re aware of the criticisms that have been launched. But for right now, it’s working pretty well. People can come out of cold places to warm up. They have a bed, they have a small desk area, they have places for their belongings.”
Mena asserted that Pallet’s shelters are meant to meet an emergency need.
“If you’re hungry now, and someone says to you, ‘I’m going to feed you, but I’m going to feed you in two weeks,’ that’s not as good as if I can feed you right now,” he said. “This is meant to be rapid deployment. It’s meant to help people right away, and people are meant to live in these from 90 to 120 days. At that point, the different service providers are helping them find permanent housing.”
The Problem with Pallets
The trouble is that too often, there is no connection to permanent housing.
In a column published Aug. 9, 2021, Philadelphia Citizen writer Josh Kruger wrote that they “cost too much and help too few; they don’t end homelessness, they sustain it, and they advance the idea that homeless people are subhuman.”
Kruger himself was homeless for a time, living on the streets of Philadelphia. He later worked for the city’s Office of Homeless Services. He argued in the 2021 column that shelter villages—Philadelphia constructed one last February—allow government officials and others to push the problem to the back burner and avoid investigating better, more permanent housing solutions.
“By taking homeless folks off the street and putting them in remote areas while never giving them housing and in some cases’ offering’ them sheds without running water instead of actual homes, you are doing what, exactly?” Kruger wrote. “[Tiny homes are] often called a step toward ending homelessness. How is that true when the final step, affordable housing, doesn’t even exist?”
Shelter Force writer Miles Howard raised a similar question when writing about Seattle in 2020. Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute constructed ten tiny house villages in 2019. One-third of the residents were eventually transitioned into permanent housing. But what about the other two-thirds?
“Until there is more affordable housing, this ‘solution’ leads nowhere,” Kruger wrote in the Citizen. “Instead, these are just feel-good boondoggles so middle- and upper-class people can feel like they’re doing something. Even worse, they don’t solve a problem, they make it easier to ignore. They’re storage sheds for human beings who otherwise remind us all of our society’s failure to care.”