Can Tiny Houses Solve Homelessness in Portland?

2014 902 port stA tiny, mobile house in a Portland, Oregon yard. (Photo: Tammy)The city of Portland, OR recently announced it is seeking to provide tiny houses to convince people currently residing in Portland’s “tent cities” to relocate to the permanent structures.

According to Time.com:

An estimated 2,000 of its residents (are) sleeping under bridges, on streets and in empty lots in a variety of makeshift shelters, (so) the city of Portland, Oregon is on a quest to provide more safe housing for those without a permanent address.

The city launched a task force that is set to meet September 4th to assess the viability of using tiny homes as a potential for housing houseless people, says Josh Alpert, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Mayor Charlie Hales. Alpert hopes the first batch of homes will be ready for occupancy by late February 2015.

According to The Tiny Life, a typical American home is around 2,600 square feet, while the typical small or tiny house is around 100-400 square feet. Tiny Houses come in all shapes, sizes and forms but they focus on smaller spaces and simplified living.

Portland is not the first city to try this. Tiny houses are about to become housing for the homeless in Austin, TX as well.

Then there’s this guy, who’s turning trash into homes for the homeless in Oakland, CA.

If plans move forward, how would the tiny homes in Portland be funded? According to this KPTV report, the miniature dwellings would require start-up cash, probably in the neighborhood of $1 million. Josh Alpert, strategic initiatives director, had this to say:

Whether it’s city money, state money or federal money, we’re going to try and get creative and figure out all the places where we can bring money into this to try different kinds of pilots for different kinds of housing needs.

Hoping to provide these tiny structures is Tim Cornell, Managing Director of Techdwell LLC, maker of practical, green micro homes. He believes that Techdwell’s small homes are an ideal solution for housing those in need of shelter, especially the disadvantaged.” Techdwell’s website claims micro-home assembly can be accomplished in 2 to 4 days.

Cornell has some experience building micro-homes for those in need. Check out his work in Haiti:

Let’s be honest, tiny houses are cool. They look like socially acceptable adult forts that provide habitants with some truly wonderful benefits including the ability to live a simpler life.

But is Portland’s plan an adorable band-aid wrapped around a much more complex problem?

To help figure that out, let’s look at five key factors with help from homelessness expert Nan Roman, President and CEO of National Alliance to END HOMELESSNESS:

1) Lower Housing Costs is a Good Thing

High housing costs are a root cause of homelessness, and whether you’re buying or renting, housing costs today are more than many people in the U.S. can afford.

Roman points out, “If you’re making minimum wage, you’re really not making enough anywhere in the country for housing.”

The reality is, housing costs are going up a lot more than income, and as a result, Americans are now substantially less able to afford their housing costs than they used to be. CBS Moneywatch confirms “homes are becoming unaffordable for most Americans, a result of stagnating income.”

That makes scary sense.

While the median home price in the U.S. went up 31 percent from 2000 to 2010, median household income went up just 17 percent. So it makes sense that reduced housing costs could be a step in the right direction.

According to National Association of Home Builders, the average construction cost of a single-family home in the 2013 survey they did is $246,453. With Techdwell homes, Cornell claims he can provide Portland micro homes that sleep two people and have bathrooms and kitchens built-in for $20,000 each.

If plans move forward, Michael Withey of Micro Community Concepts in Portland says the tiny homes would be built on surplus city lands, and residents would pay rent between $250 and $350 per month.

When asked whether tiny houses could solve homelessness, here’s what Roman had to say:

The solutions to homelessness are not real complicated. They’re not easy, but they are not complicated. The most obvious solution to homelessness is housing, and with smaller houses comes smaller costs. If tiny houses can reduce housing costs, then great. That’s a positive.

2) Small Should Not Equate to Sub-Standard

About Portland’s tiny house plan, Roman cautions:

What needs to be watched out for is whether the housing is standard or sub-standard. There’s nothing wrong with tiny houses, but you want it to be real housing. You don’t want places that are ok for homeless people to live in that are not acceptable for others to live in.

The FlexDwell prototype (pictured at top) includes all the basics you’d want in a home, including two sleeping areas joined by a kitchen, bathroom and eating area, just on a smaller scale, measuring 16 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

Of course if plans move forward, whatever micro homes are erected in Portland will have to meet all city and county building codes.

3) Where They Go Is Important

Another point Roman made is that homes allotted for homeless people should not be clumped together in one location, but rather interspersed throughout the city.

That’s just what Portland plans to do. According to Alpert, the idea is to establish the micro communities in various neighborhoods so that no one area is feeling overburdened.

4) Social Services are Key

There are many factors that lead to homelessness, and as Roman points out:

Most people who are homeless are in crisis. So in addition to needing housing, they need to be connected with services; Mental health, substance abuse treatment services, employment services, parenting assistance, budgeting help, youth need family intervention/connection, training and technical assistance, and medical care.

Whether or not Portland has a plan for that is unclear at this time. The concept is still in the very early stages, and the city has formed a task force to examine it. Hopefully when it meets in a few weeks, this important concern will be addressed.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to homes for the homeless, smaller could be better if it reduces housing costs, but not if the dwelling is sub-par, and not if they are tucked off into one separate section of the city. And homelessness will not be solved by new housing alone; support services that address key needs of those who are homeless are essential to its success.

So to the question: can tiny houses in Portland help solve homelessness? It seems like a hopeful step in the right direction, and with the right support services to go along with it, Portland’s efforts will hopefully succeed and who knows, perhaps pave the way for other cities to follow suit.