Homeless and Unemployed America: Should We Build Mini-Homes For the Masses?
If you’ve ever watched the TV comedy Seinfeld, you might have seen the episode where Jerry’s kooky neighbor Cosmo Kramer takes in some Japanese tourists overnight due to an incident. Kramer convinces the tourists to indulge themselves and blow their 50,000 yen cash on cowboy hats and boots — not realizing that’s only a few hundred dollars, causing them to lose their hotel accommodations due to lack of funds. When Kramer borrows extra pillows from Jerry and thanks Elaine for her friend’s gift of a chest of drawers, Jerry asks dismayed, “You have them sleeping in drawers?!” Kramer responds, “Jerry, have you seen the business hotels in Tokyo? They sleep in tiny stacked cubicles all the time. They feel right at home.” Absurd but nearly correct. Kramer is referring to the Japanese “kapuseru” or capsule hotels and their efficient use of space for short-term use. These business hotels have been around for over 30 years, and some of the sleeping pods are barely larger than a coffin. While a sleeping pod might be uncomfortable for long-term use, it brings up the point that we don’t necessarily need a lot of space to live in. In fact, there’s a “tiny home” movement going on in the USA and other places with an emphasis on sustainability — something that we need to take a good hard look at on a wide scale, given the giant economic crisis we’re having, and how it’s disrupted millions of lives.
Social Crises and Mini-Homes; Loss of Dignity: The Housing, Unemployment, Underemployment and Hunger Crises
Is it possible that sustainable tiny home, aka mini-home, communities might solve some of the housing problems in the United States? Let’s look at some facts and figures.
According to BankerBonusSeason.com, there are 10M homeless people in America. They might actually have mean 10M unemployed, because according to most other reports (including from the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development) — aka HUD), there were under 640K (633.8K) as of Jan 2012. This rate was calculated as about 20 homeless people per 10,000 Americans. (Note: Other reports put the numbers at 1.75M and even 3.5M homes. So there’s a huge discrepancy on how this figure is measured.)
The number of chronic homeless decreased 6.8% from 2011 to 2012
In 2012, there were over 62K (62,619) homeless Veterans. Although this is a 17.2% drop from 2009 and 7.2% drop from 2011, it’s still a lot for people who have sacrificed their own safety to serve others.
In 2012, there were over 240K Veterans who were homeless or at the risk of being homeless — 21% more than in 2011.
The unemployed and the underemployed also have housing concerns.
Over 10M (10.24M) Americans were unemployed as of Jan 2014 — a drop of over 5M from the Oct 2009 peak of 15.35M.
6.7% is the unemployment rate claimed by the Federal Reserve.
Other estimates suggest that the U.S. unemployment rate is much higher. Wall Street adviser David John Marotta claims it’s actually 37.2%. This does not include all the people who are under-employed. (On a side note, there are Americans with full-time jobs who are homeless.)
38 of 51 U.S. states and districts reported an increase in fair market rent rate between 2010-2011. Two bedroom units, on average, increased 1.5% nationally in that time period.
Over 6.5M households in 2011 spent over 50% of income for housing expenses — an increase of 5.5% from 2010.
Since rent and utilities costs are relatively fixed, this means that food budget is affected first when funds are low. The USDA’s (U.S. Dept of Agriculture) definition of “Food insecurity” is roughly that a household or individual lacks enough funds or resources to have consistent access to adequate food. Other definitions include having to live in constant hunger or fear of that, or even starvation. (Note that the U.S. government does not equate “food insecurity” with “hunger.”)
Nearly 50M (49M) Americans lived in food-insecure households in 2012. This is only 5.75% of the number of food-insecure people globally (~870M, or 1 of 8 people), but is roughly 14.5% (17.6M) of U.S. households.
There were a record number of households using food stamps in 2013 — as high as 20%, or over 23M (23.05M) households — an increase of over 720K (722.7K) households from 2012.
There were a record number of individuals on food stamps, as well: over 47M (47.64M) in 2013 — an increase of over 1M (1.03M) from 2012. That’s as if nearly the entire 2010 population of Dallas (~1.20M) suddenly went on food stamps in 2013.
How Can Mini-Homes Help Alleviate Some of these Social Crises?
The short of it is that there are a lot of Americans who are struggling. One survey suggests that 80% of U.S. adults — 4 out of 5 — are (feel they are) facing some form of near-poverty and/or unemployment. That’s a lot of people who cannot consistently afford the basics of life — or have to live with the thought of how “easy” it might be to slip over into homelessness. The American Dream — the one that includes having your own home one day — is gone for many. As well, and maybe most importantly, dignity is at a premium these days.
- Estimates put the number of vacant homes in the United States at around 14.2M.
- Some say it was as high as 18.4M units, or roughly 1 in 7 houses empty, as of Feb 2012.
- Apparently, legal complexities make it difficult to put homeless and other people into those dwellings, most of which are now owned by banks.
- Keep in mind that the banks paid out $91B in bonuses to select employees in 2013, according to BankerBonusSeason.com.
- Properties owned by the federal government, however, can be used by homelessness advocacy organizations. However, between 1988 and 2003, only 91 properties fit the criteria.
One possible solution: repurpose social assistance funds to build community clusters of small dwellings, and invite corporate sponsors in return for tax breaks. The potential savings each year in social assistance can be reinvested in additional such communities — essentially ending up almost like a form of compound interest on the initial investment.
- Tiny homes, or mini-homes, come in all shapes, sizes, materials and costs — and can suit singles and couples. Larger tiny homes for under $5000 (excluding labor) are reputed to “sleep 6 people comfortably”.
- Costs are as little as $200 for a partial geodesic dome home. However, repurposing $300/month per person in social assistance could cover the cost of a $3600 mini-home.
- Materials range from the standard (earth, straw, logs and wood, bricks, cement, etc.) to the recycled to the unorthodox (cheese — or casein, actually — for floors).
- Food costs can be reduced with individual and community gardens. Despite propaganda from certain large corporations, individuals in Detroit, LA, and other parts of the United States have shown that they can hydroponically grown many tons of food per year in the space of an average home’s backyard.
- Small greenhouses can also be built for as little as $50, and some solutions have sold for less than $18 in discount sales.
- Other options are small hydroponic grow towers 4-6 tall that can be installed for each dwelling.
- Additionally, food could be supplemented from other sources at lowered cost. According to FoodCowboy.com, the supply chain in the U.S. results in 30 tons of fresh produce wasted daily. FoodCowboy reduces food waste by rerouting surplus food to the hungry. Implementing a similar local plan for each mini-home community can further reduce food costs for residents.
The Next Steps
What would need to happen to make mini-home communities viable, to make them sustainable, as well as lowering the overall cost of living for residents? Here are some options, some of which are already being implemented on a smaller scale.
- Change bylaws to ensure that mini-homes are legal, provided they satisfy fire, electrical and other standards for dwellings.
- Contract local businesses to source materials in large lots, thereby creating work.
- Source scrapyards for old doors, windows, frames and other parts.
- Use recyclable materials as much as possible, for environmental consideration. Even old soda bottles have been repurposed to make roofs for small cottages. In other parts of the world, various items of “garbage” have been recycled into home-building efforts.
- Extend the amount of the low-income housing tax credit to developers who make sustainable mini-homes to spec.
- Invite companies to be sponsors to defray costs.
- To save building costs, have “tiny house building parties” and involve nearby communities, Habitat for Humanity volunteers, youth groups, students (who get course credit for their involvement), future mini-home residents, and anyone else that wants to participate.
- Incorporate “folding” furniture and shelving elements to maximize use of space.
- Use composting toilets where possibly, or where water lines are not yet available.
- Use compost for the soil gardens.
- Have hydroponic vertical tower gardens to optimize yardage and grow herbs and small fruits and vegetables — to reduce food bills.
- Have shared rainwater collection systems to supply water for both garden and home use.
- Create community greenhouses on the cheap.
- Use existing mini-filter systems for drinking water.
- Use composting toilets.
- Install a small solar panel array for power, with a grid that’s shared with an entire cluster.
- Install small wind turbines nearby, if logistics support the placement, for additional power. While wind turbines can be surprisingly expensive, savings from other components of a mini-home community project could balance this out. As well, corporate sponsors could be invited to cover some of the costs.
- Invite historically generous billionaires to donate via some of their charities.
Mini-homes are sometimes associated with “living off the grid.” However, such communities do not need to be that way at all. In addition to solar panels and arrays, turbines, hydroponic gardens, technology could be implemented in other ways.
Startup companies may be willing to donate technology or services in return for a tax break as well as a means to study how their technology can be improved for dwellings overall. E.g., home automation technology for programmable door locks, smoke detectors, temperature sensors, etc. Not everyone would use these, but for people who do, the data collected would be of value to associated startups.
A community work center could be added which provides a library (print and digital) and computers/ dumb terminals connected to the Internet. Residents could use this facility for online learning, retraining and job search.
Wi-fi from the work center could be used by residents from their dwellings, alleviating the need to install cabling to such dwellings.
Strike up a deal with the local Cable TV provider to have a community subscription rate, with the feed delivered via Wi-Fi from the work center.
Are Wide-Scale Mini-Homes a Pipe Dream?
In short, mini-home communities could be used as temporary short- and medium-term homes rather than as permanent dwellings. Of course, there are all sort of bylaws and logistical issues to be worked out (not to mention dealing with the “Not in My Back Yard” attitude some people might have) if large-scale mini-home communities were to be built, including issues of density. Despite the hurdles to deal with, this idea is not a pipe dream, and there are already real efforts under way in different parts of the USA.
- 200 people in the Austin, Texas, area will be housed in project called Community First Village, thanks to the vision of business man Allan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes [mfl.org]. Supporters are promoting a YIMBY (“Yes, in my backyard”) attitude for the project.
- On 27 acres of land will be a variety of tiny cottages, mobile homes, teepees.
- Other features in Community First Village: a Bed and Breakfast, outdoor movie theater, chapel, medical and vocational services.
- In addition to a 3-acre community garden, each home will have its own garden.
- Residents will be paying monthly rent.
- $10M — is the estimated yearly savings for Central Texas taxpayers for helping 200 chronically homeless individuals get back on their feet. This is savings that could be reinvested into additional such communities.
If you watch the TV sitcom “Two Broke Girls,” you might know that lead character Max has a boyfriend and fellow cooking school student, Deke, who lives in a dumpster he converted himself. While this is a sitcom and they never showed exactly how Deke’s dumpster’s plumbing was rigged, someone is actually trying out the idea in real life.
Dumpster diving extremes. Well fiction becomes reality. Jeff Wilson, aka Professor Dumpster, is spending a year living in and teaching from a dumpster. Wilson is a dean at Huston Tillotson University (Austin, Texas) and an environmental science professor. The dumpster is 6×6 in footprint — 1% of the average new American home as of 2011. The idea behind the dumpster is to be “net zero,” producing all necessary energy from solar panels. The dumpster will have water filtration, climate control (a necessity for the Texas temperatures), and waste reduction systems. The professor was to start his year in a dumpster in Fall 2013, after selling off most of his belongings.
70 square foot towable living pod. If you’re okay with a really tiny space, there’s the 70sq ft mobile OTIS (Optimal Traveling Independent Space). Designed by students, it’s just enough space for any single person, and can be hooked to a hitch for easy moving. The required trailer footprint is 5×8 =40 sq feet, and can be hauled by a 4-cylinder vehicle. The indoor plumbing uses a rainwater collection system, and solar panel generates 120 watts of power. There’s even a tiny kitchen. The toilet is a composting model. OTIS was designed by 16 students in Green Mountain College’s REED (Renewable Energy and Ecological Design) program, although no building cost for the dwelling was given.
Repurposed shipping containers. If you don’t mind the boxiness, shipping containers can be combined in two and threes to form multi-person dwellings.
Tents with durable framework. Imagine a home in the woods with three tents propped up with durable frames to form a multi-structure dwelling. That’s what one California man has done, and the bedroom structure offers at least some modicum of privacy.
In-city, short-term sleeping pods. Some airports, including Abu Dhabi, have installed oval-shaped sleeping pods for napping. Installed inside a controlled building in cities, this might supply overnight quarters for someone who doesn’t mind spending a few dollars.
Repurposed abandoned land and buildings. Rip down abandoned and unusable factories, schools, hospitals — allowing winning bidders to aid in the tear-down in return for taking salvaged materials. Then build clusters of mini-homes and stacked pods.
There are many more options for alternate dwellings than listed here. A workable combination of these concepts depends on the community, climate and other factors. A good overall solution needs federal, state and local government and community to be on board, but there are solutions to alleviate some of our housing problems that have resulted from the financial crisis. These solutions satisfy most of Maslow’s hierarchy of 5 primary needs, and most of all could restore some dignity to many people, as well as build new sense of community. Some communities are already demonstrating the viability of sustainable mini-home communities — something other communities could learn from.