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The Somewhat Discouraging Universe of Tiny Homes

House the Homeless recently mentioned a very bare-bones type of individual housing unit, containing only bed, desk, and shelves, that costs $25,000 apiece. (Coincidentally, this is the same amount that American taxpayers shelled out for a “privacy booth” to be built inside the office of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) But if that sounds excessive, prepare for worse to come.

A British entrepreneur has come up the iKozie, a pod “designed to provide temporary accommodation for the homeless.” In this transitional scenario, the tenant will pay the rent and water bills and buy their own food, as training to become a fully functional member of society.

The pod contains a bedroom, full kitchen, bathroom “module,” and entertainment zone, all within 186 square feet. It is said to comply with planning and building regulations, “and has an A rating for energy efficiency.” A crane had to be rented to install the prototype in a volunteer’s backyard, which must add considerably to the tiny unit’s cost — close to $53,000 American.

Even that is an amazing deal, compared with Portland’s pods, whose cost is projected to be a jaw-dropping $75,000 each, paid for by public and private funds. (Wouldn’t a used RV set up on blocks be more economical?)

Leanna Garfield reports:

Each 200-square-foot pod will have a unique design… The pods will be able to house one adult and two children — inside, there will be a bed (some have bunk beds), shelves, a toilet, and a desk. They’ll all come with heat and full plumbing.

In Portland, some 200 homeowners have indicated preliminary willingness to host a pod in their backyard. The people who move in are meant to pay a certain amount of rent, while receiving the same social services as the city’s other sheltered homeless citizens.

This summer the program started with four families. Multnomah County is home to an estimated 4,000 unhoused people, so pricey mini-homes in backyards will not be the whole solution.

HGTV, which hosts a lot of tiny-house shows, defines a tiny house as anything up to 600 square feet. This is actually capacious, compared to similar products, being for example three times the size of the iKozie. Sadly, the production company seems coy about price information, and the general impression is that their designs are more for the wealthy retiree than the struggling former homeless person.

It gets better

Is there a lower end to this spectrum? Yes. In the spring of 1915, an audacious experiment was underway in Wisconsin. After months of struggle, a group called Occupy Madison (OM) oversaw the building of three tiny houses by their prospective tenants. Even equipped with electric heaters, the structures only cost $4,000 apiece. A pre-existing commercial building holds bathrooms, a minimalist kitchen, dining room, workshop, and greenhouse.

The city considered allowing six more tiny houses to be built, if certain improvements were made. Apparently, bathrooms are the concern. Authorities often have a strange perspective on things. They tend to act as if, rather than live where several people share a bathroom, a human being is better off in the wild with no bathroom.

In this particular community, the homes are meant to be permanent, not transitional. OM is situated on private land and funded by private donations. One school of thought says the government should save tax dollars by encouraging this sort of project, but governments often find many reasons not to.

In Seattle, an organization built 14 tiny houses at a cost of about $2,200 apiece. Their size, 8×12 feet, or 76 square feet, is really minuscule, but each unit has insulation, electricity, and heat. Toilets and showers are in a central building. These are meant to be temporary places to regroup while attempting to make more permanent arrangements, and residents pay $90 a month toward the utility bills.

Maybe the federal housing authorities could encourage cities to be more inventive and adventurous about creating housing for people with very low incomes. The problem is not a shortage of know-how. Every day, some college student wins an award for designing an inexpensive small dwelling with basic amenities.

The problem is not a lack of materials that can be recycled and repurposed. The problem is not a shortage of volunteers eager to build something. The problem is not a lack of participation from the people who will live in tiny houses.

The problem is, very few settled people are willing to have a tiny-house village anywhere near them. Or a single tiny house in a neighbor’s backyard. Or in their own backyard. And often, even if the property owners who are directly concerned, and their neighbors, are on board, the housed people from other parts of the city will feel threatened, and throw a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Reactions?

Source: “Micro-house costing just £40,000 is unveiled,” DailyMail.co.uk, 08/30/17
Source: “Portland will start housing the homeless in tiny pods in people’s backyards,” BusinessInsider.com, 03/22/17
Source: “Tiny houses in Madison, Wis., offer affordable, cozy alternative to homelessness,” StarTribune.com, 03/16/15
Source: “Tiny-house villages: An innovative solution to homelessness?,” CSMonitor.com, 01/21/16
Photo credit: Tomas Quinones via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Tiny Homes: The Problem Beneath the Problem

How many kinds of small, self-contained dwellings are there? Dozens, at least. Every day smart and compassionate people figure out how to transform just about anything into minimalist living quarters.

There are miniature geodesic domes, Conestoga huts, and Cardborigami collapsible, transportable shade structures. There are tiny houses made of hempcrete, which repels mold, rodents and insects; and hemp grows quickly and economically almost anywhere. There are not-so-tiny houses made from shipping containers.

A design website relates how University of Southern California architecture students invented shelters, including a combined shopping cart and tent. In response to one assignment, students…

[…] conceived a village consisting of modular units measuring 92 square feet (8.5 square metres). Some contain bedrooms, while others are combined to form bathroom facilities and communal rooms. The complex also is designed to have outdoor terraces and courtyards.

However, a report from a different publication brings up some troubling questions. For MercuryNews.com, Susan Abram describes one Homes for Hope unit as a “mini-modular home” that includes only bed, desk, and shelves. In other words, toilets, showers, and kitchens belong in other units, to be communally shared.

The writer comments on the highly portable rectangles:

Made of a steel frame with structural insulated panels and aluminum cladding, the units resemble camper shells, with sliding windows. They can be heated and cooled, and stacked to create a community on vacant lots for 30 people or less. Social services, a community space and bathroom facilities also could be provided with additional funding.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on that sentence. “Bathroom facilities could also be provided.” Ya think? Abram explains the state law under which “emergency housing of no more than 30 beds can be opened in certain districts within a community” with no conditional use permit required.

Sounds like a stroll in the park, right? Wrong. She quotes some facts learned from project mentor Sofia Borges:

The next step is to get the units state certified so that the teams can begin mass production, Borges said. “If we get the unit itself pre-certified we don’t have to go through the permitting process each time we want to make more.”

That certification process, along other fees and licensing will cost $100,000. Individual units would cost about $25,000.

In what universe should the state be demanding a $100,000 bribe to okay such a simple item that could help so many people? The government presumably has a stake in housing the homeless. Why can’t it just give the green light? And $25,000 apiece, to make a cube with a bed, desk, and shelves in it? Really?

Endless creativity and originality are expended on turning out structures that are, in some cases, only a grade above cardboard boxes. Which is fine, because on a cold night, even a sheet of aluminum between you and the wind can make all the difference.

Based on rationales that range from baffling to incomprehensible, very few locales allow these minimalist solutions. The whole “tiny house” genre is riddled with restrictions, sanctions, ordinances, contradictions, and highly idiosyncratic rules — depending on the jurisdiction the project happens to lie in. In some places, a distinction is made between an actual dwelling and a “pod,” which might be a basic, no-frills box, and as long as it stays beneath a certain size, it’s allowed.

Dream pods

Two Januaries ago, Tucson, Arizona, was all in a tizzy over “dream pods,” basically plywood crates not much bigger than coffins, that activists constructed and brought downtown for people to live in. In March, after much controversy, orders were issued that they all had to go, along with every tent, lean-to, etc. Some of the dream pods were moved to the grounds of a church where they continued to be inhabited.

The problem beneath the problem is, literally, the rock-solid dilemma on which everything rests. It’s not that there aren’t enough housing units to live in, because there easily could be. There is plenty of encouragement for the recycling and repurposing of parts and materials. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been spent in designing units.

Among people experiencing homelessness and caring citizens, there is a great potential pool of volunteer labor. There is government money and private charity money — never as much as we might wish — but it is there, and obtainable by determined individuals and groups willing to do the work. But there is virtually nowhere to put tiny homes. Nobody wants shipping containers, or even storybook-cute mini-houses, anywhere near where they are.

Reactions?

Source: “California architecture students design shelters for LA’s growing homeless population,” Dezeen.com, 02/22/17
Source: “Can these small pods bring a big solution for California cities’ homeless crisis?,” MercuryNews.com, 10/13/17
Source: “‘Dream pods’ removed from Tucson homeless camp,” Tucson.com, 03/13/15
Photo credit: Laura LaVoie (wheezinggirl) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How to Become Homeless: Get Burned Out

For The New York Times, Kirk Johnson and Conor Dougherty interviewed people experiencing homelessness for the first time in the California city of Santa Rosa. Some consider themselves lucky to have grabbed cell phones, passports and a few clothes before fleeing the deadly blazes. (If you don’t have time to read the whole article, look for the story of a man named John Page.)

Most of the fire refugees who gathered at a donation center did not even have “the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.” Formerly secure Americans are learning the hell of being without documents, a condition all too familiar to both the chronically and temporarily homeless people of America.

Of the estimated 100,000 Northern California evacuees, some travelled as far as 70 miles to take refuge in San Francisco and Oakland, which were pretty crowded already, and expensive. A lot of those folks have nothing left to go back to. The cost in human lives is terrible with 40 people already known to have died.

NIMBY all over again

An old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a house in the woods; the environmentalist already has one.” This has been part of the problem in the state’s counties of Napa and Sonoma, where new housing starts come nowhere near to matching the number of new residents.

The people who work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have to live somewhere, but there is resistance to building in rural areas. The reporters also cite…

[…] the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Climate change increasingly plays a part in the likelihood of more fires. Tribune News Service describes the recent past and the probable future:

Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees Sept. 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades.

Some Santa Rosa evacuees are sleeping at the Sonoma Fairgrounds on Red Cross cots. Others are 20 miles away at a shelter manned by the National Guard. What will change in the aftermath of the current fire disaster? Housing prices were already ridiculously high and can only get worse, now that nearly 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. There will be many things to consider, in future housing plans, including better escape routes.

No one is exempt

Recent events make it very clear that people experiencing homelessness are not a different species. A fire can happen to anybody. Almost everyone knows someone whose life was changed irrevocably by a fire. Fire plays no favorites, and some of the narratives contain painful irony. For instance, a 2012 story (that has not been archived on the Internet) described how a Syracuse, New York, couple who had devoted their lives to helping the homeless, were themselves made homeless by a fire.

Seemingly senseless accidents happen, like when a toaster jammed and burned a house leaving an Iowa family of five homeless. In 2015, in Minnesota, a family that had been doubling up with relatives for three months finally completed the formalities and complied with the regulations to move into a house they were buying. The were in residence for only two weeks when a fire made them homeless again.

Sometimes it’s nature, and sometimes human malice is to blame. In January of this year, an apartment fire left 18 people homeless. The man arrested and charged with arson had a grudge against one of the tenants, and had made a previous attempt to burn the building. All kinds of things can happen.

House the Homeless has mentioned T.C. Boyle, whose novel The Tortilla Curtain sketched a heartbreaking picture of the existence of undocumented workers living in a ravine on less than nothing. His newer book, A Friend of the Earth, projects the bleak outlook for the California of the future. When a reporter asked for a remark on the current fires, Boyle said:

People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025. The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.

Reactions?

Source: “Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce,” NYTimes.com, 10/15/17
Source: “Wildfires and weather: Doom fiction called California reality,” WatertownDailyTimes.com, 10/16/17
Source: “Unattended Toaster Sparks Fire, Leaving Family of Five Homeless,” SiouxlandProud.com, 07/26/15
Source: “Previously homeless Winona family loses new home in fire,” KTTC.com, 10/11/15
Source: “Arrest In Buffalo Fire That Left 18 Homeless,” WGRZ.com, 01/22/17
Photo credit: Orin Zebest via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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How to Become Homeless — Be Flooded Out

On September 25, the president tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great.” However, it seems that some areas are experiencing and expecting even more flooding. And desolation is widespread.

Many people are experiencing homelessness for the first time. For some it is only temporary (though not at all easy), but others will never be housed again. Among those who were already homeless, conditions are worse than ever.

In Austin, Nacodoches and Dallas, people are still taking shelter. The City of Orange set up a headquarters able to hold 250 cots.

Only three days ago, I overheard in real time a conversation about trying to help a young couple with children in Texas. In their normal living space, wet building materials were being removed, while new drywall and other necessary supplies were eagerly awaited. The family was living in their van parked outside, and dared not venture far.

If funds were to be sent to the bank, getting to the bank would be a problem for them, and besides, they were not even sure if the bank was open. And there was no mail service in their part of the city.

The flood drowned 80% of the Gulf Coast town of Dickinson, and half the homes were totaled. To give just one small example of the struggles documented by reporter Quint Forgey:

Many trash haulers have abandoned this community to work in Houston, 30 miles north, where the pay is better… “That’s our biggest challenge — getting the debris trucks in here and keeping them here,” said Ron Morales, Dickinson’s emergency management coordinator…

In 2015, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority interviewed more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness (out of the estimated 44,300 in the entire county.) The agency was interested in what caused people to be unhoused. According to Authority:

For a fifth of those interviewed, it was primarily a matter of unemployment or finances. Seventy-nine said they were released from jail. Nearly 200 blamed a breakup or separation. Many cited multiple reasons from the list that interviewers read to them.

[…] Lost employment, lost everything by theft, lost Section 8 (federal housing assistance). Hurricane Katrina, fire and “God’s calling” were all cited too.

Often, disaster is one of the reasons, either alone or in conjunction with another misfortune. Ashlea Surles related the story of Jack, a 53-year-old man who lived in the woods in Mississippi. Once a wealthy businessman, he ran out of money paying for his wife’s cancer treatments, and she died anyway. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his house. He told the reporter, with confusing syntax, “Basically people that are homeless sometimes you’re just in the mold where they just don’t care.”

A year ago, Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and a neighboring town suffered severe damage, and it only took five inches of rain in a two-hour spell to cause the nightmare. “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” the headline read. In a place with a population of around 7,500, that’s a pretty big slice of the demographic pie.

Around the same time, Louisiana was slammed with a “1,000-year flood,” in other words, the kind of freakish disaster that is statistically predicted to strike only once per millennium. (Obviously, someone didn’t get the memo.)

In some communities — Denham Springs, for instance — 90% of houses flooded, leaving their owners homeless.

According to FEMA rules, wrote reporter Andrea Gallo, “people in shelters who owned or rented property before the floods qualify for the agency’s transitional shelter assistance, which includes rental assistance, the shelter-at-home program and temporary mobile homes as a last resort.”

Even though people are entitled to help, you can’t rent a hotel room that doesn’t exist, and how many hotels are in rural Louisiana? Without transportation, how do you even go and look for a place to live?

For The Advocate, Gallo profiled a couple who had lived in Walker until their house was inundated by over five feet of water. Gerald and Cris Burkins were placed in one shelter, then another, unable to meet with family members including their daughter whose boyfriend had just died in an auto accident. They were left with nothing, and needed, at the very least, a car and an apartment.

At the height of the emergency, over 11,000 people were taken into Louisiana shelters, among them many who hadn’t been living in any particular place. While a lot of the people in this group may have received the benefit of a more gradual learning curve, flood victims have to very quickly come to terms with their calamitous displacement.

It must be interesting, for experienced homeless people, to see formerly housed neighbors hit with the reality of what having nothing is all about. Gallo says:

If there was ever novelty in living alongside strangers and not having control over what to eat, what to wear and where to go, it has long since worn off.

The reporter also interviewed a woman who had been only two years away from having her house mortgage paid off, suddenly made homeless with nothing but her two cats. Another woman hinted that individuals, such as landlords, could lapse into compassion fatigue:

When people did things for you in the beginning, it was “We want to help.” Now, it’s changed. We didn’t ask to be homeless.

*****

NOTE: Readers who missed the most recent post, “Flooding and Its Aftermath,” might wish to check out the part that begins, “What to do?”

Reactions?

Source: “Tent City offers temporary housing for evacuees,” OrangeLeader.com, 09/28/17
Source: “Texas Towns Crushed by Hurricane Harvey Struggle to Clean Up and Rebuild,” WSJ.com, 09/29/17
Source: “LA’s homeless, in their own words, on how it happened,” LATimes.com, 11/26/15
Source: “Hattiesburg men explain how they ended up homeless in a tent city,” WDAM.com, 2012
Source: “Flood leaves more than 50 families homeless in western Pa.,” WIFT.org, 08/31/16
Source: “Louisiana left stunned by damage from ‘1,000-year’ flood: ‘It just kept coming’,” TheGuardian.com, 08/16/16
Source: “‘We didn’t ask to be homeless’: 850 people remain in shelters, worry about being forgotten as others move on,” TheAdvocate.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Texas Military Department via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND