Why tiny homes will remain part of California’s homelessness equation for years

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JEANNE KUANG | CALMATTERS

Despite moving in to her new digs just a month ago, Darlene Pizarro and her white dog, Angel, are already regulars at the local dog run.

Pizarro’s new place is not quite a city neighborhood and where she lives isn’t quite a home, but a tiny home, one of 94 city-funded units for the homeless at that lot. But Pizarro, who last lived as a squatter in an abandoned house, was relieved to be there.

“Tiny home” describes a specific type of housing more permanent than a tent or disaster shelter, but less than a single family home, townhouse, apartment, or something else thought of as permanent housing. The structures — smaller than 400 square feet, often lacking either a kitchen or private bathroom — have become increasingly common in California’s response to homelessness over the past five years, though opinions are split on how much to rely on them in years to come.

The site of Pizarro’s tiny home, on Guadalupe Parkway in the city’s downtown, opened in May as the newest of San Jose’s six sites that aim to fill the steps between traditional, congregate homeless shelters — think “room full of bunk beds and cubicles” — and an apartment of one’s own.

It boasts all the fixings of what homeless advocates say are best practices for temporary housing:

• Individualized case management allowing residents to stay as long as they need to get permanent housing

• Laundry and kitchen facilities

• The privacy of individual rooms that lock, with personal bathrooms

• Other elements that emphasize residents’ dignity, like the dog run and weekly community events.

Tiny homes are sometimes called modular homes or, in the case of San Jose, “emergency interim housing.” The city is all in, operating more than 600 such beds across six sites and building more. Mayor Matt Mahan attributes to them a recent 10% decline in the city’s unsheltered population, and notes that of the 1,500 people the city has sheltered in its tiny home sites, 48% moved to permanent housing. That’s compared to an average rate of 34% across Santa Clara County’s shelters over the past three years.

Tiny homes are increasingly California cities’ shelter option of choice for new sites to house the homeless. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration earlier this year said it is sending out 1,200 units statewide. San Jose and Sacramento, each set to receive hundreds, recently said they had selected their sites; as of October the state is still selecting vendors to build the homes.

The rise of the tiny home

Mahan’s zeal to open more tiny home sites got him in hot water this year in an age-old debate over which end of the housing shortage to focus on: temporary or permanent.

Advocates of tiny homes say they’re fast, cheap ways to get people sheltered immediately. Other longtime homeless advocates applaud tiny homes as improved shelter options, but are wary about over-relying on them in the long-term solution to homelessness.

“Non-congregate tiny homes are better than congregate shelter, but people are still homeless when they live there,” said Jennifer Loving, CEO of the nonprofit Destination: HOME, one of the primary agencies coordinating Santa Clara County’s response to homelessness. “You may be getting some more homeless folks into temporary shelter, but what about the hordes of people dying for an affordable place to live?”

In June, San Jose officials diverted $8 million of the city’s $137 million in homelessness and housing funding from developing affordable housing to running and building more tiny homes.

Mahan initially proposed putting 36% of the housing funds, which come from a 2020 property sales tax, toward temporary housing and 53% toward permanent housing for low- and middle-income households (the remainder would go toward rental assistance and administrative costs). He called it a one-time diversion to address the homelessness crisis on the streets, while waiting on affordable housing that can cost more than $1 million a unit in the Bay Area and take years to build.

Advocates and several city council members pushed back on what would have been a dramatic shift from past spending plans, which put three-quarters of the funds toward developing affordable housing and 15% on shelter. The city passed a compromise budget that put 68% of the funds toward permanent housing and 21% toward temporary.

Loving said the only way to keep temporary sites successful is to keep developing permanent housing for residents to move into.

“People are tired of seeing homelessness and they’re saying, ‘Do something, now,’” Loving said. “I think these non-congregate shelters are being positioned as the, ‘We’re doing something now.’”

While California cities have been installing tiny homes for at least the past five years, it was the pandemic that thrust the potential solution into the spotlight.

California has for the past decade been shifting its focus from temporary shelter towards building permanent supportive housing: affordable, long-term living options that come with social services. Permanent supportive housing units have been on the rise since 2008 in California as the number of temporary spots fell, according to an analysis of federal data by the Terner Center for Housing Innovation.

California temporary housing growing faster than permanent

But with a global pandemic and a record number of Californians falling into homelessness faster than the state could house them, officials turned toward non-congregate but temporary options like hotel rooms and tiny homes to keep people sheltered. In 2021, interim housing spots in California again exceeded permanent supportive housing units for the first time since 2015.

A sense of privacy

Also making the sites attractive are a host of modular housing companies springing up to offer tiny homes that are more livable.

Compared to flimsier and less fireproof prior models that evoked disaster zones, many tiny homes now include double-pane windows that can open, individual thermostats and doorbells. In San Jose, one site where the city broke ground this year will include some tiny homes that have private kitchenettes.

Though not all cities use them, many companies build modular units with en suite bathrooms, which residents say provide significantly more privacy and dignity.

It was the bathrooms that convinced Pizarro to accept an offer of shelter at the San Jose site last month.

The 67-year-old has been homeless five years and did not trust traditional shelters, where she said “you have to sleep with one eye open” to evade theft. With a stable place to sleep, Pizarro says she plans to look for retail work and apply for a housing voucher to get her own permanent place.

“I’m very hyper and active, and I like to work because I know if I sit around, I’m going to fade away and I’m not ready for that yet,” she said.

Others aren’t ready to plan their next steps yet. Monica Rojo, 50, moved into her room in May after having lived at a creekside encampment with about 70 others.

As a woman camping alone, she feared violence constantly. She now feels safer, and since getting her own shower, she no longer feels the disdain of others when she walks into stores. She’s personalized her room with photos of her three adult children in Mexico — two engineers and a nurse, she beams.

Rojo, a former janitor, said she’s recovering from leukemia and depression and working on getting her IDs after most of her documents were stolen.

“This program opens the doors, for work, for everything,” she said.

Advocates split on tiny homes

The more each tiny home feels like a real one, the more it costs — and the closer it inches to the “real housing” that advocates say is what actually solves homelessness. In San Jose, plumbing and utilities for the Guadalupe Parkway site drove the cost of each unit from $30,000 for the structure itself to more than $175,000. (Some of the cost was covered by philanthropy, city officials said.)

Mahan’s aware of the tradeoffs. But he said he’s striking the right balance by pushing for temporary shelter that is dignified, while folks wait for permanent housing.

“We all know the two extremes,” he said of the spectrum of housing options, from camps to permanent supportive housing. “One is kind of the perfect solution, or as close to it as you can get. The other is abject human misery and totally unacceptable. I am of the opinion that we have to spend more, we have to put more of our emphasis on the lower rungs of the ladder, the side of the spectrum that is improving on sanctioned encampments.”

Some in the tiny homes movement would take it even further.

Elizabeth Funk is CEO of DignityMoves, a nonprofit advocating for tiny home shelter sites. More than two years ago the nonprofit got San Francisco’s only tiny homes village so far set up in mere months, with donated structures on a sliver of a city parking lot. Residents can stay as long as they need, with regular access to social and health care workers at the 90 structures. Funk said the site takes advantage of a lot that’s in the yearslong wait of being developed into housing; the structures can be easily relocated when the project breaks ground.

DignityMoves pushed a bill in the state Senate this year to allow non-congregate, relocatable tiny home projects to bypass certain permitting procedures, and direct cities and counties to make available empty land for those uses. The bill initially defined such projects under the state building code as a type of housing, rather than as temporary shelter. Funk even suggested using housing vouchers to pay for them.

She said she didn’t expect the controversy she sparked. A group of advocates pushed back on the bill, arguing that, as Alex Visotzky of the National Alliance to End Homelessness put it, “it blurred the line between housing and shelter.” Sharon Rapport of the Corporation for Supportive Housing pointed out that certain shelters already can bypass permitting restrictions.

“It should be that that kind of expedited process is reserved for housing projects or any other kind of projects that are really promoting good policy,” Rapport said.

Despite some amendments requiring the projects to include plans for residents to get permanent housing when the land is needed for other uses, the bill died in the Senate appropriations committee in May. Its author, San Mateo Democratic Sen. Josh Becker, said he intends to bring it back next year.

Even Pallet Shelter, an early tiny homes builder that has supplied units for 36 sites across 32 California cities, was opposed to Becker’s bill. Amy King, CEO of the Washington-based company, said she asked for the bill to be amended to prohibit such sites from charging rents to tenants. No such change was made.

“I am not a supporter of this type of housing becoming a substitute for permanent housing,” King said.

Funk said she wasn’t trying to divert resources from one end of the housing spectrum to the other, but said the lines between the two may be too rigid when permanent housing is so scarce.

If someone needs or wants to stay in a tiny home for multiple years until they’re “ready” to move into a permanent apartment, she says, why shouldn’t it count as their housing?

The site DignityMoves opened in San Francisco illustrates both her point and her skeptics’.

Mia Salvaggio moved in two and a half years ago. She became homeless in 2020, after couchsurfing and battling a drug addiction. After bouncing around different campsites in the Bay Area, Salvaggio chose the offer of shelter space at DignityMoves because it afforded her some privacy, she said.

Being there has allowed her to meet a caseworker who helped her get her Social Security card. In an interview, she rattled off a long list of goals to focus on next: drug treatment, getting evaluated by a mental health provider, landing a part-time job. She was waiting for news about a permanent housing placement in early October.

She said she was grateful for the stay at the site, but some aspects still make it a far cry from a home: There’s no kitchen, the communal restrooms are porta-potties and the showers are on a trailer, which staff only keep open until 2:30 p.m. each day.

Salvaggio was also tired of living in close quarters with other residents, whom she accused of stealing her things and dirtying common areas. The rooms at that site are only 64 square feet, smaller than San Jose’s structures, and guests aren’t allowed.

“As long as I can prepare my own food and have my own bathroom,” she’ll be satisfied, Salvaggio said. “I haven’t literally sat on a toilet seat for probably two and a half years.”

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