Finding Space. Assessing how planning responds to tiny houses for homeless populations

Finding Space. Assessing how planning responds to tiny houses for homeless populations

Although great strides have been made in reducing the homeless population in the United States, in January 2015 there were still over 549,000 people who were counted as homeless on one night. A variety of homeless assistance responses exist, ranging from emergency shelters to supportive permanent housing. However the response is not quick enough. In some cities, communities have taken it upon themselves to build tiny house villages as a cost-effective and quick way to provide housing for homeless persons and families. Tiny house villages are usually small neighbourhoods of 30 to 200 dwellings that can range in size from 60 to 200 sq. ft. Although communities are pursuing the model to address urgent homeless and housing crises, it is still unclear from a sparse literature how well tiny house villages perform as a homelessness assistance and housing policy. Nevertheless, several projects continue to be proposed nationwide and local planning agencies must continue to respond. With these considerations in mind, the following research tries to answer:

To what extent do local planning practices facilitate unconventional affordable housing models such as tiny house villages for homeless populations? This paper will not attempt to provide a comprehensive measure of success for each village. Rather, as starting point for such discussions the report examines how tiny house villages fit within the current housing and homeless assistance system, if they do at all. In order to understand local planning’s response it is necessary to establish to what exactly planners are responding in each context.

Four cities and their respective tiny house villages in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States were examined: Dignity Village, Portland, Oregon; Opportunity Village, Eugene, Oregon, Quixote Village, Olympia, Washington; and Nickelsville 22nd and Union St. site, Seattle, Washington. The findings of this report were based on information from in-depth interviews with village representatives and local government staff in planning or social services departments.

Planners responded according to the political and social conditions of each case study. When political will was cultivated and public support was rallied, the villages and their managing nonprofits were able to successfully negotiate for allowances with building codes and zoning laws. In addition to facilitating the specific location of each village, planning departments were found to have a broader role in developing policy that allows for tiny house building forms for both the non-profit and for-profit housing sectors.

While trying to answer the main research question, it was found that there is some ambiguity in how tiny house villages fit the traditional housing and homeless assistance systems. Only one village was found to closely fit a formal category of housing within the federal homeless assistance system. Two were found to be linked to a form of transitional housing and a fourth case is best described as an emergency response, not housing.

The villages are intentional communities, meaning that residents share a set of values which usually reflect selfsufficiency, non-hierarchical structures, and peer support. It was found that this was a key feature of the model that was facilitated by the villages’ built form.

Cities considering the use of tiny house villages for their homeless response strategy must take into account their local regulatory environment, public support, current homeless services, and the goals they are trying to meet. Accordingly, planners must understand the value that alternative housing forms like tiny house villages can provide and be able to assess the model’s suitability for their local context.