Tiny Houses for the Homeless in San Francisco?

Tim McCormick
Nov 19, 2015 · 12 min read

Creative shelter approaches could help the unhoused and nomadic amid the housing crisis, and open us to new approaches. But it’s a contested and controversial space — let’s pilot artfully.
by Tim McCormick, November 18, 2015.

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graphic for “Saint Francis Super Bowl Homelessness Challenge”

1. What’s the problem?

“We have thousands of homeless neighbors who currently live on the streets of SF without access to reliable shelter or hygienic toileting options. Although permanent housing solutions are obviously the ideal (“Housing First”), we cannot allow local government to wait to take action day after day, month after month, and year after year in the midst of an ongoing housing shortage. Our residents and local government must do what we can with the resources we have in order to improve safety, physical health, and mental health outcomes for our most vulnerable neighbors. Join us as we discuss the current landscape, Mayor Ed Lee’s plan to remove our homeless neighbors for the Super Bowl Party, a “Shelter & Hygiene First” approach, and potential actions we can organize to demonstrate what is possible in the City of Saint Francis/Innovation/Burning Man HQ.”
— announcement for Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, Nov 2015.

I’ve been exploring ideas of low-cost alternate housing in the Bay Area for the last two years, through my project Houslets; via SF’s Market Street Prototyping Festival and the Knight Foundation’s Knight Cities Challenge for San Jose; through my own experiments in full-time nomadic, small-footprint, & off-grid living, etc.

Partly this comes from an urge to address the area’s housing affordability and homelessness crises. The count of thousands of people homeless on San Francisco’s streets every night has persisted for decades, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually by the city on homeless services. Which naturally leads people to feel that something basic, immediate, and else needs to be done, or tried.

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Houslets “ProtoHouse” exhibit at SF Market Street Prototyping Festival, April 2015. A $2000 house!

2. The Puzzle of Temporary vs Permanent

One key finding from my explorations is that there’s great resistance to any proposal to create or allow housing seen as unconventional, for the homeless or low-income; particularly in SF. Alternate housing often is not just unsupported, but is often actively policed against, even criminalized by a various means. Or in other cases, an approach may be allowed consideration but strictly framed as ‘temporary’ or ‘transitional,’ implicitly contrasted to ‘permanent’ housing which means contemporary conventional building. As with refugee situations worldwide, there is an unfortunate pattern of often expensive and ineffective ‘temporary’ responses which continue indefinitely while the promised or hoped-for permanent solution awaits.

It seems to me there’s a puzzling level of anxiety about maintaining these boundaries, between temporary and permanent; and a puzzling mixture of factors behind it. Some may feel that we shouldn’t endorse certain people only having what’s deemed lesser quality housing, and that ‘permanent’ (i.e. mainstream?) housing is a sort of human right which shouldn’t be compromised; or is the right political demand, that shouldn’t be risked by allowing other measures. Perhaps, as often the case with international refugees, much of the main society wishes to treat the homeless as only temporary residents, who’ll go back or move on, and shouldn’t be made too comfortable in the meantime — in the centuries-long tradition of vagrancy and settlement laws.

Regarding the conundrum of designing transitional shelters or housing, UC Berkeley’s Christopher Herring excellent recent survey essay, “Architects Confront Homelessness” observes:

architects [designing homeless shelters/transitional housing] run the risk of legitimating sub-standard housing for particular classes of undesirables

But of course perennially there is a question of whether the perfect, in a given context, is operating as the enemy of the good; or if the uncertain long-term good is better than the achievable near-term good. Also, who’s to say exactly what’s good? There’s great diversity in the circumstances, needs, and preferences people (not just unhoused people) have regarding housing, so to meet human needs a system should allow people to self-determine among various priorities and approaches, as JFC Turner argued.

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Differing housing priorities of households at different income levels/phases. from JFC Turner [1972]

Some argue [eg LA Times op-ed November 17th] that “permanent supportive housing,” or a Housing First model — often but not necessarily interpreted to mean conventional housing with on-site services — is the real solution for homelessness. Also, that it may pay for itself by reducing other service costs, and efforts must be focused on fully funding this for approach who need it. Personally I’m skeptical there’s such a One True Way, though I see it may be the way in many circumstances (the most chronic/disabled homeless, generally), and may be a good political strategy towards good ends.

3. Housing standards: who’s in and who’s out?

Organizations which represent homeless interests often have a direct stake in current housing development/provision methods, and may be threatened by or ill-suited to offer alternative housing approaches. The real-estate and building industries are naturally oriented to maintaining/increasing property values and development revenues, which tends towards provision of housing at high cost levels, and they tend to be relatively unfamiliar with or uninclined to any radical or unproven approaches, reasonably enough. Notions of “permanent supportive housing” and Housing First are generally fitted to an assumption that the housing type should be basically the same product the industry produces for middle- and upper-middle-class, but with additional services— even though that is not necessarily assumed or tested in the research studies upon which these approaches are advocated.

More generally, there’s an entire regime of property values, commercial interests, and social control bound up in the question of what’s considered legitimate housing, and therefore who or what is permitted a place in the community. What counts as legitimate or normal housing, however, is far from being a universal or stable classification; it has been steadily and dramatically redefined over time in many countries as they modernize and become wealthier.

As Alan During of Sightline Institute argues in his “Legalizing Inexpensive Housing” series, over the last century US housing regulations have steadily narrowed the range and raised the cost of legal housing, largely illegalizing formerly common low-cost dwelling types such as rooming houses. Once-typical occupancy norms such as shared bedrooms came to be classified by the US govt as “overcrowding” conditions. More broadly, a tradition of housing-policy critique associated with British architect J.F.C Turner and “self build” housing from the 1960s argues that housing standards can often work against good outcomes, especially for disadvantaged populations without means to build to those standards.

Meanwhile some cultural complex of status-seeking, financialization, and who knows what has produced an explosion in US house square footage per occupant, in new homes built: an amazing quadrupling of per capita space since 1950. Since we mostly have to choose from existing housing, not create our own, that which the market speculatively builds often functions as an effective ‘standard’ constraining our choices.

Not So Big, Tiny, Downsizing: a counter-trend

In what may be sign of a broad counter-reaction to those 20th-Century trends of restrictively defined and maladaptive housing, however, all over the US today there are initiatives to create simpler, lower-cost housing. This can be seen as a convergence of the homeless building up, and the middle-class by choice or necessity downsizing, as insightfully described in Andrew Heben’s Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages (2014). Low-cost, often lightweight and possibly ‘temporary’ housing is also a mainstay of architectural student or humanitarian projects and competitions, for example AIA (American Institute of Architects)’s 2015 Small Projects contest to design a for “compact, efficient homeless shelter” .

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Rolling Shelter, Eduardo Lacroze of Lacroze-Miguens-
Prati Arquitectos. Winner of 2015 AIA competition *A SAFE PLACE*

Tiny house villages fall somewhat in that tradition, and have been established or are being explored in many cities. The oldest is generally considered to be Dignity Village in Portland, which originated as an unsanctioned, moving camp around 2001. There are a variety of forms, with differing levels of government sanction or support, differing degrees and types of self-governance vs administration by an outside agency, and different approaches to building the dwellings and facilities themselves. There’s also an array of academic and ethnographic studies of the phenomenon, including Heben’s book.

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In that vein, a village concept for SF homeless was proposed by Gregory Gopman earlier this year under the name Transition Centers. (see renderings at left). It envisioned low-cost, panelized, dome dwelling units at an estimated cost of $600 each.

The mostly unfavorable official reactions to & media coverage of this was an instructive episode: see e.g. this Guardian story on it from Sept 8: . Perhaps too radical an idea for San Francisco at that moment, particularly coming from a controversial outsider?

Subsequently, Amy Farah Weiss has proposed a “Saint Francis Super Bowl Homelessness Challenge,” which asks, in summary, “How do we do the most good in a lasting way with $5 million by the time of the Super Bowl?” including possible use of disused city land parcels, and low-cost/prefab structures.

Some Suggested Tiny/Alt Housing Pilots for SF

Along the lines of the projects above, and building on previous explorations/research with Houslets, I’d like to see explored various low-cost shelter tests/pilots in SF, such as:

a) On public land sites, without prior official sanction, seeking to avoid typical objections such as obstruction of road/sidewalk, and possibly asserting the shelter to be personal property of a homeless person, to explore the city’s policy/procedure around that.

b) On private property which has been declared usable for homeless/emergency shelter;

c) Classifying/building the shelter as a vehicle, and siting it in parking spaces either under current parking rules, or as part of a “safe parking” program. [the idea of using vehicle/parking dimensions as a module was the basic genesis of Houslets, ie. housing for parking spaces, analogous to Parklets (parks put into parking spaces)].

Pilot suggestion 1: tactical shelters on public land

This is of course widely practiced already in many cities especially on the West Coast, with varying degrees and durations of official tolerance. Often these are tents or shanties which are demolished or cleared out by authorities periodically on the rationale that they’re obstructing public passage, are unsanitary or hazardous, etc.

However, such clearances of encampments are called into some question by recent legal/political developments such as the Department of Justice’s recent legal brief in a Boise case, asserting the unconstitutionality of criminalizing homeless use of and sheltering in public space when no other adequate shelter is available. See “It’s unconstitutional to ban the homeless from sleeping outside, the federal government says” (Washington Post, Aug 13, 2015). To some extent, this is common sense: “We can’t have lack of shelter beds & permanent housing, then say it’s illegal to camp” observed county commissioner Deborah Kafoury of Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon) in August.

HUD, (US Dept of Housing and Urban Development), a primary funder of homelessness programs, has also recently signalled it may penalize or disqualify funding applications from jurisdictions which it deems to be engaged in criminalization of homelessness. (“Criminalizing Homelessness Can Now Cost Cities Federal Money.” ThinkProgress, Sept 22).

We might pose the scenario: if a demonstrably safe, non-obstructing, durable, beneficial small shelter is employed by a homeless person on public land, without creating apparent harm or risk to others’ health or safety, how would the city justify intervening to confiscate or destroy this property? Or how might it be persuaded not to? There’s is a decades-long history of art/design projects to envision, exhibit, or pilot such structures: for example Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project of 1987–89 (see below). Here’s several hundred others.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko’s “Homeless Vehicle Project,” 1987–89.

Pilot suggestion 2: Vehicle shelter

This approach draws on the observations that:
1) parking area, often quite underutilized, is remarkably prevalent in US cities — typically 20%+ of land area, 440k public spaces in SF;
2) a quite common form of ‘homelessness’ is to inhabit a vehicle, ranging from last-resort sleeping in one’s non-suitable car, to more deliberate use of a van, camper, trailer, or RV.

In many times and places this is tacitly or explicitly accepted; and since living in a RV is considered acceptable or possibly aspirational for many Americans, it’s even potentially a crossover or de-stigmatized type of alternate homeless dwelling.

This is also a subject area unto itself — RV parking has a long contested history in SF and other places, but it continues to evolve. For example, relevant to both a) and c) Los Angeles City Council yesterday passed emergency measures to allow homeless vehicle dwellers to stay overnight in designated lots, and “soften” rules on confiscating homeless person’s possessions from public spaces. See “L.A. council declares shelter crisis in effort to help the homeless”].

You could argue, also, that a portion of people in most societies have been nomadic, and movable dwellings can offer very cost-effective, replicable, and adaptable housing for many people’s needs. While “safe parking” programs for the homeless, and such, assume that the homeless already have a vehicle, what if we created and offered low-cost movable shelters that can be considered vehicles, and moved as needed? $1000 is enough to build a decent, secure, dwellable micro-cabin on a easily towable, street-legal, utility trailer. A group of these with a bathroom/shower/kitchen unit can form the minimal basis for a mini-village.

Building Alternatives for Everyone, vs Building for Them

Speaking from the viewpoint of the Houslets project, I’m especially interested in developing dwelling units which may, in themselves or in variants, serve or appeal to not only the ‘homeless’ but to many populations/needs, such as students, tiny-housers, tourists, nomads, tech-nomads, backyard cottage / extra bedroom, vacation cabin.

There are several reasons for this. First, I think there are many parts of the population who aren’t being served well by present housing, and we can relate them as different forms of ‘unhousedness,’ so to speak.

In fact, even those who experience homelessness are probably a much larger, more diverse, and less socially distant population than most people typically imagine. Popular conceptions (and fears) of homelessness tend to be mistakenly focused on a small, visible subgroup, of people chronically experiencing extreme, street homelessness, and who frequently have intersecting issues of mental health or substance abuse; possibly overlapping with disruptive public behavior by others who aren’t actually homeless.

But a far greater number of people experience periods of transitional homeless, for example due to events such as medical/financial crises, home foreclosure or eviction, or domestic abuse; and they are often non-visible, sheltering in vehicles or out of sight or doubled up at family or acquaintances’ homes. Most people experiencing homelessness are mostly just like you or me, with a few more strokes of misfortune or susceptibility. (thanks to Ken Fisher for discussion on this point).

Taking this perspective — that alternate building/dwelling approaches may serve wide, diverse populations and circumstances — may counteract views that we’re proposing ‘sub-standard’ housing for the indigent that we wouldn’t accept for others. (In fact, as I’ve learned, there seem to be a great many people, as least in housing-dysfunctional places like the Bay Area, quite interested in very low-cost and/or non-standard housing approaches, for reasons of affordability, mobility, ownership, experimentation, community-building, etc. With the Houslets project I am certainly developing dwelling structures/approaches for my own wishes and needs, as well as for potentially broad categories of others).

“Mobile and Flexible Environment Module,” by Ettore Sottsass, 1972

Second, all these other markets/users make it a bigger opportunity to interest others, get funding or community/political support, develop a business or social enterprise employing the (formerly) unhoused to build and market these dwellings, etc; and generally, get momentum and economy of scale to survive and thrive. Because our housing system is broken and it needs to be evolved and reinvented for the spirit and needs of the times.

— —
Endnote: on ‘permanent’:
“Permanent” housing turns out to be a slippery concept, when you consider it. it could refer to a building, which a given person may or may not, typically won’t, stay in ‘permanently’ for their life; it could mean a person having permanent right to stay in a dwelling, as in ownership or protected tenancy; or could mean permanent means, eg subsidy in full or part, to stay in a dwelling, as with permanent Section 8 vouchers. Also, a building structure could be permanent as in durable, but not fixed in one place, as in “redeployable” prefab structures or mobile small houses. Finally, a person could have a permanent housing right that is not fixed to a particular dwelling, as with transferable housing vouchers or tenancy in certain social housing systems such as the UK’s which allow transfer between units.

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