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Tiny houses: a neat homelessness solution or a reminder of the problem?


This piece was featured in our Global Local bulletin on ending rough sleeping and featured other examples of using tiny homes to address homelessness.

As the ‘self-built tiny house tour’ genre of videos remains highly popular, it’s easy to see the appeal of these dwellings, with their cool space-saving tricks, sustainability and minimalist-yet-cosy interiors. Perhaps most importantly, we’re drawn to the accompanying assumption that they deliver a life free from the modern trappings of debt and rent, feeding into fantasies of a simplified life and with just a humble space to call our own.

Above: the Pinterest-esque tiny house phenomenon. Photos by Jed Owen, Andrea Davis 

While this fantasy is nothing new for society, recent upticks in interest in tiny houses and van/bus conversion homes are probably in large part an expression of the plight of generation rent and others crippled by the global housing affordability crisis. But can these tiny houses actually contribute to alleviating housing security for those who need it most? Or is the popularity of tiny living just a symptom of the crisis’ severity?

In Seattle, where homelessness is a major problem, tiny homes have had success in relieving rough sleeping. Sharon Lee, executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, started the project after finding a loophole where structures smaller than 120 feet were not considered permanent dwellings, making them exempt from restrictive regulations on residential buildings. Seattle’s city council backed the initiative, giving permission for clusters of cabins and over a million dollars in funding. The fully electrified, heated and decorated houses can be put up in around 3 days (thanks to no shortage of volunteer support) and cost around $2,500 for materials. With around 300 houses built, the villages have proven to be one of Seattle’s most successful harm reduction supports for people facing homelessness, sparking national interest in similar projects.

In a helpful video on how the communities function, Lee stressed that these homes are not meant to be permanent, but rather are a stopgap between homelessness and permanent accommodation as waiting lists are long and new affordable housing can take years to complete. Compared to 15% across all shelter types in the same county, 27-65% of the tiny house residents move into permanent housing – however, it takes far longer than the regional goal of 90 days, with many living in the houses for months or even years. Talks to scale up the developments to hundreds more houses have provoked backlash that they are a ‘victim of their own success‘, with the regional housing agency taking the reins on Seattle’s homelessness problem looking to put a stop to building new villages in favour of more permanent affordable housing creation.

A tiny house village in Seattle. Source: Tiny House Expedition, Youtube.

Indeed, the risk of tiny houses is that they can create something akin to a ‘better than nothing’ slum-like settlment while allowing communities to put the problem out of their mind – but perhaps ‘nothing’ doesn’t have to be the alternative to which we compare them. While no nation has ended homelessness entirely, there are cities and countries that have come close, for example, Finland, Japan, Singapore and Austria. While not all places with favourable homelessness rates use the same methods, a form of ‘Housing First’ policy does accompany a high number of the success stories. Rather than conditional housing support, Housing First sees housing as a basic right and holds that solving health and social problems is much easier with a permanent home. In a US study, permanent supportive housing has been proven to be about 90 per cent effective at preventing someone from ever returning to homelessness. Similarly, rapid rehousing in the US is over 75 to 90 percent effective at preventing a return to homelessness depending on the population served.

So why haven’t we implemented a Housing First policy everywhere? Well, it’s not that simple. The same lack of affordable or available housing contributing to homelessness in the first place can make it difficult to move households off the street or out of temporary accommodation, making this approach easier said than done and potentially costly – especially for local or regional governments lacking the significant up-front funding needed. Finland, Housing First and homelessness reduction’s poster child, was also the only EU country that managed to increase its house-building in the years following the financial crisis.

In addition to increasing the supply of affordable housing, ending homelessness also requires an integrated strategy and concerted effort (with funding to match) across levels of governance. In Finland, Housing First services are just one part of an overall strategy that largely involves preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place through health and social care support and safety nets. Stopping the cuts to support and services that force people into homelessness in the first place can save a large amount of money down the line – letting people sleep on the streets is actually very expensive (in the UK, estimated as up to £20k per person per year), as is providing temporary or permanent accommodation.

While ultimately an increase in affordable permanent accommodation and an acceptable standard of living for everyone is the goal, the reality is that a lot of countries are nowhere near. In a climate where financial and housing insecurity are worsening and homelessness is still not addressed, tiny houses might need to remain a stopgap option. So what’s their place in all of this?

Largely, the argument for tiny houses is that they are one of the nicer forms of temporary housing, especially when well-built. Many homeless people choose to sleep on the street or elsewhere instead of shelters for a variety of reasons including antisocial behaviour. Referring to the release of their recent Cambridge report on tiny houses for the homeless, co-author Dr Johannes Lenhard said “There is a huge sense of wellbeing tied to simply having your own front door…We can see the effect this has in the lifestyle changes of people who have previously struggled in hostels.”. The study on the modular homes in Cambridge (click here for photos) found that they did help restore the health, wellbeing and financial security of occupants when combined with wraparound support. Costing £36,000 each, placed on land leased by a church (designed to be moveable to another free or inexpensive location if needed) the mini-homes cost less than a person rough sleeping for two years.

It is notable that in areas with expensive land, such as coastal urban centres, cost of land provides a significant barrier to development. In these situations, density might have an advantage in value for money for temporary or permanent affordable housing, whether that be more dense versions of tiny houses such as those experimented with recently – see shipping container stacks as in LA, hotels purchased by local and regional governments, or more traditional dormitory-style buildings and shelters.

Tiny houses have some advantages over shelters when it comes to privacy, community and a more fixed sense of place. They could be a viable and cost-effective option, but may only be so for local governments with an available or cheap lot of land to lease. While they shouldn’t be used as a permanent solution to homelessness, tiny houses can have a place as a stepping stone to permanent accommodation – but let’s keep trying to ensure people have somewhere to step to.