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Tiny homes, built largely with philanthropic support, offer more of a solution than a cure to homelessness

Tiny homes, built largely with philanthropic support, offer more of a solution than a cure to homelessness
Tiny homes, built largely with philanthropic support, offer more of a solution than a cure to homelessness

In response to the national crisis that has left more than 650,000 people homeless, 100 tiny homeless villages have opened across the United States over the past five years.

In response to the national crisis that has left more than 650,000 people homeless, 100 tiny homeless villages have opened across the United States over the past five years.

That growth, from just 34 in 2019 to 123 today, represents a fourfold increase, according to data collected by Yetimoni Kpeebi, a researcher at Missouri State University. At least 43% of these villages are privately funded through donations from philanthropists, businesses and corporations, Kpeebi said.

Sobrato Philanthropies, run by billionaire Silicon Valley developer and philanthropist John Sobrato, and other groups including the James M. Cox and Valhalla Foundations have helped fund tiny-home villages in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and other expensive California cities. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is a major donor behind a 51-acre tiny-home community in Austin, Texas. And in rural North Carolina, the Oak Foundation has supported the construction of a tiny-home village for the severely mentally ill and chronically homeless.

As ambitious as these efforts are, they serve only a fraction of the estimated homeless population. While tiny homes — which are typically 1,000 to 4,000 square feet and sometimes include a kitchen and bathroom — can be built quickly and cheaply, the larger tasks of obtaining permits, financing and local government approval can add significant costs and delays.

Skeptics fear that building tiny homes will not solve the larger problem, namely the widespread lack of affordable housing.

According to Margot Kushel, director of the Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative at the University of California San Francisco, tiny houses are at best a short-term solution to the country’s long-term problem: a lack of sufficient housing and social services for low-income Americans.

“I would say tiny houses are an absolutely important part of the ecosystem, but they are not homes,” Kushel said.

Small houses in the countryside

In Chatham County, North Carolina — where the average home sale price is around $690,000 — it took eight years to open a community of tiny houses. The Tiny Homes Village at the Farm at Penny Lane was the brainchild of local health and wellness nonprofit Cross Disability Services, or XDS, which is affiliated with the University of North Carolina and owns the 40-acre farm.

“We were providing all these expensive, great services to people, but they have no place to live. They have nothing permanent. And that’s a huge problem,” said Thava Mahadevan, executive director of XDS.

XDS sought to create housing that would cost less than $400 per month in rent and would be located on the farm. The UNC School of Social Work joined as a partner in 2016. The Oak Foundation, a longtime UNC funder, provided two grants totaling $1,050,000.

XDS’s first step was to ensure it could get county zoning approval for the village and that there was sufficient underlying infrastructure in place, such as county water lines connected to the farm’s well. Crews then began construction on the village in March 2020, but work was delayed by the pandemic.

The 15-unit tiny home village, which will open to residents in the fall, will provide affordable housing for people with serious mental illnesses. Each home is about 400 square feet with a bathroom, kitchen, living room and porch. Medical and mental health services will be provided. And residents can live in the homes indefinitely.

The county is now looking at how to incentivize developers to build additional affordable housing for the population of about 79,000 as home prices continue to rise, said Karen Howard, vice chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners.

The skyrocketing cost of living is especially hard on minimum-wage workers in rural areas like Chatham County. North Carolina has one of the highest eviction rates in the country, with more than 1 million households paying more than 30% of their income on housing. Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina have higher eviction rates than major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, according to research from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.

Efforts on the West Coast

But nowhere is the housing and homelessness crisis more severe than in California, where more than 181,000 people lack permanent housing. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged to deliver 1,200 tiny homes for this demographic. So far, only about 150 have been purchased and none have opened, CalMatters recently reported.

Philanthropy has supported efforts to build the homes faster, often in partnership with local governments. Last year, the Sobrato Family Foundation said it would lease a five-acre parcel of private land to San Jose to build 75 tiny homes for $1 a year over the next decade. The San Francisco-based nonprofit Dignity Moves manages the community’s development and provides social services, with support from the James M. Cox and Valhalla Foundations. The nonprofit was also part of the team that developed San Francisco’s 70-unit tiny house village and similar communities around the state.

“In our model, philanthropy pays for construction, and then the expectation is that the city will pay for ongoing support services,” said Elizabeth Funk, CEO of Dignity Moves.

This type of temporary housing is relatively new and different from the types of homeless shelters that cities typically fund, she said. With temporary housing, everyone has their own room and can stay for at least six months to two years instead of a night or two, Funk added.

Tiny home communities provide more stability and can be places where social services can be delivered effectively, “because people are not in a crisis situation,” she said.

California, Oregon and Washington are the states with the highest concentrations of tiny house villages, according to data compiled by Missouri State University. Some communities have also tried to tackle homelessness in more punitive ways. The city of Grants Pass, Oregon, wants to fine and jail people caught sleeping in public spaces and has launched a legal challenge to a court ruling blocking the policy. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in April and could rule as early as this month.

Building tiny homes is better than punishing people for living on the streets, but that’s not enough, said Jesse Rabinowitz, campaigns and communications director at the National Homelessness Law Center.

“It’s good that cities and states are doing things to address the fact that people are living outside. No one should have to live outside, especially in the richest country in the world,” he said.

However, he said, “I personally have a hard time with tiny houses.” It appears to be a way to funnel people into temporary housing rather than providing the more permanent, affordable housing options that many homeless people want, Rabinowitz said.

Funk bristles at criticism that tiny homes aren’t part of a housing-first approach that prioritizes permanent housing for the homeless. Interim housing is a phase in that process, which is fundamentally about getting people off the streets and into shelter, she said.

“It’s true that this is not a long-term solution. It’s a waiting room,” Funk said. “It’s a dignified waiting room.”

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Stephanie Beasley is a senior writer at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, where you can read the full article . This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as part of a partnership to cover philanthropy and nonprofits supported by the Lilly Endowment. The Chronicle is solely responsible for its content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

Stephanie Beasley of The Chronicle Of Philanthropy, The Associated Press