Tiny Homes: Homeowners’ and Developers’ Scam?

Any empty residential or commercial space should be used in this housing emergency to situate people in need. The only thing missing is the key — not a metaphorical key, the actual key to an actual space with heat, electricity, cooking and bathroom facilities, etc. No miniaturization, no shanty-town necessary.

by Carol Denney

Street Spirit’s April issue published an article about Tiny Homes by Paul Lewis, the West Coast bureau chief of the London-based Guardian, titled “Tiny Houses: Salvation for the Homeless or a Dead End?”

Although Tiny Houses are the most expensive, least environmentally sound approach to housing, if you read the article by the Guardian’s Paul Lewis, you ended up ankle-deep in thankful tiny home dwellers oozing praise for their tiny homes, described as potential “salvation” in the title itself.

Barbara Poppe, coordinator of federal homelessness policy under President Obama’s administration, is quoted early in the piece for decrying cities’ caving in to “huts that don’t have access to water, electricity and sanitation” which, in Poppe’s opinion, stigmatize homeless people.

The article presents tiny homes as the obvious choice in an oddly binary world: either people shiver under freeway overpasses or bushes, or nestle into a small, cold, dark, but serviceable tiny home given the lack of alternatives. The article’s tiny concessions that someone “could get hypothermia in one of these” are countered by official depictions of the structures as “temporary” — despite years of occupancy in cities which continue to race toward filling every inch of available city land with high-end penthouses and condos far out of reach for the poor.

Temporary. This word is crucial in the land of regional and city planning, allowing developers, homeowners and builders to sidestep regulations to create what in any other country would be considered shantytowns for that special subset of the population that, darn it, just can’t seem to pull together the scratch for the apartment with actual running water.

“A bit of a loophole” is how Sharon Lee, director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, describes the “temporary” designation, using the phrase “dead end” to describe the possibility that absent alternatives, the huts may end up used permanently. And they do.

Who benefits? Architects, developers, consultants, and the city planners who aspire to join their firms or create their own firms out of their lucrative insider knowledge, like Rhoades Planning Group’s Mark Rhoades. Rhoades’ own group’s website brags about his “22 years of experience as a land use planner and development consultant in both the public and private sectors,” and is not embarrassed to add that he “served as City Planning Manager for the City of Berkeley during a period of unprecedented development activity and increasing politicization of land use.”

It doesn’t take much of a stroll through Berkeley to see who benefited from the “unprecedented development” Rhoades presided over with the well-situated help of former Mayors Loni Hancock and Tom Bates, the married power couple who traded places from state to local political offices over a thirty-year period while low-income housing was ravaged to build high-end condos. Even landmarked buildings were essentially gutted with a careful facade preserved like a Potemkin Village, a new low in honoring the architectural past.

Justification for bleeding off the housing crisis-affected population into heat-free shantytowns, preferably stacked, goes hand in hand with pressing policymakers on planning and zoning commissions and city councils for more “flexibility” and “streamlining” of regulations which pour more money into the obvious pockets.

Is there no alternative to tiny hovels with no water, no bathrooms or kitchens, no heat? Of course there is: rent control; requirements that 90 percent of new housing be affordable to a minimum-wage worker and be family-friendly; vacancy controls so that units can’t sit empty for long periods of time without city intervention in the form of vacancy fees or situating homeless people in vacancies.

These are only a few of the obvious alternatives. Any empty residential or commercial space could be and should be used in this obvious housing emergency to situate people in need — the only thing missing is the key, not a metaphorical key, the actual key to an actual space with heat, electricity, cooking and bathroom facilities, etc. No miniaturization, no shanty-town necessary.

Does this seem radical to you? I would suggest that what’s really radical is the status quo: leaving people to die on a public street in the richest nation on earth in one of the nation’s top ten cities for income disparity.

 

Sean Smith, who has been homeless for many years, recently moved into this tiny-home village. Photo by Jenny Riffle for the Guardian

 

The hushed-up secret about tiny homes is that the miniaturization of housing not only serves no purpose, given that they are more expensive than rehabbing an existing building; they are also less efficient, and thus less green, than using a bearing wall to house more than one person and build more than one story of housing. The stackable shipping containers often promoted under the tiny homes umbrella are a concession to this fact, that any land use dedicated to one person alone in the middle of a housing crisis is just, well, dumb.

People on the street can tell you. They spend time in long lines walking to, walking from, and waiting for the shared toilet, the gas station sink for water, the laundromat’s few washing machines. They end up at a disadvantage for job opportunities if their clothing is soiled or wrinkled, or if their health is poor. Tiny homes make this a permanent condition.

The obvious illustration of tiny homes’ environmentally unfriendly footprint is as clear as the equally obvious middle ground between the gymnasium filled with cots used as a shelter complete with snoring, farting people needlessly, helplessly annoying each other, and the tiny home, where you can’t even use the paltry space you have to yourself because you’re freezing. The middle ground is obvious: an apartment building or combination apartment building and single-room occupancy hotel, precisely what was savagely and opportunistically destroyed in Berkeley and elsewhere for high-end units over the last thirty years. Worker housing once plentiful in Berkeley and cheaper to build than tiny homes, was not replaced because there was a lot of money to be made demolishing it for condos, money which was eagerly accepted by politicians at election campaign time who in turn loosen, or “streamline” regulations for developers.

Again, who benefits? Homeowners hoping to turn the backyard shed or garage into a lucrative extra unit benefit. Developers and architects who are tired of skating against the edge of building restrictions benefit. Neither of these are needy groups of people. Whether they are greedy groups of people is obvious in any city’s priorities, which either promote safe, spacious, legal housing for yes, even the poor (who outnumber the rich all around the world) over the boutique whims of the wealthy.

Berkeley is on a path toward leaving the rush to gentrification undisturbed, a gentrification which has its roots in the racist covenants which were legal in Berkeley only a few decades ago. Our at-risk population for homelessness nationwide is disproportionately people of color.

The “Pathways Project” which recently passed the Berkeley City Council, a purely theoretical supervised campground at this point, has a set of obvious fallacies:

  1. that “new” land without any buildings on it yet is necessary to address homelessness, and Berkeley just doesn’t have any;
  2. that only carefully vetted people from within our homeless population are deserving of a roof;
  3. that our eccentrics, our poor, and our mentally unstable are a threat which needs isolation;
  4. that Berkeley, which just spent $6 million to acquire the old Premier Cru building on University Avenue, just can’t afford to house its poor.

Does Berkeley have room to house its poor? Of course it can. Any fool can look up the amount of combined empty residential and commercial units on the City of Berkeley’s own Economic Development page, any local rental website, and toss in the available spaces on short-term rental sites like AirB&B and see that there is plenty of room to house our own poor. The only thing that’s missing is the obvious willingness, even by our new mayor and city council, to disturb our mythology, our prejudices, and our lucrative status quo.

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