Tiny House Movement Spreads Across the Country

Dignity Village in Portland started when homeless activists claimed space under a downtown bridge. It has grown into a 60-person village with tiny homes built of recycled materials by residents and volunteers. Community members practice self-governance, and select their own members under their own community agreements.

by Betsy Morris

The tiny house movement has reached a critical mass — and the folks who are bringing it into public view aren’t the do-it-yourself builders, urban homesteaders, idealistic architects, or proponents of simple living, whether voluntary or not. It’s the homeless activists and advocates, often inspired by religious values or the Occupy movement around the country, who are announcing some new Tiny Home Village every month or so now. The Bay Area may be catching up shortly. Here are a few stories for your consideration.

Dateline Berkeley, Thursday, March 31, 2016. Mary, Dana Ryan, Michaela and Maya are just a few of the 20 or so sharing ideas for a tiny home village. There’s a city-owned vacant lot in West Berkeley that’s looking like a possible candidate for their own little cohousing community, a vest-pocket neighborhood of 8 tiny homes and a common house.

Many of the youth live in shelters or couch-surf. They’re all part of Youth Spirit Artworks, a special place where they can go while juggling jobs, school, recovery, and living in temporary shelters that require that they leave every morning and not return until evening.

They’ve just finished their first meeting with Berkeley City Councilmember Darryl Moore — a free-ranging and kind of frustrating discussion about gentrification, racial change, homeownership, and culture shock, and an analysis of who is doing what to help fund more resources for youth living in shelters in Berkeley.

They already know they want a hand in building the village. Eloquent and probing, these youth explore the possibilities and challenges of self-governance, of choosing members, and living cooperatively in close quarters.

They ask probing questions and attempt to visualize the possibilities.

“What if we had a counselor living there, or on call nearby?” “We could buddy up and have ‘safe words’ to let each other know when we’re about to melt down so we don’t take it out on each other.” “What about a little room where we could let it all out?”

“I know someone from the city who said we could get a portable building for a common house.” “If we could raise money for counselors or teachers to help us, we could create jobs!” “Maybe we can hire folks we know who are trying to get their certificate, but just missed a point on the test, and need more experience.”

“Should we ever call the police? That doesn’t feel safe.” “Only if someone really can’t keep our agreements and they might harm someone, then the police can handle that.” “Should it just be for kids in recovery? Or ones with jobs?” “We could help each other find jobs — there’s a lot of them down there.”

“It’s easy to bike around in Berkeley, and it’s not too far to the bus straight to Oakland, if you had a place to lock up bicycles inside a gate.” “But there are so many people who need help: let’s remember to give back to the community.”

The Youth Spirit Artworks team, members of the Liberty City experiment like Mike Zintz and Mike Lee, and other homeless activists and affordable housing advocates in the Berkeley Tiny Home Villages Study Group, will be attending City Council meetings to push for rapid action on the promises of the Emergency Shelter measure passed in January. Look for more news ahead!

Occupy Madison

On November 21, 2014, the nonprofit Occupy Madison (OM) got their Occupancy Permit for a Village of up to nine tiny homes. On November 22, the OM team helped the first villagers move in. Betty and Chris had been living in their own tiny house for nearly a year on the street without running water or electricity, moving every 24 or 48 hours to comply with parking requirements. Their little house on a trailer now shares water, electricity, flush toilets, showers, laundry, a kitchen and more with four other households. The village is governed by members of OM, including the residents.

Occupy Madison raised funds to buy an old garage/gas station, convert the building to workshops and meeting space, and get permits for OM Village. Twenty-three homeowners nearby resisted the project with a petition based on unfounded fears and misguided hostility. The City Councilmember stuck by his support, and a year later, neighbors acknowledged that, in fact, the neighborhood looked better and felt better.

The formerly homeless members of the Village share representation on the Board of Occupy Madison. Each one signs a community agreement to be a good neighbor, and within the first year, one of the residents was asked to leave for “egregious” violations. It was a hard decision; the president of the Board and OM Village member abstained.

Dignity Village in Portland

Occupy Madison Village is based on Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon. What started as homeless activists claiming space under a bridge in downtown Portland has now grown into a 60-person village with tiny homes built of recycled materials by residents and volunteers.

Community members practice self-governance, selecting their own fellow members under their own community agreements in partnership with a nonprofit sponsor that helps with negotiations with the city which owns the land.

It is further from downtown jobs and services, and by the terms of their land lease with the city, residents can only stay for two years (except for those who handle important day-to-day responsibilities as volunteer staff).

But, there is a lot of mutual support for recovery, job placement, transit passes, and the like. One of the hardest things, according to a student researcher at MIT, is the lack of privacy over the porta-potties and shared showers. A little more space and a little more soundproofing could go a long way.

Members of Youth Spirit Artworks and the Berkeley Tiny Home Village Study Group on a field trip to the PLACE for Sustainable Living in Oakland, where tour guide Nik Bertullis and others offer workshops on building tiny homes out of recycled wood and used, half-sized shipping containers.

Members of Youth Spirit Artworks and the Berkeley Tiny Home Village Study Group on a field trip to the PLACE for Sustainable Living in Oakland, where tour guide Nik Bertullis offers workshops on building tiny homes out of recycled wood and used shipping containers.

 

Opportunity Village in Eugene

Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon, was also inspired by Dignity Village and the Occupy movement. The instigator, Andy Heber, a young city planner, researched and wrote Tent City Urbanism, an excellent book that combines a contemporary history of homeless encampments, and a guide to creating a self-governing tiny home village.

Heber cites the influence of cohousing design and intentional communities, as well as classic patterns of village councils behind the development of Opportunity Village. The Village is on land approved and leased by the city, on the outskirts of Eugene in a commercial/light industrial neighborhoods. Car parking (mostly for visitors or staff) is off to the side.

[For more information on these self-governing tiny home villages see www.VillageCollaborative.com or www.Foursquarevillages.com and www.tentcityurbanism.com]

Quixote Village in Olympia

A couple hours north of Eugene is Quixote Village in Olympia, Washington. It is also on land leased by the city, but a lot of money went into grading the land, moving dirt, building 30 tiny houses and a large, permanent office and commons building. Quixote Village is sponsored by a faith-based nonprofit called Panza. Panza set up the village with input from a group of homeless men over several years of talks. That village is not self-governing. Members are selected by a professional manager who can request drug tests and evict members who don’t follow through on problems they are causing.

Fresno Legalizes Tiny Homes

Here in California and the Bay Area, we don’t have legal pathways to tiny home villages yet, but a few pioneers are working on that. Mobile homes, campers, trailers, manufactured homes, RVs, house-cars, converted trucks, vans, houseboats, and backyard sheds have been codified as uninhabitable or zoned nearly to the point of extinction. (Mobile Home parks are protected in the state like an endangered species.)

Creating community is something former homeless artists/activists out on the Albany Bulb knew well. However, there are also “sustainability pioneers” who have found ways to create tiny home villages behind the fences in commercial and industrial areas.

Fresno has become the first city in California to legalize tiny homes for backyard cottages. The City of Fresno has started the process of change. As of January 3, 2016, property owners in residential neighborhoods with an existing home can add one tiny home in the backyard to the types of secondary structures they can rent or live in. These recently added tiny homes are defined as registered RVs with at least 100 square feet of first-floor living space, with legal kitchen and bath, that can be towed but not driven.

DEFINITIONS

Despite enormous free documentation by the National Tiny House Association, numerous blogs, articles, books, documentaries, and meet-up groups of tiny house fans around the country, the media is struggling to understand what tiny homes are. One national paper said tiny houses were 1000 square feet or less. The San Francisco Chronicle, in a recent article in mid-March, identified tiny homes as 300 to 500 square feet. No, no, no!

Let’s get a few things straight. The tiny house movement, by and large, is about free-standing structures small enough and light enough to tow behind your basic pickup truck, using wood (preferably natural and re-used), not the plastic and aluminum of your basic RV, camper or van, although used shipping containers and converted buses and vans can be admitted to the fold.

So here are some basics: A tiny home that is legally towable by a lightweight truck constrains you to a structure 8 feet wide and 20 feet long, or 160 square feet. But those trailers are pretty expensive, often the single largest expense, in fact.

There’s a lot of competition in the tiny house world to find the most artful, efficient, and functional gadgets (furniture, utility systems, boat heaters, composting toilets) to live comfortably and beautifully in a space designed to fit the owner like a glove. All that and the charm too.

So many fully featured tiny homes (with bath and kitchen) might go as low as 75 square feet, while ones without amenities (basically a shed) may be even smaller (8 by 8 feet or 6 by 9 feet.) Some people even make smaller ones, basically something you can tow by bicycle, a lockable box with a window or glass door. If you want examples of those, go to Wood Street in Oakland; along the line from American Steel north to Emeryville, you can see these little boxes mixed up with tents and tarps balanced precariously on the curb in front of a mile of chain-link fence protecting acres of California native weeds from the humans.

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