Tiny Homes: It’s Time to Act to Confront Homelessness

Dec 11, 2017

“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”
-President John F. Kennedy

Every night, more than 4,300 individuals in San Jose must find a place to sleep in our creeks, parks, and freeway underpasses, in shelters, or by “couch-surfing” with friends or relatives. This crisis obviously takes a huge toll on our homeless residents: 132 people died countywide in 2016 while living among the elements.

Homelessness has also imposed hefty burdens on our entire community, and those costs come in many forms, including the impact to public safety. The financial expense alone appears substantial: a 2015 report titled Home Not Found: The Cost of Homelessness in Silicon Valley pegged the cost to City and County taxpayers at $520 million per year countywide. Among those costs are the millions we spend in the City of San Jose to address residents’ concerns related to homelessness, including requests for encampment abatements, vehicle abatements, officer and ranger enforcement, and the deployment of outreach for homeless individuals. The County spends much more in hospital emergency rooms.

While in recent years we’ve taken many steps in the right direction, the need remains enormous. With voter-approved Measure A permanent housing projects still years away from any ribbon-cutting, we need to find short-and medium-term strategies to house more of our homeless neighbors.

Fortunately, with the recent passage of state legislation AB2176, San Jose has a unique opportunity to pilot the construction of temporary ‘tiny homes’ for our homeless neighbors on public land. This type of project represents a promising and cost-effective strategy for rapidly housing some of our most vulnerable residents, restoring their dignity and putting them back on a path to self-sufficiency. You can see conceptual drawings of what tiny homes might resemble, with thanks to the Gensler architecture firm for developing these designs at no cost to taxpayers.

Conceptual Drawing of Tiny Home (Photo Credit: Gensler - Bridge Housing Communities)

I recognize that many of our residents have concerns about how homeless housing could impact the surrounding community. Much of this opposition emanates from fears about having homeless people in their communities.

This argument overlooks a critical fact: thousands of homeless residents already live in our neighborhoods — whether on our streets, in our parks, or along our creeks. Living outside subjects each of those individuals  – and the entire community  – to extraordinary risk of harm. We can make our neighborhoods far safer, cleaner, and more livable if these same individuals have secure housing, with on-site managers and access to important social services.

“Tiny homes” represent one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to get more of our homeless neighbors into housing.

Read this column from Barb Marshman at the Mercury News on why San Jose needs tiny homes.
It’s important to carefully examine the alternatives suggested by objectors, because the lure of the simplistic solution will mislead when we’re confronting a complicated human problem. To paraphrase HL Mencken  –  for every complex problem there is a solution that is clear, simple  – and wrong.

For example, some have raised issues about costs. Each “tiny home” unit will cost roughly $20,000 to construct  –  but with larger additional costs in the form of site preparation and community facilities (for basic utilities, such as water and sewer), provision of security, and supportive services. Given the many nuances and varying descriptions of homeless housing program costs, I encourage you to read this staff report to better understand the numbers yourself.

As this report demonstrates, the real cost of providing housing homeless safely and effectively comes not in building the structure, but in provision of security, basic utilities, and services. We’ll face similar costs whether using wigwams, igloos, or any other solution. Cutting those services subjects everyone to the public health and safety problems that we currently see with encampments. And while some point to the use of “tough sheds” or tents, other lower-cost designs, those assertions overlook that the fact that we need to safely house people in a secure, habitable unit.

In addition, some have suggested that we use the same dollars to expand our “master leasing” of existing apartments and homes  – an approach currently used by the Housing Department, but one which reached its limits long ago.

The success of “master leasing” programs depends on having a rental market with available affordable supply, and we face one of the tightest rental markets in the nation. To make it worse, many landlords will not rent to homeless tenants. Even if we could find available apartments, spending $1.6 million on a master leasing program will do nothing to expand our affordable housing supply, and scattering the housing across San Jose would make the County’s provision of critical services  – such as job training or alcohol rehabilitation  – unfeasibly costly.

Moving Forward

For all of these reasons, I’ve joined with several colleagues to urge that the Council pursue a pilot “tiny home” project, with close evaluation to enable us to learn and improve the model. If it works, we’ll expand the concept, and seek an extension of the program from the state legislature. If not, we’ll focus on other remedies to address the crisis. That’s the nature of innovation: we must try, learn, and try again. Doing nothing  –  or trying the same failed approaches  – only poses larger costs.

As part of this vote, I’ll also recommend we implement the robust plan developed by the Housing Department to thoroughly evaluate the viability of potential sites in our city, and to engage with the community before returning to the City Council with any recommendation on proposed sites. This will ensure that the Council and community have all the information they need to decide whether to ultimately move forward with a ‘tiny homes’ program.

This is the beginning of a complex and difficult conversation that our community must have about how and where we house our neediest residents in the City of San Jose. We can make our neighborhoods safer and healthier if we find ways to house our most vulnerable residents. Now is the time for our Council to demonstrate the leadership to bring our community together and confront this challenge.