Are Tiny Homes Suitable as Housing for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness?

Are Tiny Homes Suitable as Housing for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness?

March 3, 2017
Written by the NVTAC blogger

The “Tiny House” (sometimes called “Small House”) movement is a social and architectural phenomenon that came to prominence after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and even more so during the housing market crash of 2007 to 2008. (1) People were drawn to tiny houses for financial reasons, as well as a longing for simplicity, environmental concerns, and in some cases, a desire for flexibility and mobility.(2)

Generally speaking, tiny houses are stand-alone, portable (e.g., built on wheels) or permanent structures that are less than 400 square feet.(3) In some instances, tiny houses are simply glorified shacks or sheds, with no electricity or plumbing; in other cases, they have all the amenities of a traditional home and beautiful design work. Some builders use shipping containers as the base unit, some build on trailers, and others build from scratch or use one of the many architectural house plans for tiny homes found online.

Some municipalities have taken a negative view of tiny houses as an intervention for homelessness, and in some communities, tiny houses in general are frowned upon for a variety of reasons. Those reasons include that some tiny houses are not up to code or have other zoning issues, they are thought to be an eyesore, or they block the public right of way when they are put up in public or other non-authorized areas. Los Angeles recently passed ordinances banning tiny houses from all public areas.(4) The argument follows that without proper access to utilities such as sanitation, water, and electricity, some tiny home communities will breed unsafe conditions and lead to an increased marginalization of the homeless population living there. The base debate is over whether tiny homes are real housing.(5)

Proponents of using tiny houses for people experiencing homelessness believe the homes provide an affordable alternative in tight and expensive housing markets. The homes also provide a sense of ownership and pride to the homeless individuals who occupy them. Following are a few examples of tiny homes being used for veterans and others experiencing homelessness.

In Kansas City, an organization called Veterans Community Project has piloted a project to build tiny homes to house veterans experiencing homelessness. This project is called Veterans Village, and it has a community model of tiny houses, as well as on-site services. This project intends to build 50 tiny homes that will be used as a transitional housing system, allowing veterans to live in a community with other transitioning veterans while they address issues such as substance use and employment stability. The veterans are provided with counseling, food, utilities, and, of course, shelter for a period of time. Eventually, each veteran is expected to pay to stay in the tiny house and then transition into mainstream housing. The organization believes this model serves to create a sense of ownership, and the veterans get to keep the provided furnishings (artwork, furniture, household items, etc.) when they move out.

American Family Housing is setting up a project called Potters Lane in Midway City (Orange County, California) that will permanently house chronically homeless veterans in 16 units. It has a “village” design model with common areas and gardens, and uses shipping containers to create multi-story dwelling units as part of the architectural design. This model integrates services into a community setting and residents will pay 30 percent of their income for the housing, or nothing if they have zero income. This project is being funded by public donations and private foundations and is scheduled to open for residents in February 2017.

A proposed project in Denver would take some private but unused lots and build “Round Home Yurts” in what is an otherwise extremely high-cost housing area. The project aims to create a temporary tiny house village in empty lots that are scheduled for future development. The argument is that prime areas are sitting vacant for 6 to 18 months at a time and could instead be used to house a growing homeless population in the downtown Denver area.

Although the use of tiny homes as a housing solution remains controversial, the lack of affordable housing (or housing in general) has forced service providers to “think outside the box” (pun intended). When considering tiny homes as a housing/homeless intervention, it is vital that an organization carefully consider and plan for logistical concerns, safety issues, service provision, and community engagement. These are all fundamental aspects of housing success that cannot be ignored or put set aside to deal with later—they must be part of the development and implementation process.

When considering the best uses of tiny houses, the core question of permanent housing versus transitional housing arises. Although the use of transitional housing has fallen out of favor in light of new models (such as Rapid Rehousing), it still remains a viable option for many communities looking to help stabilize their homeless veteran population during the often-lengthy process of securing permanent housing. In this regard, tiny houses seem like a potential, low-cost solution to increase transitional housing stock.

The integrity and quality of housing should not be compromised, regardless of the size. Plumbing, HVAC, electricity, availability of phone and internet service, and postal access should all be part and parcel of even the most modest tiny house. Providers should never offer sheds and structures not meant for human habitation and consider it “housing”—to do so would be a disservice to our veterans.

The question remains, should homeless veteran housing interventions create a veteran-only community? There is much debate on both sides of this issue, and the idea of “housing choice” comes into play. If veterans want to live among other veterans, they should be afforded that option; on the other hand, if veterans want to be housed in the greater community, providers should do their best to accommodate them. That said, housing availability may ultimately drive the options available to homeless veterans.

Tiny houses, though controversial, can provide alternative housing for homeless veterans, particularly in tight housing markets. The considerations of choice, marginalization, standards, and quality all must be weighed against the availability of mainstream housing. Although tiny houses may seem to be a low-cost and relatively quick fix to veteran homelessness, the issues noted in this blog must be weighed by providers to ensure a real, sustainable, and effective housing intervention.

(1) Heavens, A. (2007, June). Smaller could be the answer to a lot of issues. Retrieved from http://realtytimes.com/todaysheadlines1/item/6923-20070614_smalleranswer
(2) The Tiny Life. (n.d.). What is the tiny house movement? Retrieved from http://thetinylife.com/what-is-the-tiny-house-movement/
(3) Though there is no “legal” definition of what constitutes a tiny hose, the tiny house community generally considers it to be 65 to 400 square feet. See http://tinyhousetalk.com/tiny-house-movement/
(4) Karch, L. (2016, March). After legal battle, L.A. cracks down on tiny homes for the homeless. Nonprofit Quarterly. Retrieved from https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2016/03/07/after-legal-battle-l-a-cracks-down-on-tiny-homes-for-the-homeless/?gclid=Cj0KEQjwg8i_BRCT9dHt5ZSGi90BEiQAItdjpO2XCPqRuoNbRa7DldwvzGqYQpPpc0Vgj3XtmR8ta5YaAhSU8P8HAQ
(5) Quandt, K.R., (2015, February). Can tiny homes help fix homelessness. Mother Jones. Retrieved from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/02/tiny-houses-homelessness-solution


We’d like to hear what you think. Let us know your ideas. Write us at nvtac@ahpnet.com.
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Homeless Veteran Reintegration Programs (HVRPs) help veterans experiencing homelessness find their place in the workforce. HVRPs can be found at http://www.nvtac.org/grantees.

Adam Kirkman at Advocates for Human Potential acts as the Blog Moderator for NVTAC Blog and welcomes all questions, comments, or concerns that you may have regarding this blog.

Preparation of this item was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, Veterans’ Employment Training Service under cooperative agreement HV25269-14-75-5-25. This document does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the DOL, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government. The National Veterans Technical Assistance Center (NVTAC) is a partnership among Advocates for Human Potential (AHP), the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) and the U.S. Department of Labor, Veterans Employment and Training Services (DOL-VETS).