Everyone can understand the magic of a space to call one’s own, even a tiny one. Last fall, SMUD held a Tiny House Competition for Northern California college students. Teams designed, constructed and operated solar-powered, zero-net energy houses, and 10 tiny houses were built and showcased at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. The excitement among the students was palpable, and the houses were a treat to experience.
Public interest was overwhelming, with people willing to wait hours to go inside to see the display. There were examples of ingenuity and careful thought in every house. Each structure was designed for a real user, demonstrating that tiny houses have desirable applications for a variety of situations. Why not for people who are experiencing homelessness?
Communities in the Capital Region are struggling with the increasing numbers of homeless in their streets and parks and have realized that the problem has to be addressed. Local programs help by providing meals and winter shelter. But the primary need is year-round, permanent supportive housing, because living in tents or on park benches is not a sustainable way of life.
Years ago, single room occupancy, or SRO, housing — essentially bedrooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens — was a prevalent form of housing in cities and provided accommodations for the poor, especially those with mental illness or substance abuse problems. Much of this housing has been demolished in the past decades, making more people homeless.
Now cities and towns across the U.S. are exploring new solutions to provide housing with dignity for homeless individuals in the form of non-institutional settings that still include the services they need. The SROs of the past are evolving into clusters of tiny house village communities.
What is a tiny house and how can it be built?
The California Department of Housing and Community Development describes a tiny house as structures that range from 80-400 square feet in size, which “may be built with a variety of standards or no construction standards; may or may not be constructed on a chassis (with or without axles or wheels); and usually are offered for use and placement in a variety of sites.”
A tiny house can be mobile or permanent. It can be built to comply with different standards: HUD-Code manufactured homes, California Residential Code or California Building Code; factory built housing, recreational vehicle, park trailer or camping cabin. The location of the house determines which code it must comply with. For example, a tiny house on a residential lot needs to comply with California Residential Code or California Building Code. Mobile home parks or special occupancy parks are the only zones that allow non-building-code standard tiny homes, offering maximum flexibility. Many cities and towns, including Sacramento, don’t yet have these zoning types in place. Zoning changes are now being considered to pave the way for tiny house villages.
The building code for small dwelling units is currently being examined and re-written in some U.S. cities, including San Jose and Berkeley, to accommodate the surging interest in tiny houses. In the eagerness to build small, affordable houses, we must not forget the well-thought reasons for code requirements that address fire concerns, ventilation needs and accessibility.
Viable models for permanent housing
Tiny house living units vary in size and concept: from spare sleeping cabins without plumbing or electricity to hotel rooms consisting of sleeping space, storage and bathroom to complete tiny houses with sleeping space, storage, bathroom, kitchen and living area. In tiny house communities, the individual living units are complemented by group amenities. Clusters of sleeping cabins have a community living room, kitchen, bathrooms and showers — similar to a campground. Hotel room tiny house groupings have a community living room and a common kitchen. Villages of self-sufficient dwellings are designed around a centrally-located community room. Many villages are gated communities, providing safety and security.
According to a 2015 white paper by an organization called Community Frameworks, based in Washington: “Tiny house villages are a logical extension of the tent cities that have sprung up across the country, where resourcefulness and ingenuity have come together to create safe communities. The funding is available and land-use and building codes can be adapted. Homeless encampments, faith-based and other community organizations, nonprofit housing providers, and local jurisdictions can work together to provide a better option than tents and temporary structures.”
Where land is available and affordable, tiny houses offer a tangible, realistic method of providing housing for homeless individuals. Volunteers can help build these homes — modeled, in a way, after Habitat for Humanity and involving a hands-on construction approach that creates community support through participation.
In urban areas, where land is more expensive, stand-alone detached houses, even tiny ones, are difficult to justify. The preferred options are denser, multi-story developments — clusters of “tiny house-like” micro units. Priorities are safe places for individuals and their belongings, where they can sleep in peace behind a locked door and be part of a nurturing community.
But we need to get everyone on board: politicians, business leaders, nonprofits, residents, volunteers, sponsors, building officials, planners, affordable housing experts, homeless housing advocates and the un-housed. We need to set aside land and resources, and work with architects and builders to create local tiny house villages, which will help so many.
As an architect, I am excited about this effective and feasible design solution. My hope is that we as a region can be leaders in creating safe, nurturing communities. Because the houses may be tiny, but everyone needs the chance to live the largest life they can.