Amid housing shortage, can tiny homes reduce homelessness?

Workers talk to a resident, at right, in front a row of tiny homes for the homeless, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

There is a new reality for renters in America — there are not enough homes and apartments available, and it’s a shortage in the millions.

You’re likely to pay at least 30% (likely more) than your income to secure one. And at least 4 million renter households have been priced out of homeownership.

Millions of households say they’re within months of being evicted, a “fundamental driver of affordability challenges” low- to middle-income families face, according to the 2022 State of the Nation’s Housing report. 

Across the nation, dozens of government, nonprofit and private organizations are turning to tiny homes — small houses generally under 600 square feet — as the answer. Proponents say these tiny homes help unhoused people become more economically stable and access more services, such as health care or job placement. Depending on the model, some tiny home communities offer a path to home ownership. 

Others argue tiny homes work better as an emergency solution. Some planned neighborhoods of tiny homes have faced stigma and pushback from surrounding communities. Startup costs can be expensive, and couples or families may find the space too confining. 

Yet small-scale housing types will be essential to quickly supplying enough affordable shelter for all those who need it, the 2022 report states. NewsNation examines three tiny house models to see how well they work — and what we can learn.

Veterans OutreacH of Wisconsin — Racine and Milwaukee

How it works: A nonprofit organization of and for military veterans built a village of 15 tiny homes that has been called the “most successful project of its kind in Wisconsin.” All services are free to veterans and include peer support groups, suicide prevention, help navigating veterans benefits, and job placement.

Why it works: The focus on just military veterans allows for specialized care until a resident is ready to move on. For example, regular service projects help veterans build relationships and reconnect with the larger community, VOW says. And because the housing and food is free, residents can save money toward a rental deposit or home down payment. The project has been so successful, it is expanding to Milwaukee, where there will be 42 homes, a community center and food market.

Room for improvement: As a mostly volunteer nonprofit, the village heavily relies on financial donations. In addition to tiny home residents, the organization serves over 500 veterans and their families per month through the food pantry.

Takeaway: Targeting a specific group of unhoused people can help provide more specialized support.

A Tiny Home For Good — Syracuse, New York

How it works: This nonprofit builds its small homes on vacant lots to help unhoused people find steady housing, with rent determined based on the circumstances of each tenant. These communities reduce blighted property, and on-site staff work with residents, provide services such as laundry or transportation and help resolve issues.

Why it works: These tiny homes provide a dignified and private space, improving residents’ mental and physical health, economic stability and food security. A cost analysis of the program estimated each person placed saves the county more than $100,000 a year in reduced medical expenses and dependency on emergency services.

Room for improvement: Tiny Homes for Good’s model requires a local office where residents can interact with staff. Some researchers suggest the organization could benefit from a centralized office that could improve some services and the case worker-client relationship.

Takeaway: Revitalizing abandoned properties for this purpose is especially useful for improving the market value of a neighborhood while reducing land burdens on local governments.

Community First! Village — Austin, Texas

How it works: The largest tiny home project in the country, Community First! is a 51-acre, planned community run by a religious organization. There are several different types of shelter on the property, which also includes a cinema, community market, farm and woodworking shop. 

Why it works: For more than two decades, Mobile Loaves & Fishes has run a food truck for people facing food insecurity across Central Texas. They found that “the single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound, catastrophic loss of family,” and created this neighborhood where formerly unhoused people live side by side with middle- and higher-income neighbors. Since 2015, 325 formerly homeless residents collectively earned $1.2 million in 2021 through what they call “micro-enterprise opportunities.” 

Room for improvement: One researcher notes a long application process and waiting lists, plus strict rules can feel exclusionary for people with certain backgrounds. Staff say the community rules help the formerly unhoused people re-integrate into the larger society.

Takeaway: Creating a supportive community while providing opportunities for work can improve the outcomes for people who are homeless due to a lack of family or economic hardships.

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