Tiny houses: salvation for the homeless or a dead end?


Paul Lewis


The Guardian

Publication Date: 

March 23, 2017

Othello Village is on a plot of land behind a gas station, surrounded by a chain-link fence. It consists of 28 wooden huts and 12 tents that flap in a bitter Pacific wind. Residents share a shower, toilet and kitchen tent, with food stored in plastic boxes to keep out the rats.

Until recently the cabins lacked heating or electricity, and the children who live there – currently 11 of its 67 inhabitants – had to use flashlights to read their schoolbooks. This is how Seattle, one of the richest cities in the world, flush with cash from Amazon and Microsoft, houses some of its poorest residents.

Seattle is not alone. Wooden cabins euphemistically referred to as tiny houses are increasingly viewed as a quick and cheap solution to homelessness and, with minimal public debate, they are mushrooming across the country.

The shed-like structures have appeared in vacant lots and scrubland in at least 10 states, from Florida to New York to Utah. But the trend is most apparent in northern California and the Pacific north-west. Some of America’s most liberal cities have in recent years shifted from banning and clearing unauthorized homeless settlements, based in part on the argument they were unfit for habitation, to sanctioning and even funding camps that skirt building regulations thanks to loopholes or special dispensation...

...The city insists they are only a stopgap solution, and the ultimate goal is to move tiny-house residents into permanent homes. Lee said she has achieved this with 161 people.

But she conceded there was a shortage of places where people could move. Seattle’s lack of affordable housing has contributed to what Lee calls the worst homelessness crisis of her 25-year career. Her own organization owns or managesaround 2,000 units of affordable housing and is constantly building more, but it can take three to four years for any one project to come to fruition. The situation may be helped by a huge property-tax levy for low-income housing that was approved by voters last year.

In the meantime, “you have to put homeless people somewhere”, Lee said. “If the shelters can’t take them, where should they be? On the streets?”