Are Tiny Houses the Key to Fighting Homelessness?

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This post first appeared in Yes! Magazine.

An architect's rendering of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash. Image courtesy of Panza.

An architect's rendering of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash. Image courtesy of Panza.

On a Saturday in September, more than 125 volunteers showed up with tools in hand and built six new 16-by-20-foot houses for a group of formerly homeless men. It was the beginning of Second Wind Cottages, a tiny-house village for the chronically homeless in the town of Newfield, NY, outside of Ithaca.

On January 29, the village officially opened, and its first residents settled in. Each house had cost about $10,000 to build, a fraction of what it would have cost to house the men in a new apartment building.

The project is part of a national movement of tiny-house villages, an alternative approach to housing the homeless that’s beginning to catch the interest of national advocates and government housing officials alike.

“It’s certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at,” says Lee Jones at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn “extremely low income” (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But Second Wind is truly affordable, built by volunteers on seven acres of land donated by Carmen Guidi, the main coordinator of the project and a longtime friend of several of the men who now live there. The retail cost of the materials to build the first six houses was somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 per house, says Guidi. But many of the building materials were donated, and all of the labor was done in a massive volunteer effort.

“We’ve raised nearly $100,000 in 100 days,” he says, and the number of volunteers has been “in the hundreds, maybe even thousands now.”

The village will ultimately include a common house, garden beds, a chicken coop, and 18 single-unit cottages.

“Camp Quixote” becomes a village
“The typical development for extremely low-income housing is trending up toward $200,000 per unit. That’s a lot of bills,” says Jill Severn, a board member at Panza, a nonprofit organization that sponsors another tiny-house project called Quixote Village. (The organization’s name is a play on Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s sidekick in Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel.)

Quixote Village opened in Olympia, Wash., right before Christmas. But it began in February 2007 as “Camp Quixote,” a protest held in a city-owned parking lot. A group of homeless people assembled there to oppose an Olympia ordinance that made it illegal to sit, lie down or sell things within six feet of downtown buildings. When police evicted the campers eight days after the protest began, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation stepped in to help, offering temporary refuge on their land.

Residents of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., move in with their belongings. Photo courtesy of Panza.

Residents of Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., move in with their belongings. Photo courtesy of Panza.

For five years, the camp’s location rotated, moving and reassembling every 90 days at one of several different local churches. Panza was formed by a corps of volunteers from the faith communities assisting the camp, and the organization worked with the city council to secure and rezone a parcel of county-owned industrial land near a community college and create a permanent site for the village. In December of 2013, the residents of Quixote Village settled into their new homes there.

Quixote Village has fostered a positive relationship between its residents and local government and police, says Severn. Despite this, the project was held up in court for a year by a local organization of businesses and landowners called the Industrial Zoning Preservation Association, which cited concerns over the potential impact on local businesses in a nearby industrial park.

Panza used the time to fundraise and build an outreach campaign to win over the public. They had the support of legions of volunteers, mostly from local churches, who had staffed the camp.

“Having hundreds of [residents] get to know people that were homeless made a huge difference in the success of getting this off the ground,” says Severn.

Today, the 30 structures that make up Quixote Village are home to 29 disabled adults, almost all of whom qualify as “chronically homeless,” by the standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Homelessness in Austin, Texas, costs taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

The residents also have a common space with shared showers, a laundry, garden space, and a kitchen. By sharing these amenities, the community was able to increase the affordability of the project and design a neighborhood they believed would fit their needs and make them more self-sufficient.

The shared space has also helped them create a supportive community. The residents, who are self-governed, have developed a rulebook that prohibits illegal drugs and alcohol on the grounds and requires that each member put in a certain number of service hours per week. They meet twice a week in the evenings to discuss problems or concerns and to share a common meal that they take turns cooking.

The main complaint right now, says Raul Salazar, the village’s program manager and only full-time staff member, is that the postal service still hasn’t started delivering mail.

The cost of units at Quixote Village is significantly higher than at Second Wind—about $88,000 per unit—but that’s still less than half the cost of the average public housing project, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Quixote has had access to state funding and local community grants, as well as private funding from individuals, businesses, and two Native American tribes. The project also received a Community Development Block Grant for $604,000 from the State of Washington Department of Commerce and a $1.5-million grant from the Washington State Legislature.

Two architecture and design firms, MSGS Architects and KMB Design Groups, also contributed design services pro bono, and the Thurston County Commission is leasing the land to Quixote for $1 per year.

Gaining acceptance
Many other tiny-house projects are just beginning to get off the ground, raise money, find land and gain approval from local officials and members of the public. But the unorthodox nature of the small houses presents unique legal zoning limitations and barriers that limit where tiny houses can be stationed.

In Madison, Wisc., Occupy Madison has been facing this very challenge, as the group forged ahead with plans for a tiny house village.

Each home will be about 99 square feet if you include the porch, and volunteers enjoy the joke: “We are the 99 square feet!”
In the spring of 2011, prior to the launch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a series of protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol — focused on the state’s controversial anti-collective-bargaining bill — prompted additional legislation that prohibited groups from gathering without a permit. When the protests joined forces with Occupy in the fall of 2011, this created a unique opportunity for the voices of the many homeless people in Madison to be heard.

“There were some great moments throughout the Occupy movement where a lot of dialogue was going on between the people without homes and the people with homes,” says Allen Barkoff, one of the board members of Occupy Madison, Inc., a nonprofit formed in December 2012 to address the need for legal places where homeless people in Madison could congregate and stay safe. The organization first looked into buying an apartment building or a shared house for the homeless but ultimately settled on tiny houses as the most flexible and economical way to create homes for people.

In this case, the cost of building the tiny homes comes to around $5,000 each, funded by private donations and an online crowd-funding campaign. The nonprofit also plans to apply for some city grants. Each home will come with a propane heater, a composting toilet, and an 80-watt solar panel array — and will be about 98 square feet in size, 99 if you include the porch. (The volunteers enjoy the joke: “We are the 99 square feet!”)

But the question of where the houses can legally be located is still up in the air. Volunteers are now building houses for six people. Because of a recent ordinance change, the houses are allowed to sit on church property in groups of three. City regulations also permit them to be placed on the side of the road, as long as they are relocated every 48 hours. But Madison’s snowy winter makes the houses hard to move, explains Barkoff.

Now Occupy Madison, Inc., is in the middle of a lengthy process to purchase a parcel of land on the east side of the city to accommodate 11 houses, along with a central building (a converted gas station) that can serve as a workshop for making more homes. This spring, they will continue to hold neighborhood meetings about the project, talk with police, and work with the Madison Planning and Development Department — and, eventually, the city council — to negotiate zoning issues for the village.

The real cost of homelessness
Efforts to break through the red tape and raise money to house the homeless almost always pay off for a community. Even the most expensive tiny-house projects—such as a new, ambitious $6-million campaign to build a 200-person tiny-house park this year in Austin, Texas — can’t rival the cost of homelessness to taxpayers, which was more than $10 million per year in Austin, for example, as YES! reported in December 2013.

“It’s a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance.”
“Chronically homeless people — people who have disabilities and are homeless for long periods of time — can be very expensive to systems of public care,” explains Roman. In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness compiled three studies showing that it costs the same or less money to provide permanent housing as it does to allow people to remain homeless. In Denver, Colo., a housing program for the homeless reduced the costs of public services (including medical services, temporary shelter, and costs associated with arrests and incarceration) by an estimated $15,773 per person per year, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars.

Government officials and city planners are beginning to see the tiny-house village as one viable solution for addressing homelessness.

“It’s certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at when it comes to creating solutions for housing the chronically homeless,” says Lee Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “It’s a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance.”

Currently, the various efforts to house the homeless in tiny-house villages comprise a small and pioneering movement: But each new project helps create lessons and a model for other communities.

For example, Quixote Village, as a recipient of state funding, is considered a “pilot” project: It is required to report its progress to the state legislature in five years. In the meantime, says Severn, the residents will be settling in, putting in garden beds, building a carpentry workshop, searching for jobs, and simply living their lives.

“One of our residents has been homeless for about 25 years,” Severn says. “He told me he’s excited to start a little rose garden. It really touched me to hear that.”

Erika Lundahl wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erika is a freelance writer living in Seattle.
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  • Anonymous

    Brilliant, both in concept and in execution. I hope more cities follow suit.

  • Anonymous

    make a good veterans village but random homeless people good luck.

  • Jack Hammer

    So, what did the veterans fight for? So that they, like you, could come back and look down on the most unfortunate among us. Or do soldiers just go off to fight wars on behalf of soldiers? Good job,

  • Eamon O’Connor

    This is a fascinating germ of an idea. It has the benefit that it can be run locally so that local communities can administer the min-homes to best fit local conditions.It is really fascinating what might be done with this.

  • David

    I daresay that such community-based living contributes to less mental illness.

  • Anonymous

    I’m surprised this article doesn’t mention minimum square footage laws, which contribute to a lack of affordable housing for low-income people. 16×20 is more than enough for a single person (my apartment is smaller than that), but there are many areas where houses of this size, or even apartment buildings with units of this size, cannot be built.

  • Kathy Scaman

    This is beautiful !

  • Anonymous

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    Jaguar only from working off a home computer… Recommended Reading F­i­s­c­a­l­M­a­z­e­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Jess Tommassello

    I don’t know, looks like a prison camp to me. Are those fences around it barbed and electrified?

  • Anonymous

    Most of those reasons involves mental illness, and you cannot inspect schizophrenia or bipolar away.
    Nice if we could, but human beings don’t work that way.
    So I suspect that your answer is to then add to the problem of homelessness by kicking them back to the street?

  • David Farris

    Yea, good luck with that. Statist dirtbags don’t like giving up their lucrative back-room-deals with land developers.

  • Robert Taylor

    I’d much rather see these built than our waging all of these unconstitutional, illegal, murderous wars.

  • Anonymous

    Baloney. Typical well-to-do person who hasn’t a clue. We are going to be FORCED to live in these glorified outhouses while the rich will continue to live in their palaces. Stop trying to guilt poor people for wanting to have LIVABLE space. 100- or 200-square-foot shacks are NOT livable by a long shot. This is all about lowering living standards for the masses and forcing them into third world conditions.

  • Anonymous

    These are a LOT smaller than trailers.

  • Anonymous

    Eventually ALL of us peons will be FORCED to live in these shacks and pay exorbitant rent to our betters.

  • Anonymous

    More like shanty towns. Unlike almost everybody posting, I have LIVED in small spaces, and it is NOT good.

  • Anonymous

    Baloney it is “more than enough for a single person.” You must be young. Small spaces are NOT “livable.”

  • Anonymous

    Why should we? Would you like it for you and your family to be forced into these dumps? That’s what is coming down the pike. I am TOTALLY against these glorified shanties.

  • Anonymous

    That’s the point–and everybody will be forced into them. The rich will still have their palaces.

  • Anonymous

    And tiny spaces contribute to MORE mental illness. Tiny spaces are not healthy.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, you would. You have never had to live in a small space. You have no idea how bad this is and how easily this will be exploited to eventually force everybody who is not rich into these.

  • Anonymous

    How patronizing is that?

  • Anonymous

    You’ve nailed the issue. I see nothing but bad results from this. This is an attempt to get the masses used to “lowered expectations” and eventually forcing them into third world “lifestyles.”

  • Anonymous

    You assume a great deal; I have been unemployed for the last 31 months, being supported by my boyfriend on a delivery drivers wages. We live in a shoebox, not much larger than these homes. But I am deeply grateful for every tightly crammed square inch. How dare you assume to know my circumstances by virtue of two sentences. Who do you think you are? These little homes are vastly preferable to living under a bridge.

  • Anonymous

    If it’s not livable for you, you don’t have to buy or rent such a space. But if somebody, of whatever age, prefers to have a smaller space, or cannot afford a larger one, who are you to deny that to them?

  • Anonymous

    So what do you call mortgage payments on a house that’s bigger than you need, bigger than you want, and/or bigger than you can comfortably afford? Or having to rent instead of buy because lenders won’t approve you for a mortgage on a home that meets the minimum square footage requirements? A smaller home can be paid off more quickly on a given income (and with less interest paid to lenders), allowing people to save and invest more, so that they can get through tough times, start their own businesses, retire early, or whatever else they might want to do with that money, instead of spending it on mandatory square footage.

  • Saturned

    I don’t understand your argument? What is a lousy generality?

  • Anonymous

    Where do you get this belief that something you didn’t like is inherently bad? Why do you think that everybody else’s experience will be like your own?

  • Michael Varian Daly

    How about all the empty foreclosures already standing?

  • Anonymous

    That’s all I would need.

  • WestboundKarma

    Shipping containers are viable options but it would depend on the city and zoning/ordinance issues, permits etc.

  • Jeffrey

    Who pays for the property tax? Do you need to register land under a religious organization to avoid this?

  • Anonymous

    Better than nothing but this is a ghetto, make no mistake. Everyone there is poor, some are mentally ill, some are criminals–not a good place for children.

  • snowden

    I know, I sometimes wonder how they are coming up with 30 grand for a 16×20 basic frame?

  • snowden

    I know, I sometimes wonder how they are coming up with 30 grand for a 16×20 basic frame?

  • JohnGalt

    it’s amazing what can be accomplished by volunteers after the gov’t has utterly failed, time and time again.

  • Anonymous

    The drawings are delightful….winding streets, homes on an angle, natural materials, trees. Colour. The reality of the photos is a totally different universe. They are like Siberian prisoners huts.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure there is vetting, first. In other words, this won’t be a community for only the previously incarcerated for example. Most communities understand the value of “mixed” housing. Anyone but the upper middle classes and beyond may apply for housing. Nevertheless, there will be applications and history to explore first. But, there are plenty of deserving qualified homeless. Too much COL to thank!

  • Carol Wright

    Why are RVs not used? Buy used RV’s. the RVs have been developed and refined over many years, are set up for towing. Have self contained kitchen and bathrooms…storage. I don’t get it.

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    nearly new silver Chevrolet Colorado Crew Cab by working part time off of a
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  • Terry Hill

    Kudos! Totally unnecessary though..there are 8000 empty house for every
    homeless person in the USA…those of you with second homes, walk a mile
    in someone else’s moccasins and then do something about it!!

  • Dawn Anewday

    Ever seen the homeless camps under the bridges in Portland. Bug and rat infested. I’ve cleaned up after them. You probably haven’t. If they weren’t mostly disabled and mentally deranged, it could be better. We need special care for the disabled and mentally deranged. Reagan was a real fool for not providing housing for the mentally ill when he closed all the mental health hospitals.

  • Anonymous

    Years ago after my kids were grown and I became single, and knew I could not afford the house I was living in or the vehicle.. I moved back to my home town, small place, bought an old Spartan trailer 8×40′ 320 sq ft $1000 did $500 of work, mostly electricity..put in on a couple of family lots and lived there almost 5 years. By then I was on my feet, and was able to move into a comfortable life, not fancy’

  • Anonymous

    This is exactly what I have trying to get off the ground here in California. I have and still am homeless and I know how important stability can be for people.

  • Anonymous

    To have a warm, private, safe place to sleep and live and keep your belongings likely sounds like heaven to many of America’s homeless, especially after a winter like the one we just endured. And it doesn’t have to be the end of the line, either — this would be a soft place to land that would allow residents to get on their feet.

  • Anonymous

    Arguing over theory is pointless to someone who doesn’t have a roof over his head.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    Providing actual houses for people who would otherwise be out in the cold is far from the status quo. If we can make this the status quo and lock it in, then HELL YEAH LETS DO IT. You think homeless people really channel their rage into some sort of victorious battle for economic justice? You think giving them a comfortable place to sleep will make them forget the struggle? Come on. Even a soldier gets 3 squares and a place to sleep.

  • Anonymous

    Real live people are sleeping indoors instead of braving the elements, and you “see nothing but bad results”. Look again. This is intended to help homeless people have homes, nothing more. Noone’s trying to trick you into living in a smaller house, you paranoid freak

  • Anonymous

    This IS a real solution, and there is no such thing as a permanent one. Who will engineer your perfect modular stackable customizable house? Who will pay for it? Start figuring out the logistics and maybe you too will compromise on this stop-gap measure that ONLY provides homeless people a roof over their heads, maybe you too will decide to leave out the cotton candy machine and the petting zoo

  • Invictus Corruptus

    Great idea for the homeless! Someone should expand on this idea for single, childless adults who can’t afford and don’t need a larger single family home. Why we continue to only build 3-4 room family homes I will never understand.

  • Invictus Corruptus

    No cooking facilities, no room to move around, no where to play…..It still beats living under a bridge wouldn’t you say?

  • Invictus Corruptus

    Exactly why would all of us peons be forced to live in these shacks…especially the peons who already have homes? Me thinks you dwell on fear and conspiracy theories of your own making. We can always go live in those FEMA death camps.

  • Invictus Corruptus

    apparently your time in a tiny space has caused you some mental illness.

  • TTigerLily

    $10,000.00 sounds awfully expensive, especially for volunteer-built houses. You can buy prefab outdoor storage buildings for half of that. I always see red flags when there are oddly high amounts or that differ so widely, a huge number of these ‘charities’ are the biggest scammers since Maddox. These don’t have running water, and some don’t even have electricity so how can the costs be so high?

  • bucklaw

    I like the idea and applaud those who are partaking in this mission. I find it curious though that the houses we already have in some communities aren’t being used to house the homeless.

  • bucklaw

    In the 90’s Habitat’s average cost for building a home was around $23,000 dollars, now it is about $50000-$80000 dollars in America.

  • y.slobodinskaya

    Apparently, the government spends more on the average homeless person, than they do on me, as a disabled person. Not sure how that works exactly. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone, but on the amount I get, I wouldn’t even be able to afford to live in one of these. It would be a step up, for me..

    It would be great if minimal housing like this were considered a basic right, no matter what your situation.

  • Anonymous

    Our Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors & Los Angeles City Council, in union with Mayor Eric Garcetti, have the Authority to make this happen!:

    Los Angeles, CA.! The Epicenter of Homelessness in the United States of America!:

    {City of Angels}!:

    Before chronically homeless people can re-enter society in a meaningful, and productive capacity they need the security of physical & mental health care, and reliable shelter! A massively dynamic Hospital & Shelter for the Homeless provides these necessities that the chronically homeless desperately need in order to function, and succeed in the civilized world!:

    A solution to the immense problem of homelessness in the City of Los Angeles is something that our society should take into serious consideration! Here’s my SOLUTION: The establishment of a magnificently spectacular luxury hotel, resort, and casino to fund & support a massively dynamic Hospital & Shelter for the Homeless!:

    You may say I’m a dreamer! And you would be absolutey right. And that is precisely why I don’t really expect my dream to come to fruition in my lifetime! Hopefully in the future humanitarianism will conquer parasitical domination! And love, compassion, and fairness will overcome greed, manipulation, and lust for power. So in an effort to be cleaner than I was last June, I’m going down with the ship! If our society is incapable of imagining a massively dynamic hospital & shelter for the homeless being funded, and supported by a magnificently spectacular luxury hotel, resort, and casino! Then our society has no imagination!:

    If we claim to be a Civilized & Humanitarian Society we must give our homeless community the opportunity for a decent existence. Homeless shelters go above, and beyond their capacity to assist the homeless, the poor, and the desperate. They are to be commended for their efforts! However, a city like Los Angeles the {City of Angels} requires something more substantial, especially, since LA is the epicenter of homelessness in the United States of America. So this is why I don’t think a radical idea like a hospital & shelter for the homeless is such a bad idea after all.

    via Hospital & Shelter for the Homeless*

  • mom321

    $10,000 doesn’t sound high, especially for a 16’x20′ building, especially for climates where insulation is needed. However, the $87,500 sounds ridiculous. I saw one village had common showers (the $87,500 ironically), but are they all lacking plumbing? Not even a powder room?

  • Anonymous

    Well, for starters, most cities have restrictions on where RVs and campers can be parked, and as a taxpayer and possible neighbor, I’d rather have a group of small homes nearby than a fleet of campers and RVs. I also think most people would rather live in small home than an RV or camper; your housing situation usually feels more stable when it isn’t on wheels.
    Secondly, RVs and campers aren’t exactly cheap. Even a simple camper is going to cost at least $6k, while one the size of one of these homes is going be $15k+. An RV can cost significantly more.
    Also, RVs and campers are more likely to be stolen than a small house. What would stop some thieves from waiting until some of the residents leaves and simply driving off with the RV? Not exactly cost effective.
    There’s a bunch of other factors to consider as well – insulation, heating & cooling; connecting to the city electric grid and water system (actual plumbing vs chemical toilet/septic); durability and cost of any repairs (RVs rust, wood homes don’t); durability in safety in case of inclement weather, etc.

  • Robbie Lemmon

    I am a chronically homeless veteran. I recently got a full time job and I am currently residing in a Veterans transition housing. I got accepted for Hud-vash housing which is Veteran HUD and was approved on an apartment. However, with two different states levying my bank account and the garnishments, I can not afford the “low income affordable housing” of $350 a month plus electric. Another chronically homeless vet showed me this linked and has inspired to try and share it with the Mayor of Indianapolis. I am tired of not being able to afford housing. I work so hard and nothing ever seems to come from it. This may be the only hope I may have to ever get housing. Thanks for the posting!

  • Robbie Lemmon

    It seems fairly inexpensive to me. The shelter says the average cost to house a homeless person is $30k a year.

  • Robbie Lemmon

    Some chose to stay homeless because they gave up hope. But to make a broad statement like that without research to back that is very insulting to me and other homeless people. I know alot of homeless people that do not want to be homeless including myself. It’s funny how you complain that they may complain. Not very productive.

  • Robbie Lemmon

    Like RV’s are cheaper then 10k? seriously? Not even a stable home. Not meant for long term. Gee, just give us a tent and a porta-potty. (Sarcasm)

  • Robbie Lemmon

    The problem I hear about doing that, is that it would costs too much to bring those houses up to code. At least in Indianapolis anyway. Even if it is being given to homeless people, it must pass the Indiana housing Authority (IHA) inspection.

  • Robbie Lemmon

    Oh FerialDay, I see your point!! Yes, you are right! Its better to have them sleep on the streets out in the cold and inclement weather. Urinate and other things behind business that won’t allow non customers in. Much more safer!

  • Robbie Lemmon

    I have read posts regarding fear of ex-convicts living in these homes. Do you have any idea why some criminals remain criminals and homeless? I have been homeless for years. Although, I have not been to jail, I know many of my homeless friends that have. I know this man that made a mistake 20 years ago. Spent 20 years in prison. He gets out and no one will take him in, give him a job and he is not eligible for even food stamps. Do you see where I am going with this? He is a changed man. A Christian God-fearing man that wants to be productive and earn his way. He gets denied a lot of things other homeless people get an opportunity for such as homeless programs, food stamps, job placements. Some feel that they are forced to commit crimes to survive! I am not talking about of my “you know”. I am in the mix of it all. I can’t defend all homeless people, but I am a soldier and will gladly stand up and defend my homeless ex-con friends.