Tiny Houses and Tent Cities are in the news this week. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw has called for a massive expansion of temporary encampments throughout the city. Meanwhile, a consultant hired by the Mayor has declared this strategy a distraction, one that dissipates our energies and drains resources from the task of building permanent housing facilities that can support a Housing First approach.
Last month our office entered a tiny house design competition in Chicago. The competition brief called for a 10-12 tiny house village for homeless youth, built on a large city owned lot, with a budget of $60,000 per unit. Our entry was a micro-housing apartment, delivering 3x the amount of housing on less land at the same cost per unit. You don’t win many design competitions by disputing the premise. We entered it to make the point that cities have huge housing needs and very expensive land; that they need housing solutions that can scale to the size of the problem and make the most effective use of scare resources. Donated land, non-profit services, volunteer hours…these are all finite assets. We do ourselves no favor when we fail to use them efficiently.
A tiny house village can provide temporary shelter as a hardened, secure alternative to a tent, but that is about as far as it goes. Beyond that we need permanent housing. One of the reasons our firm has jumped in with both feet into microhousing is that we see it can serve a huge range of housing needs at the affordable end of the housing spectrum. Seattle used to have thousands of units of SRO housing that served the affordable end of the housing market. In the 1970’s we shut most of these down out of safety concerns, but we have replaced them with nothing. It’s about time for us to get started.