Opinion: Please don’t call quick-build transitional housing ‘tiny homes’
Every major city grappling with homelessness can point only to an array of imperfect solutions. With learning, innovation and iteration, however, those solutions can improve.
Yet too often our public discourse about homelessness — in headlines and social media — remains mired in a “failure mindset” overlooking the solutions that actually work. That cynicism fuels the rhetoric of those opposing the deployment of transitional housing communities throughout San Jose, who routinely decry the perceived shortcomings of “tiny homes.”
Yet San Jose isn’t building any new “tiny homes.” Our City Council hasn’t authorized construction of tiny homes — defined as small, detached structures, such as sheds or pallet homes, that lack bathrooms and basic utilities — in several years. We’ll continue using the existing tiny homes — until we build more alternatives — but we’ve learned and moved on.
It’s hard to blame the public for using the term “tiny homes” too loosely; The Mercury News does so frequently. Most recently, in its front-page expose (“Tiny homes and homelessness: what the data shows”), this newspaper conflates unheated sheds in Oakland with prefabricated transitional housing in South San Jose. Painting all of these housing projects with a single “tiny home” brush, the story concludes that “tiny homes fail a majority of their participants.”
They might — but that’s reporting on yesterday’s solution, not today’s.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, we embraced an approach that looks much different and delivers better results: prefabricated, quick-build housing communities. Unlike tiny
homes, these attached flats provide residents with private bedrooms and bathrooms, utilities and secure access — all essential to convince unhoused people reluctant to get off the street. Also unlike tiny homes, their sturdier construction lasts for a couple of decades. Residents can remain in quick-build housing communities for a year or more, not the “two to six months” of the tiny homes analyzed in that story.
At Evans Lane in San Jose, for example, PATH provides families counseling, computer classes, employment workshops and other support in a housing community managed by Abode Services. In less than two years of operation, Evans Lane and two other quick-build communities have already provided transitional housing for about 700 unhoused residents.
About 80% of the residents exiting those communities remain housed today, a bit more than half in permanent housing. The Mercury News’ account mischaracterizes as a “failure” the 28% who moved into other transitional, rather than permanent, housing. To the contrary, many residents transitioned to senior care, foster family, inpatient drug treatment or another placement that could provide for better outcomes. That’s a life-saving intervention, not a failure, particularly where the residents stay housed.
While we must continue building traditional permanent housing, it has become painfully apparent that it’s not enough. In the Bay Area, it typically requires five years to build an
apartment complex at $800,000 per unit. For example, in the six years since the passage of the 2016 Santa Clara County bond (Measure A), only 711 units had completed construction. We can construct quick-build housing communities in months, rather than years, at less than one-fifth of the cost. For that reason, San Jose has committed to get 1,000 quick-build units under development or constructed by the end of 2022, aided by the philanthropy of experienced builders — such as Susanna and Peter Pau, and Sue and John Sobrato — who see the efficacy of this innovative model.
Operating these communities remains costly, at $34,200 annually per unit, but that is the price of providing supportive services for the unhoused in any project. Moreover, we’re still improving: With the San Francisco Foundation and Goodwill, we’re exploring how to employ residents within their own quick-build communities — performing maintenance, cooking, driving shuttles or providing security — which can provide vital employment and reduce operational costs. At a fourth quick-built community near Guadalupe River Park, dozens of its new residents will help repair, restore and steward the park.
Getting transitional housing built rapidly constitutes a life-or-death matter for many on our streets. In the face of the inevitable opposition of NIMBY’s, it requires political will, and
misleading narratives can undermine that will. For our thousands of unhoused residents and for our public, we can all do better to convey what we are building — and what we aren’t.
Sam Liccardo is mayor of San Jose. Laura Sandoval is the regional director of Silicon Valley PATH (People Assisting The Homeless).