Will regulations kill tiny homes for the homeless?
It was only two days before Bradley Velasquez’s tent was stolen.
“That’s the way it is out here,” Velasquez said.
“Out here,” in Velasquez’s case, is the streets of Sacramento. Velasquez says he’s been struggling with homelessness since 1999.
But he won’t be dealing with the same issues for much longer.
Velasquez will be moving into one of the first tiny homes in Compassion Village. Compassion Village is a project of E49 Corp, a Sacramento-based non-profit devoted to helping the homeless.
Compassion Village will consist of up to 20 tiny homes on wheels that will be placed on church site. Various churches in the Sacramento area are chipping in, both financially and in terms of manpower, to build the small mobile homes.
“These wheels cost us $2,300 apiece,” founder Tammy Vallejo said.
Expensive wheels, however, are one way Vallejo says the organization was able to move forward with the Compassion Village project.
“We are moving forward with zones and codes that we know we can use, and then we’re also moving forward in a way where we can adjust, if necessary,” Vallejo said. She said it was easier to get the structures up to code as recreational vehicles, than it would have been had the organization wanted to put in a foundation.
“We gave our list to the mayor’s office,” Vallejo said, discussing the code changes her organization says would make it easier to create housing for the homeless. “I think they are moving probably as quickly as they can at the moment.”
Tiny Homes: The Next Big Idea?
Tiny homes are in vogue – there’s no doubt about that.
HGTV shows like “Tiny House Hunters,” “Tiny Paradise,” and “Tiny House, Big Living” feature people seeking out small structures as a lifestyle choice.
But for many people working to help the homeless, tiny homes are being looked at as an innovative solution to a seemingly worsening affordability problem in California.
“The advent of tiny homes – it’s definitely becoming a trend,” Western Regional Advocacy Project organizing director Paul Boden told ABC10 News by phone.
He said homeless activists were likely to become even more interested in tiny homes if federal funding for the Housing and Urban Development department were cut.
“Tiny homes are going to be the only game in town,” Boden said.
But the people actually trying to build tiny homes for the homeless are discovering that doing so is no small feat.
In May 2016, Calif.’s Department of Housing and Community Development issued a bulletin clarifying issues around tiny homes.
“As residential structures, tiny homes must receive one of several types of state or local government approvals prior to occupancy, depending on the design of the structure and the location of its installation,” deputy director Richard Weinert wrote.
Greg Zaller is running up against that approval process in Nevada County, where he’s trying to build a number of tiny homes classified as “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs.
Unlike tiny homes on wheels, ADUs are a more permanent structure constructed on a foundation. HCD says they’re required to be on the same land parcel as a single-family dwelling, and they have to be constructed to the California Residential Code standards.
In Zaller’s case, however, there’s an additional wrinkle. Current Nevada County code requires the owner of the property to live on the site if he or she wants to rent out the ADU. For Zaller, that would mean he wouldn’t be able to build out and rent several ADUs for the homeless, given he can’t live on multiple properties at the same time.
“They exclude people like me, who own several rental properties, from being able to build [ADUs] on it,” Zaller said.
Zaller addressed the issue in a recent Nevada County planning commission meeting. The commission voted in favor of striking down the owner-occupancy rule, but ultimately, the county’s board of supervisors will have to make the final decision.
“It’s a puzzle to me why they would resist ideas that have promise,” Zaller said.
Location, Location, Location
Efforts to house the homeless can also run into another big challenge: finding a site.
In October 2016, Safe Ground Sacramento, a coalition of religious groups and homeless activists, applied to establish a tent camp on city land.
Attorney Mark Merin, who represents Safe Ground Sacramento, says the plan was to start with tents, and then have the homeless camping there build tiny homes to replace the tents.
“We’ve given the city 66 different lots and said, ‘Can we do it here? Can we do it there?’” Merin said. In each instance, he said, the group was denied.
“Nobody is taking people off the streets and doing anything that is better than living in the gutter,” Merin said.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, however, says he’s all for tiny homes.
“In fact, I think we need to move rapidly. This idea, which I think is very intuitive, that you can create more affordability by varying the size makes a lot of sense to me,” Steinberg said.
When asked about Safe Ground Sacramento’s proposal, Steinberg said he’s made it clear that he doesn’t think tent cities are a good solution, even if only a temporary one. He did say, however, that he is willing to work with any developer interested in manufacturing tiny homes to get them approved quickly.
And speaking more broadly on the topic of ending homelessness, Steinberg he will be working with the county over the next couple of months to combine efforts.
“I can’t deliver the actual result in a short period of time, because there are thousands of people on the streets,” Steinberg said. “But I can begin.”
But for some, like Vallejo, waiting any longer was out of the question. That’s why they moved forward with the option – tiny homes on wheels, sited on church property – that they could get up and running the soonest.
“We made a decision we were going to start,” she said – and so they did.