The following editorial was published in the Des Moines Register on May 23:
Tiny homes are all the rage. As small as garden sheds, they are part of a movement focused on downsizing and living with less.
HGTV programs like “Tiny House, Big Living” feature buyers who custom-build homes with lofted beds, composting toilets and rooftop decks. These are frequently people with financial means who have chosen to forgo traditional housing.
What the television shows do not explore: zoning laws or how owners secure access to fresh water, electricity and sewer lines. Unless someone purchases or rents suitable property, finding a place to park even the cutest wooden house on wheels is no easy task.
And good luck finding a place for several little dwellings intended to shelter homeless people.
Some homeless advocates view the relatively easy-to-construct houses as a good option in providing immediate and temporary shelter. Des Moines-based Joppa is among them. The nonprofit has so far built seven tiny homes with help from volunteers and donations.
Each measures about 95 square feet and has a bed, storage space, table and chairs. The organization hopes to purchase land for a village with a community center and shared bathroom, laundry and shower facilities. Residents would be able to stay in the homes for free and receive help toward earning a stable income.
Joppa has the best of intentions and good goals. Yet no one is living in any of its tiny homes. They are currently scattered in school and church parking lots. There is no place to legally place them as housing. That doesn’t discourage the nonprofit’s CEO, Dave Schwartz, who remains committed to the idea.
“We have to find an appropriate-sized lot in an area that makes sense,” he recently told a Register editorial writer. It should be on a bus line and near a grocery store, and residents will need access to services.
The question now: Is there a place in Polk County for such a village?
Such tiny communities are understandably controversial. Neighbors may not welcome several men living nearby in “sheds with beds.” What will such a village look like in five or 10 years when the structures have aged?
Proposed sites for Joppa’s village have so far not panned out. One of those sites in the River Bend neighborhood drew criticism from residents. And opposition isn’t only about location.
Tiny houses are “a distraction” from providing permanent housing for the poorest among us, said Eric Burmeister, executive director of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund. “If the energy and resources dedicated to tiny houses were directed toward permanent, affordable rental housing, we would be closer to our goal of ending homelessness and housing poverty.”
Approving a location for a tiny village is not something local governments should do lightly. Before making any decisions, officials should look at what has worked and not worked other places.
On a plot of land south of Kansas City, more than a dozen homes painted in rich colors like deep blue and mustard yellow provide a place for military veterans. On seven acres in Newfield, New York, there are 18 homes with bathrooms and kitchenettes at Second Wind Cottages. The goal of the sponsoring organization is “to walk with men toward restored lives.”
The city of Seattle, which has embraced tiny houses for the homeless, shut down one village earlier this year. The site raised objections from the beginning because it allowed residents to use alcohol and drugs. That attracted the hardest-to-serve people who refused other offers of shelter. Many residents had significant challenges, including chronic mental health issues and substance abuse problems. Calls for police service in the area spiked 62 percent in a year, according to one analysis.
After relocating dozens of people and wheeling away the tiny houses, the Seattle lot will sit empty until construction begins in 2021 on a mixed-use building with more than 100 affordable housing units.
Among the lessons learned: Meeting with caseworkers must be a requirement, not an option, for residents. Communities need a contingency plan if a site does not work. And perhaps skip the tiny houses and go straight for affordable housing units in permanent structures with plumbing and electricity.
Though not as exciting as charming little houses with red doors and window boxes, they may make more sense in the long run.