Skid Row Is Packed, So Why Isn’t L.A. Down With Tiny Houses for the Homeless?

The small structures enable people to avoid sleeping on the streets, but city officials say they’re illegal safety hazards.

(Photo: YouTube)

Aug 27, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

They sleep in doorways and on bus benches, under tarps in parks and beneath freeway overpasses, and on Skid Row, making up the largest concentration of homeless people in the U.S. But some officials in Los Angeles aren’t enthusiastic about tiny houses, which anti-homelessness activists across the nation say are a safer living alternative than the streets.

“These wooden shacks are not the real estate I’m looking for in my district,” Councilmember Joe Buscaino said on Monday at a meeting of Los Angeles’ Public Works and Gang Reduction Committee, reported the Los Angeles Times. Buscaino, who chairs the committee, said the “only legal use for these is for dogs. This is not the way we treat homeless people in our city,” according to the Daily Breeze.

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Indeed, the city’s senior assistant attorney, Valerie Flores, told the committee that the small homes are illegal, whether they’re on public or private property, and that they can be destroyed by city sanitation workers without any notice. “They pose hazards in the roadway, and they qualify as vehicles under the Vehicle Code,” she told committee members, reported the Breeze. “So under city law, they may be treated as bulky items.” Abandoned furniture such as old refrigerators, mattresses, worn-out couches, and discarded household appliances are some of the bulky items the citys sanitation workers normally collect from curbs.

Flores went on to express concern about the safety of tiny houses. “Most cities have very strict building codes to make sure that any structure approved have the bare minimum access to safe electricity, ventilation and water,” said Flores. “From what I’ve seen of these structures, they don’t meet current safety standards.” The wooden structures being built in Los Angeles average about 400 square feet and lack plumbing or electricity.

Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell also has concerns about the safety of the structures. “I’m horrified at the thought of one of these wooden shacks being set on fire with someone inside,” O’Farrell told the Breeze. “It very easily could happen.... I’m not so kind-hearted toward those making these (houses) happen.”

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Activists say building these homes is better than leaving people to sleep on the streets. When Im actually providing an emergency shelter for them, now they want to nitpick about all kinds of situations and scenarios that may or may not happen, Elvis Summers told the Times. In April, Summers, who sports a Mohawk and works for an online retailer, built a tiny house for Smokie, a 61-year-old homeless grandmother who slept in the dirt in his South L.A. neighborhood. The video of the construction process and of the woman moving in went viral—more than 6 million people have viewed it.

Summers subsequently launched a nonprofit, Starting Human, and a GoFundMe campaign to raise cash to build more tiny houses for homeless folks in the community. Over the past four months, more than 2,600 people have donated more than $86,000 to the effort.

The stance of some city officials is definitely not part of the solution. Its part of the problem, Summers told the Times.

The small home movement began taking off during the Great Recession, spurred by people who wanted to downsize and live a simpler, less expensive, and more sustainable existence. Providing free housing to down-and-out people has been found to save cities millions in health care costs. In 2014, researchers at the University of North Carolina–Charlottes department of social work found that an 85-unit building constructed to house the homeless saved the city $1.8 million. After all, folks aren’t sleeping outside, where they are exposed to the elements.

Constructing an entire apartment building takes time and money, so savvy nonprofits and city governments across the country have begun erecting less-expensive tiny houses—Summers house for Smokie cost just $500 to build. Along with being economically feasible, it’s estimated that a village of 240 tiny houses constructed in Austin, Texas, in 2014 will save that city about $10 million in medical costs. Last year officials in Portland, Oregon, also gave the green light to building the small structures on city-owned land.

Southern California could use some inventive new approaches to the homeless crisis. Thanks to the soaring cost of rental units and a tough job market, 13,000 people a month are becoming homeless in Los Angeles County, and more than 100,000 children are homeless at any given time, according to a report released this week by the nonprofit research organization Economic Roundtable.

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Unless the city has an alternative, it seems to me simply immoral for the city to tell people they have to move their four walls if they have nowhere to move them to, anti-homelessness activist Alice Callaghan told the Times.

There might still be hope for the existence of tiny houses in Los Angeles, however. On Thursday morning, Summers posted on his nonprofit’s Facebook page that he would be meeting with Greg Spiegel, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s homelessness policy director.

“Im excited! From what I hear and have read this guys a pretty awesome cat, so hopefully we get to discuss a few things,” wrote Summers. “We CAN rebuild this great City of Angels and well do it Together!”