Can tiny houses be an answer for students without a home?

on December 12, 2018

In the morning, Armani Turner heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face. He makes his bed and tidies up—he likes his area to be neat. Gets dressed. If he’s got some food, he might have a quick breakfast. But, usually, he’s rushing. He goes to Laney College, a community college in Oakland, and doesn’t want to be late to class. His routine sounds typical, but where he’s doing that routine is far from ordinary.

Turner lives in a “Pocket House,” a prototype tiny home built by his fellow students at Laney. It sits on top of a 16-foot trailer bed in the parking lot of the West Side Baptist Church in West Oakland. It looks like a child’s drawing of a house—door, window, triangular roof—but with a modernist bent. The roof is off-center, the door oversized, and the whole structure is slightly askew. The house is painted a sleek, dark grey with a bright teal on the door and around the window frames.

Inside, Turner has to navigate a tight space with his roommate, Aquantay “AQ” Morris. Turner’s bed is immediately to the left of the door. Running right up to his bed is a countertop that provides all their kitchen needs: a stovetop, a sink, and a makeshift table they’ve been using to hold a TV so they can play video games like Madden. They have a mini-fridge under the counter, but so far they haven’t been cooking too much in the Pocket House. A sliding door separates the kitchen from a bathroom with a toilet and a shower. A small wooden staircase leads up to Morris’ bed—a sort of miniature loft where he doesn’t have much room to sit up. They use the area under the staircase to store clothes and other belongings.

The whole house isn’t much bigger than the back of a U-Haul, and since they both play football, Turner and Morris aren’t small. As they get ready in the morning, moving back and forth past one another usually requires some squeezing. So far, though, they’ve managed to share the space. “It’s like living in the dorms,” Morris said. “You got the same bathroom, work around it. You got the same kitchen, work around it. You got the same spot, work around it.”

For Turner, who left home at age 16 and has spent the following three years crashing with friends, the Pocket House has been a helpful step toward stability. “I just know my stuff is safe. I know I’ve got a place to eat. I know I’ve got a place to stay,” Turner said. “It’s a big difference.”

Turner said he left home during the summer between his junior and senior year at Berkeley High School following a series of fights with his mom. “I was like, ‘I’m tired of getting kicked out of my mom’s house for all these petty reasons. I’m tired,’” Turner said.

As he completed his classes at Berkeley High and started at Laney, he bounced around among friends’ and family members’ living rooms and spare rooms. Some nights, he didn’t know where he’d stay. “I’m in the same clothes every day. Damn, I feel like a bum. I start feeling, like, low about myself,” Turner said of that time.

The Pocket House was built by students from the Laney carpentry department last spring. Led by professors Matthew Wolpe and Marisha Farnsworth, the students designed and built two models: the 16-foot one that Turner and Morris live in, and a 12-foot one that another Laney student recently moved into. The construction was funded by a grant from the Oakland city government as an effort to gauge the affordability and feasibility of building tiny houses for homeless people.

A 2017 homeless census done by Alameda County officials found 5,629 people living in shelters or on the streets, the highest number in the last decade. Nearly half of Alameda County’s homeless people live in Oakland. Farnsworth said that the size of the homeless population in Oakland demands creative approaches—like the Pocket Houses. “It’s a huge crisis and we’re going to need to find multiple ways of dealing with. Tiny houses can definitely be part of the solution,” she said.

Community college students like Turner and Morris are an often overlooked part of that population. According to a 2017 study by researchers in the education department at San Francisco State University, 83 percent of students in the Peralta Community College District, which includes Laney and covers northern Alameda County, have experienced some form of housing insecurity. For this study, housing insecurity was defined as being unable to pay rent or utility bills on time, having moved two or more times, or having lived in a shared residence due to financial reasons. About 30 percent of students said they had experienced homelessness, which was defined as having been thrown out of a home or evicted, staying in a shelter, staying on the streets for a night, or not knowing where they were going to sleep one night.

Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Youth Homelessness Project, said there’s a common misconception that college students are not homeless. “I think so many people think that if a young person is in college, they must be fine,” Hyatt said. “And we really know that’s not the case.” She wishes that the public conversation about the cost of higher education would expand from focusing only on rising tuitions to considering the basic expenses of living—transportation, housing, food—that students confront.

Frequently, Hyatt and other youth homeless advocates see situations like Turner’s: couch surfing, staying with friends or family, but not knowing how long you can stay or when you can have access. “A lot of these students see education as their pathway out of poverty, and go to really great lengths to try to stay in school,” Hyatt said. “They sacrifice a lot of their physical and mental health to do that. You know, they’re incredibly resilient.”

Students in Laney’s carpentry department have been designing and building different types of tiny houses for the past few years. Carpentry department chair Cynthia Correa said they started building tiny houses out of curiosity, not to solve a problem like homelessness. Their first design—the Dandelion—which Laney students completed in 2014, was sold to private buyers and is currently in use in the Oakland hills. The Wedge, their second design, won numerous awards at a tiny house competition held by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and was also sold to private buyers.

Soon after, Oakland City Councilmember Abel Guillen (District 2) approached the carpentry department with an idea. “Laney has been building homes in the carpentry program for a long time, and so I just said, ‘Why don’t we get Laney College to build some tiny homes for homeless people?’” Guillen asked. Specifically, he wanted homeless students from Laney to be able to live in the tiny houses, an issue he was familiar with through his previous work as a Peralta Community Colleges Trustee.

In 2016, Guillen proposed a city-college partnership—the Laney College Tiny House Partnership—that would provide the school with an $80,000 grant to build the Pocket House prototypes. The council passed it unanimously. Wolpe and Farnsworth, the two carpentry professors, started work on the design and construction with their students. At first, Farnsworth said, the students working on the project didn’t know they were designing for their homeless peers—but they became even more passionate about the project once they found out.

Farnsworth said that they designed the Pocket Houses to be safe, stable, and comfortable spaces. They wanted the furniture in the houses to be “very contemporary and also very practical and user-friendly, with very low maintenance,” she said. That way, the occupants could assemble and arrange their house without an advanced understanding of design and carpentry.

Turner and Morris weren’t involved in the building process—they only moved in after the houses were completed. They had seen some flyers on campus about the Pocket Houses and contacted Gary Albury, the director of student activity and campus life at Laney. He put them in contact with Pastor Ken Chambers at the West Side Baptist Church, where the Pocket Houses were waiting for occupants. The two moved in shortly after meeting with the pastor. They pay $100 a month in rent to help pay for utilities, but also receive a $100 monthly stipend for doing eight hours of community service with the church.

Farnsworth said that if Laney gets funding to build more tiny houses, she’d want to “go through a process of collaborative design with the students who are going to live in the [tiny houses].”

As the Pocket House’s beta testers, Turner and Morris have discovered some of the space’s limitations. They both wish the housing came with internet access so they could do more of their schoolwork at home. Taking a shower often means getting a significant portion of the floor wet. “All we need now for these damn showers is something to keep the damn water from spilling over the damn thing,” Turner said, pointing out that the ledge that separates the shower from the rest of the bathroom is only a few inches tall.

But for both of them, having a place of their own—even if it’s just a temporary place while they’re in school—has affected them greatly. “Since I got moved in, I’ve been in better moods. I feel happy on the field. I feel better in school, like just going to class,” Morris said. “I wake up in my bed, not from somebody’s couch, and that’s a good feeling.”

***

As Oaklanders young and old struggle to find housing and the city searches for emergency solutions for its growing homeless population, some see tiny houses as an option that’s more stable and comfortable than a tent, but less expensive than a full-scale housing development. According to Rebecca Coleman, a housing specialist at the Alameda County Department of Housing and Community Development, tiny houses can play a critical role in helping homeless people transition into permanent housing. She said the county doesn’t see tiny houses as a substitute for affordable housing, but rather tiny houses can be “a great interim solution,” especially given how long it takes to build affordable housing.

According to Guillen, Pocket Houses and other types of tiny houses are an appealingly affordable strategy. Tiny houses can take many different forms—an RV, a trailer, a micro-apartment, a cabin, a makeshift shelter. There isn’t a precise definition of what counts as a tiny house, but, generally, it’s a structure that’s between 80 and 400 square feet. Altogether, the Pocket House is about 125 square feet.

Coleman recently completed a study showing that the cost of building a tiny house typically ranges from below $10,000 to as much as $100,000 depending on factors like labor expenses and the value of the land they’re placed on. Building the Pocket Houses cost about $20,000 each. The average cost of building a single unit of affordable housing—which includes construction and land expenses, along with legal and developer fees—in the Bay Area is about $627,000 according to 2016-17 report by BRIDGE Housing, a non-profit that works to create more affordable housing.

Tiny house villages—areas where multiple tiny houses share communal spaces—have been popping up across the country, as part of the Housing First model. Housing First means that a government, charity or some other agency provides housing to people with no strings attached and no mandated support services. The approach, which is supported by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, is guided by the belief that people need a home before they can deal with other issues they may be facing, like mental illnesses or substance abuse. Tiny house villages have grown in popularity in California, with the number of villages growing from 6 to 18 since 2004, stretching from Los Angeles to Fresno to Sacramento.

Coleman said that while tiny house villages do fit the Housing First model, the successful ones she’s studied almost always provide services to residents, such as dental and health care, job training, or support groups. Many also account for residents’ transportation needs, either by making sure that the village is located close to city centers or by arranging for public transit to stop by the village. Also, Coleman said, it’s critical for project leaders—whether they be residents, agencies, or city governments—to put in sweat equity, rather than just money or donations. “If there’s an entity that’s willing to take the lead and put in the effort to make sure all those things are in place and get it off the ground, then it will work,” she said.

Still, she said, it can be difficult. Based on a survey she did of 11 tiny house villages across the United States, managing services was the most common challenge. Funding for those ongoing costs was heavily reliant on private donations and grants. Another common obstacle was insufficient self-governance through community agreements or the residents developing their own councils.

Tiny houses in general also face some legal constraints when it comes to permitting and building code standards. California minimum habitability standards dictate certain requirements—like a minimum square footage, plumbing, and electricity—that all residences must have. Most tiny houses fail to meet the full list of building code standards, so their advocates find creative ways to get around the rules. According to Coleman’s report, a common tactic is to put the house on wheels—the way the Pocket House sits on a trailer bed—so that the state classifies it as a recreational vehicle (RV) or park trailer, which has less stringent building codes.

California’s Department of Housing and Community Development released a memo in 2016 that was intended to clarify whether a tiny house could be considered a legal residential structure. The memo defined five categories of small homes that are legal: camping cabin, manufactured home, factory-built home, RV and park trailer. Anything that doesn’t meet the standards and codes for one of those types of buildings is considered illegal. But Coleman said that the memo wasn’t very helpful. “I think it’s very confusing to people,” she said. To her, a simpler solution would be to create a new set of standards designed specifically for tiny houses.

Increasingly, though, the state and city governments are allowing tiny houses to be built—even if they don’t meet minimum standards—in order to respond to a housing crisis. In 2017, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 932, which authorized cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland to waive certain building codes and permitting procedures in the construction of homeless shelters if they declared a housing emergency. Oakland officials initially declared a shelter crisis in 2016. But when residents of a homeless encampment called The Village started to build their own tiny houses in February, 2017—without the city’s approval—the city tore them down within a month.

Residents and activists from The Village began negotiating with city leaders to find a parcel of land where they could build a new sanctioned camp. Following another city declaration of a shelter crisis in October, 2017, they agreed on a parcel and construction of the tiny houses began the following January. The first resident moved into a completed tiny house this April. But The Village has been plagued by some of the issues that Coleman cited in her report—a lack of services and basic sanitation, and security and safety concerns among the residents. There have also been a series of fires at the Village in 2018, destroying some of the tiny houses.

Meanwhile, Oakland officials have experimented with their own version of a tiny house village in the form of barebones “Tuff Shed” camps. The Tuff Sheds are backyard storage units that city staffers have outfitted with simple cots and lanterns to serve as makeshift temporary dwellings. The sheds only cost about $7,500 each to build and can be constructed much more quickly than the Pocket Houses. But Wolpe said that the Tuff Sheds are “institutional and lacking of a soul” and don’t have the amenities—a stove, a bathroom, insulation, running water—that make for a comfortable living.

Guillen said that the Pocket Houses and Tuff Sheds are addressing different areas of homelessness, and that the “homelessness issue is vast, so different people will feel comfortable in different situations.” He said the Tuff Sheds are a stopgap, helping people get off the street while they search for more permanent housing. The Pocket Houses, he believes, have the potential to provide longer-term housing and can meet the needs of students like Turner and Morris.

***

Given all of these complex regulations, at first the Laney crew wasn’t sure where they could put the Pocket Houses. But Guillen found a home for them and a community partner thanks to Chambers and the Interfaith Council of Alameda County (ICAC), which had also been working to address homelessness. After meeting with Guillen, Chambers agreed to have the Pocket Houses installed in the parking lot of his church.

For Chambers, the houses are the beginning of a larger project. Working with the ICAC, he hopes to establish safe car park programs at five churches across Alameda County. Each site would have enough space for ten cars to park overnight and would provide wraparound services like a shower truck, washers and dryers, portable toilets and a roving security team. He hopes to hire students like Turner and Morris to serve as the security. In October, the council received a $300,000 grant from the city for the project. Chambers hopes to kick the program off in January.

But in the meantime, the future of the Pocket Houses themselves remains unclear. The city council hasn’t allocated any additional funding for building more of them. With Guillen losing his reelection bid in November, their strongest advocate at city hall will soon be gone.

Farnsworth hopes that Mayor Libby Schaaf and the city council will seriously consider providing funding to build more tiny houses. “We need to look at every and all possible solutions for the homeless crisis,” she said. “I don’t think we should be overlooking any potential solutions, especially solutions that have support from community groups and organizations.”

The first Pocket Home residents say that the concept works. Turner said that having a secure place to stay—a place that he has the keys to—has made a huge difference for him. He sleeps better and feels more energized for school and football. He’s improved his grades, going from almost failing a class to getting close to an A. Mostly, though, it’s about having his own space. “I can sleep somewhere and I can actually wake up and feel like, ‘Okay, I’m cool,’” Turner said. “There’s nobody looking at me on their couch, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s on my couch.’”

Turner’s not too concerned about the future of the Pocket Houses—he’s focused on school and football. He’s planning to graduate from Laney with an associate degree in the spring and he hopes to receive a scholarship to play football and complete his bachelor’s degree at a four-year college. To reach that goal, Turner said, he needs a place like the Pocket House. “It just gives me another step to where I want to be,” he said. “So all I keep on doing is just keep the spirits up and keep being hopeful.”

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