Are Tiny Homes a Potential Homelessness Solution?

How communities implement planning and zoning strategies to create temporary housing for vulnerable populations.

ARTICLE | Jan 24, 2018

Solutions Journal (Winter)

by Steve Miller, AICP at SAFEbuilt
Tiny House Village
Low Income Housing Institute (

As I was on my way to the gym, I saw the argument. Two men outside my downtown office building grabbed at each other’s coats, visibly upset and angry about who should occupy the prime spot on the corner to panhandle passersby. Unfortunately, I see both men on a regular basis and I can only imagine how it must feel to rely on strangers and organizations for your well-being during times of homelessness. My hometown is not alone in the struggle to ensure safe housing for everyone in their communities. Homeless shelters are more and more a part of a communities’ fabric.  Today, we take a deep dive into the topic of homelessness and how some local governments are trying to solve this sensitive social issue with tiny houses. 

According the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress [], homelessness crept up .7 percent from 2016 to 2017.  The report, published on December 6, 2017 found that 553,742 persons experienced homelessness on a single night in 2017.  The report highlights that while homelessness among families with children declined 5.4 percent since 2016, the number of persons experiencing long-term chronic homelessness and homeless Veterans increased. 

The data in the report shows a large variation in homeless rates in different parts of the county.  Thirty states and the District of Columbia reported decreases in homelessness from 2016 to 2017.  However, homelessness in major metropolitan areas, especially in the West, had a substantial impact on national trends.  Los Angeles, Seattle, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, and Las Vegas are six of the ten communities with the largest numbers of people experiencing homelessness.  Specifically, homelessness in the City and County of Los Angeles increased nearly 26 percent since 2016 to 55,188 persons, with most in unsheltered locations. 

HUD Secretary Ben Carson is quoted in the report’s December 6 press release [], “In many high-cost areas of our country, especially along the West Coast, the severe shortage of affordable housing is manifesting itself on our streets.  With rents rising faster than incomes, we need to bring everybody to the table to produce more affordable housing and ease the pressure that is forcing too many of our neighbors into our shelters and onto our streets.  This is not a federal problem-it’s everybody’s problem.”

Secretary Carson’s charge that “it’s everybody’s problem” poses the question of the role of local governments in addressing homelessness.  Most local governments around the country have a direct role in dealing with homelessness or have partnerships with agencies and organizations that do so.  Some local governments and their partners have climbed aboard the tiny house trend as a strategy to house homeless persons. 

The tiny house strategy presents local governments with a potential cost-effective and immediate means to get homeless people into shelter.  But the tiny house strategy also may present local governments with significant unintended consequences including the development of a new type of slums.  Paul Lewis, in his March 23, 2017 article for The Guardian entitled Tiny Houses: Salvation for the Homeless or a Dead End? [] explored the conundrum facing local governments.  Is the tiny house strategy a pragmatic means to address homelessness or a fast-track to creating shantytowns through a dramatic shift in urban planning and building regulations?

Lewis wrote that Barbara Poppe, who was Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness during the Obama Administration, believes that some of the encampments used for homeless people are “completely deplorable” and pose a high risk of turning into a new version of slums.  In her work, Poppe observed that segregating homeless populations in this manner stigmatizes people who are homeless.  In Lewis’ article, she poses the question “Why would we accept that people should be living in huts that don’t have access to water, electricity and sanitation?”

Yet, cities not just on the West Coast, but across the United States are approving and implementing the tiny house strategy to shelter homeless people.  Local governments in all areas of the country are embracing the tiny house trend as a homeless strategy.  Some communities are actively involved, others are collaborating with organizations serving homeless people, and all are having to deal with the regulatory end of implementing tiny house “villages” or “communities”.  A partial list of the cities where tiny houses are part of an overall strategy addressing shelter for homeless people includes:  Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; Olympia, WA; Reno, NV; Madison, WI; Des Moines, IA; Austin, TX; Detroit, MI; and Newfield, NY.

The processes to implement tiny house strategies vary from place to place.  For example, the tiny house villages in Olympia and Seattle are non-profit organizations that rent houses (without individual kitchens and bathrooms) for a small sum.  The houses are designed around common buildings with restroom and kitchen facilities, monitored for security around the clock, and part of a comprehensive plan for addressing homelessness.  In Seattle, the city has six sanctioned encampments to provide temporary or transitional housing where tiny houses can be erected.  The city-sanctioned encampments are conditional land uses permitted for 12 months with the option to renew for an additional 12 months.

Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon took a dramatically different tack on its tiny house strategy.   A pilot program called A Place for You [] is a collaborative effort between local government and service providers to implement a long-term housing program for families who are homeless.  The program, which kicked off in 2017, will design and construct four accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—tiny houses—in four private yards.  A homeless family, referred by the collaborating agencies, will live in the tiny house for free for five years.  After five years, the homeowner will have unrestricted use of the tiny house with the option to continue renting it to the family living there.  ADUs are permitted by Portland’s zoning and building codes and will be constructed on permanent foundations with all utilities.

As I observed previously in this article, HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s charge that “it’s everybody’s problem” poses the question of the role of local governments in addressing homelessness.  If local governments and their partners choose the tiny house trend as a strategy to house homeless persons, they face many unintended or unknown consequences as a result.   Such consequences may include inadequate building and zoning regulations, health and safety code issues, NIMBYism (not in my back yard), and the segregation of homeless populations.

The benefits of being prepared for such consequences will help local governments:

  • Reduce conflict internally, with collaborating partners, and with residents
  • Incentivize homeless services providers and residents to follow the proper permitting process
  • Simplify code enforcement and limit troublesome violations
  • Encourage permit process transparency and prompt ongoing development
  • Raise awareness and education in the community about homelessness, and
  • Provide a safe place for people who are homeless to live.

So, it’s up to us. Local government leaders, non-profit organizations, and private sector partners to work together, with our communities, to end homelessness. SAFEbuilt Studio is a planning and zoning industry leader. Our colleagues are at the table helping communities with these real challenges and are using nationally recognized best practices to stitch together solutions that benefit everyone.  Contact me for information on how our team of planners and community development experts can help you navigate your unique planning and zoning challenges.

Photos courtesy of the Low Income Housing Institute and Tiny House Blog.

About SAFEbuilt Studio

SAFEbuilt Studio helps create vibrant, thriving communities through planning and zoning services. We provide ongoing planning consultation and development reviews, master plans, zoning ordinances, form-based codes, and redevelopment planning. SAFEbuilt Studio is the planning division of SAFEbuilt; we partner with government agencies across the country to provide expert Community Development solutions that improve service, reduce costs, and make communities safer for citizens.

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