San Jose Approves Tiny House Villages for the Homeless

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Wracked by income inequality, ultra-wealthy San Jose, California, has altered local building codes to allow tiny houses as 'bridge housing' for homeless individuals seeking long-term housing. (Photo: Helene Labriet-Gross/AFP/Getty Images)

After years of bureaucratic red tape and considerable neighborhood opposition, the inequality-rife heart of Silicon Valley is getting transitional housing hubs for the homeless in the form of two tiny house villages.

Per the San Jose Mercury News, two separate "bridge" housing communities — short-term accommodations seen as crucial to remaining on the path to permanent housing — on the east side of San Jose were approved by the city council in mid-December and are expected to be operational later this year with the first of the two communities slated to welcome its first residents in June.

The plan to offer tiny house-based housing to an eligible segment of the sizable homeless population in California's third most-populous city has been kicking around since September 2016 when then Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation allowing San Jose to circumvent statewide building codes that prohibit people from living in garden shed-sized domiciles, even if only for short periods of time. The legislation granted city officials the ability to adopt their own requirements for pint-sized emergency housing in the face of an urgent — and only worsening — crisis.

Per the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, San Jose along with greater Santa Clara County has the country's fifth highest number of homeless residents in the country following San Diego, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City at roughly 7,250 individuals. (Neighboring San Francisco ranks seventh behind Washington, D.C.) Many homeless people living in Silicon Valley are employed full-time but remain unable to secure anything that comes close to resembling affordable housing in the exorbitantly priced region. Living in one's car in the country's most wealthy metro area is, sadly, a common reality.

The legislation positioned San Jose as the first Californian city to officially embrace tiny houses as a means of alleviating the homelessness epidemic.

Over two years later, that law — woefully delayed but needed more now than ever — is finally being put into action.

"I am excited about this opportunity," said Councilman Raul Peralez at the December council meeting in which the sites were approved. "I am excited about these two sites. There's a lot resting on our shoulders."

The Jungle, San Jose
San Jose has several large homeless encampments including the so-called 'Jungle,' which was cleared out in 2014. (Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Tiny houses, big impact

As the Mercury News details, the hold-up was largely the result of difficulties encountered in securing potential sites to launch a pilot program revolving around fenced-in settlements comprised of custom-designed "sleeper cabins" measuring 80-square-feet (or 120 square feet for people with disabilities.) The at times contentious quest to find suitable locales was "often met with fierce opposition from neighbors who worry about crime, traffic and property values."

Although the sites have now been secured, there's still a lot of work to do.The tiny house villages, which will be operated by local nonprofit HomeFirst with Habitat for Humanity Silicon Valley/East Bay overseeing their construction and development, require significant infrastructural work so that the sites are ready for habitation. This includes providing basic utilities such as electricity, water and sewage.

Per the Mercury News, prepping the two sites is projected to cost $4.3 million while renting them from their current landowners will total $30,000 through 2022, the year when the tiny house-permitting law first ironed out in 2016 will expire.

Designing and constructing the cabins— 80 in total with 40 at each site — is perhaps the most straightforward element of the project. Each will cost $6,500 to build — a significant drop from the original estimated price of $18,750 per structure.

The single-occupancy shelters, which each feature an electric outlet, lockable door, at least one window, ample storage space and smoke detector, will be complemented by numerous communal features: shower and bathroom facilities, a laundry area and shared live-work areas with access to computers and other resources that are crucial to people getting back on their feet. Community gardens and dog runs will also be potentially included. HomeFirst will also provide on-site healthcare and career services. During the first year, their will also be 24/7 security provided at both sites.

"They're insulated. They're really suitable for people to actually be living in," San Jose Housing Department Director Jacky Morales-Ferrand told ABC7 Newsof the structures at a prototype unveiling held at City Hall Plaza just ahead of the vote.

While San Jose may be the first Californian city to officially provide vulnerable individuals with a tiny place of their own to recalibrate before move on, other cities including Nashville and Olympia, Washington have also seen micro-housing compounds for the homeless — mainly spearheaded by faith-based organizations — pop up over the last several years. Seattle has multiple city-sanctioned tiny house villages spread across town ... and not without controversy. The city is also investing in $12 million in modular housing units for individuals experiencing and transitioning out of homelessness.

'A new, innovative solution to homelessness'

Again, housing at the two San Jose communities — one situated on a Valley Transportation Authority construction staging site and the other on a highway-side parcel owned by Caltrans — is viewed as strictly transitional as residents move on briskly (in an ideal scenario) to more permanent means of housing. It's expected that the 80 compact cabins will collectively provide shelter to 300 to 400 people within the first two years of the program's launch.

"The idea is to rotate people into permanent housing as quickly as possible," James Stagi, San Jose's homeless response team manager, explained in December. "That's the premise behind rapid rehousing programs. Our goal is to get people in, stable and out within three to six months."

Residents selected by HomeFirst must be able to work or are currently employed. They also must be free of certain criminal convictions. Per the Mercury News, community members must also have access to vouchers that enable them to eventually — and this doesn't happen overnight or even over a couple of weeks —secure long-term housing. After six months at the tiny house community, they'll be asked to pay 10 percent of their income as rent if they haven't moved on. That rental fee will increase by an additional 10 percent every subsequent six months until the resident secures permanent housing.

Depending on the success of San Jose's first two tiny house-based bridge housing communities — and if the law that permits living in such small quarters is renewed — the city could expand the program to other locations. And hopefully, the neighbors won't put up such a fight this time around.

"This housing crisis is far ranging, complex and so many people are affected by it," Janice Jensen, president of Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley, tells the Mercury News.

Outside of the two forthcoming tiny house communities operated by HomeFirst, a team of student carpenters enrolled in the San Jose Conservation Corps and Charter School recently debuted a prototype micro-dwelling completed over the course of six weeks. As NBC News reports, the idea for the project came to fruition after the organization learned that 30 percent of its student population had experienced homelessness.

Jensen goes on to note that tiny houses, which HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton calls "a new, innovative solution to homelessness," gives San Jose a chance "to do something concrete that will help move people out of homelessness. Home is the starting point for so much opportunity."