When Los Angeles city sanitation workers hauled away three so-called tiny houses — brightly painted wooden structures the size of garden sheds — from a South LA sidewalk like bulky trash, the action understandably caused an outcry. Despite their size and the absence of such basic amenities as plumbing and heating, the solar-powered houses had been quickly embraced by homeless people as an alternative to sleeping in a shelter or on a street. Another eight structures were taken away by the builder, who’d raised money for the project from like minded donors sympathetic to the plight of homeless people. The endeavor seemed enterprising and came at no direct cost to a city struggling to house more than 25,000 homeless people in a county with 44,000 homeless.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Curren Price, the city councilman whose district held the cluster of houses, contended that they blocked the public right-of-way, dumped trash in the streets, harbored drug activity and were generally an unsafe presence. “We don’t need temporary, Band-Aid solutions, we need a permanent fix,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Sentinel.
To the credit of city and county officials, they are making millions of dollars available in rapid rehousing funds for those newly homeless people who are trying to rebound from lost jobs and housing. And officials are prioritizing homeless people when giving out subsidized housing vouchers. However, those efforts all hinge on finding units that are affordable with a limited subsidy in a city with a paucity of low-priced housing.
Given those issues, officials should be open to creative interim solutions. For example, instead of simply saying “no” to tiny houses, the city should take a good look at where and how they might work. There are some real hurdles to overcome, such as how to provide bathrooms and water, and how to keep people from settling into the homes indefinitely. Nevertheless, other cities have found a way to accommodate tiny houses, including Portland, which has sanctioned a community of tiny houses on a city-owned property for the past decade.
It’s easy for local officials to dismiss experimental interim solutions to the homelessness problem because they’re not ideal. But while they do, the county of Los Angeles retains the unwelcome distinction of having the largest unsheltered homeless population in the country.