by Carol Denney

A friend reminded me recently that when Senator Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco, she thought that homelessness was going to be a brief phase, and one proposal floating through town was the idea of mobile cement drain pipes to be used as temporary shelters.
The Department of Public Works was already adept at carting them around; and they were too heavy to steal, unbreakable, semi-private, washable, and available. And if you think this is a little nutty, you’ll have a sense of my response to tiny houses, the movement for miniature abodes sometimes promoted as one solution to the housing crisis.
My friend said that all the contractor proposing the drain pipe shelters was requesting from the city was “a plot to put them on.” And I thought, well, golly. Is that all? Because that’s what Liberty City, the community of tents on Berkeley’s old City Hall lawn, was requesting. And that’s what the people in tents under the Division Street freeway overpass were requesting after being flushed away from San Francisco’s Market Street Super Bowl celebration area.
That’s what the community of people living on the Albany Bulb was requesting, before Albany officials and the police evicted them. That’s what people ferrying what little they have left to call their own have been requesting of cities nationwide for decades, along with their human rights and perhaps a little compassion.
Most communities of homeless people are having the door slammed on such requests, and it isn’t because tents aren’t aesthetically appealing. Liberty City was a monument to cleanliness, orderliness, cooperative living and indigenous democratic organization, much more so than most apartment buildings or even co-ops, and the famously liberal City of Berkeley still swept it away.
I know what tiny houses do: they hit you square in the cute. The little windows, the cunning shingles, the seductive implication that the smaller your house’s footprint the “greener” you are. In the nebulous background of tiny house presentations is something unidentifiable which seems to make even the most intelligent people I know go weak in the knees because they just can’t wait to put the tiny curtains up in the tiny house.
There are several curious implications that seem to enter the room with any discussion of tiny houses which I find myself unable to accept as easily as everyone around me. What issue does the miniaturization of housing solve for anyone except developers, who are the more obvious voices pressuring city planning departments into accepting more and more density with less and less living space and amenities?
“Curbed San Francisco” has a website which illustrates the developer angle for miniaturization in an article by Tracy Elsen published on April 9, 2015. Local developer Patrick Kennedy is referred to as a “Micro Maven” for proposing 395-square-foot “affordable rentals” for a development south of Market Street not far from the Division Street tents. The article refers to him as “best known for developing teensy but livable micro-units.”
In Berkeley, he is better known for snookering a gullible Berkeley City Council into giving him generous opportunities to ignore height restrictions and waive pesky requirements on the grounds that his buildings would replace theaters or provide cultural spaces most of which proved theatrically, culturally, or financially unworkable, having been designed primarily as Potemkin villages.
There is no mechanism for making sure these micro-apartments aren’t snapped up by people who need a San Francisco pied-a-terre in town for a quick change of clothes while their real lives, their family lives and community lives, are lived somewhere over the bridges where they can grow some carrots in the back yard.
Let me clarify that I love the tiny houses. They hit me right in the Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Oven. But with all due respect to the people who have built small, portable houses of recycled materials (or buffalo hides) for centuries, one 264-square-foot micro unit hit the San Francisco market this past December for the “affordable” price of $425,000.
Developers are better than any of the rest of us at capitalizing on the housing crisis, and are no more likely to be motivated by honest human needs and long-term community planning than the enthusiastic college students who compete for annual prizes with their tiny house designs, houses in which they have no plans to actually live.
Tiny houses are not necessarily any more problematic than a tent. But the day my city allows the person with the $10,000 to $80,000 tiny house a city-sanctioned public space for his or her charming mini-abode, I will be there demanding that the person with less than $10,000 and only a charming tent be allowed the same privilege, and I hope I will not be alone.
I don’t want to see either the housing crisis, the cute factor, or both used to create a new tier of underclass in towns as yet unable to see people struggling on the streets as refugees from a federal, state, and municipal housing policy which created the horror of homelessness out of the whole cloth of greed.
Focusing on the cunning curtains on the adorable windows of the tiny house without first securing the human rights many cities increasingly subtract from the poor strikes me as falling right out of the developer’s or planner’s playbook, where individual solutions are prized and larger, collective visions are just somehow too complex for contemplation. The issue isn’t the size (or cuteness) of the house, tent, or place you roll out your sleeping bag and hang your washed-out socks in the nearby tree.
It’s the unwillingness of your town, city, landowner or public official to allow you to be there at all. I’m hoping the seduction of miniaturization doesn’t distract from the call for a right to rest, for human rights, and for housing based on the needs of minimum-wage workers, people with disabilities, veterans, and low-income seniors who can’t compete in a market designed by and for the one percent.
Tiny houses fall suspiciously into the basket of misconceptions one often hears at planning meetings and zoning hearings most people don’t have time to attend:

  1. The misconception that there is not enough land, resources, money to address the housing crisis. This is nonsense. We are a wealthy nation capable of housing the poor. One should never confuse an absence of resources with an absence of political will.
  2. The misconception that tiny houses’ “cute quotient” will overpower issues of planning and zoning such that that the necessary square footage will just magically manifest. Again, this is nonsense, with all due respect to pet developers’ projects’ peculiar success on politically packed citizen commissions.
  3. The misconception that poor people (and apparently nobody else) should start living their lives in miniature. This is not just nonsense, it is offensive.

Do they address the corrosive prejudice against the sight of poverty often linked to criminalization campaigns? There is no evidence of this. Art by Mike “Moby” Theobald
Would the development of tiny houses address the corrosive prejudice against the sight of poverty often linked to criminalization campaigns? There is no evidence of this. Art by Mike “Moby” Theobald

People just seem to love the idea of these houses being small, as though poor people somehow need less room than other people. As though they would need less room to cook, less need to have bookshelves, less need to have friends over for a meal, etc. Hidden in these assumptions is an assumption that people who have gone through a period of grinding poverty need less light, less space, less access to computers, art supplies, pianos, companionship, room for their children, etc. I would argue the opposite.
The main market for tiny houses is wealthy people: land owners and homeowners hoping to situate a temporary guest room where the garden tool shed now resides in an ample backyard and need to coax considerable flexibility and baskets of variances from their local city council, zoning board, and planning commission to do so.
The severe subdivision of lots in residential areas, however greased by the housing crisis, looks a lot less green when one factors in the impact on resources for the rest of the neighborhood in the same ways and for the same reasons that loose rules about Airbnb’s short-term rentals take a neighborhood toll without housing the poor.
Live in a teacup if you like, I would say to tiny house proponents, those who aren’t frankly angling to capitalize on the human need for shelter or jousting enthusiastically for some academic design prize. But think deeply before requesting the miniaturization of someone else’s life or needs.
An unexamined love affair with tiny houses runs the risk of creating what most developers are building anyway: housing that addresses such a minimum of human needs that the need for storage, parking, companionship, bookshelves, etc is visited upon the surrounding neighborhoods if not piled up in the yard.
Neighbors of densely packed, student-filled, in no way affordable party houses can assure you that not providing parking on site doesn’t preclude the inevitable impact on the surrounding streets, which fill up with the dense building residents’ cars anyway while the developer, happily living in a large house in Orinda, periodically dusts the environmental prize hung by the mantel.
Do tiny houses solve human rights issues in a town which criminalizes sitting on the sidewalk, either on paper or in fact? There is no evidence of this. Do tiny houses magically create square footage for people who need to rest with their belongings without being criminalized for “camping” or “blocking” the sidewalk? There is no evidence of this. Do tiny houses address the need for public bathrooms and campgrounds? There is no evidence of this. Do they decriminalize sleeping in one’s car? There is no evidence of this. Do they address the corrosive prejudice against the sight of poverty often linked to criminalization campaigns? There is no evidence of this.
The tiny house enthusiasts seem to imply that tininess, or tidiness, or ecological economy, or the mere implication of all three will solve or be part of a solution to homelessness. If this were the case, Liberty City would have been celebrated instead of swept away by the Berkeley City Council after its brief weeks of existence a few months ago. Most of Liberty City’s tents took up less space than the smallest tiny house, and the green qualities of shared cooking and recreational resources are obvious.
Liberty City was absurdly tidy, and began with several donated tents which were identical, kind of an aesthetic cherry on top for those charmed by uniformity. The residents swept the grounds and corrected the corners of papers on the information tables. It was public land, presumably already dedicated to address the public good. The need for people with nowhere to go to organize together for their own safety is a public good, a necessity, and slowly being officially recognized as a right.
Liberty City was close to three outdoor restrooms in the park across the street, near the shelter (which ran out of room) near food giveaways, near the library, near transit, etc., which any sensible city concerned about public health issues should admit made its location ideal. But Berkeley booted it without bothering to provide alternatives for the people it served.
Again, I have no opposition in particular to miniature houses which tickle the toy box in everybody. But I am noticing that the enthusiasm for tiny houses always seems to sidestep the need for tent communities, campgrounds, RV parks, etc., not to mention low-income housing. If Berkeley and San Francisco sweep away tent cities, doesn’t it seem a little absurd to think that they would join in celebratory dances for tiny houses just because they’re adorable?
I would feel differently about this tiny house enthusiasm if we had already won the right to rest in public spaces, the right for people to sleep in their own cars, the obligation of cities with no low-income housing options to provide free public campgrounds, etc. But it worries me that without these fundamentals, the “tiny house” enthusiasm diverts more sensible efforts into a holding pattern for good wishes and intentions which never honestly materialize for the enormous majority of people in need.
It is never an either/or issue in this world. We can have tiny houses and civil rights, tiny houses and low-income housing, tiny houses and public campgrounds; one does not preclude the other. But make sure your public campgrounds and human rights issues come first, or run the risk of having human housing needs boutiquified for the gain of a handful of profiteers. And please consider that many people, especially people already doubled up in studio apartments intended for single individuals and families trying to make do in one-bedroom apartments, have been living in miniature for decades.