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Opinion | Tiny Homes for the Homeless

Business, at first, was steady but slow. But then the pandemic hit, and cities were suddenly tasked with the need to socially distance their shelter residents while also mitigating spread within encampments. In Los Angeles, a lawsuit against the city and the county resulted in a judicial order to build 6,100 more beds. “We immediately sold out of all of our stock,” Amy told me.

It didn’t take long for cities across the country to turn to Pallet, not only as Covid relief, but also as a potential stopgap for growing encampments. New companies sprouted up to meet some of the demand. If you live in a city with a homelessness crisis, tiny homes are likely to be part of the landscape for years to come.

In 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Martin v. City of Boise that cities could not enforce anti-camping ordinances if the number of homeless people exceeded the number of shelter beds. So if you have, say, 200 unhoused individuals in your city and 150 full shelter beds, you cannot deem it illegal for the leftover 50 to camp inside city limits.

The decision has inspired creative solutions on the part of cities that want to clear away unsightly encampments. Chico, Calif., for example, put up a so-called shelter by the airport that provided only a bit of shade, warm drinking water, portable toilets and hand-washing stations. A judge refused, though, to classify the site as a shelter. As an alternative, some advocates for the homeless in the city are asking for Pallet homes.

But because the tiny homes can get cities closer to the thresholds they need to meet before they can legally clear out camps, some critics, especially on the left, have questioned the reasoning behind their proliferation. “The sheds are basically being used as the carrot of criminalization,” Annie Powers, a local organizer who works with the homeless, told me. “The stick then becomes evicting people from the street.”

This spring, a large tiny-homes village was opened in Alexandria Park in North Hollywood, a Los Angeles neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. The site, which was built in place of a former homeless encampment, provides more than 200 beds in 103 structures from Pallet. The base model sells for around $5,500. If you factor in basic additions, plus shipping and assembly costs, the price can sometimes come to about $8,000 per unit. But that does not include services, which run the city about $55 per day per resident. Nor does it cover the major expense of prepping the site. According to Curbed, the total construction cost for the Alexandria Park village came to $8.6 million.

Lehrer Architects, which managed the project, said that while some of that money does go toward design elements — color schemes, paint, plotting out where each building will be — a majority is spent on basic infrastructure like laying sewage lines, grading sites so that they meet standards and complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines.

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