Are Micro-Homes the Answer to California’s Housing Crisis?

A complex of tiny homes will offer 70 units of transitional accommodations to support San Francisco’s unhoused population when it opens in the spring. The model, which is being tested in other California cities, is a step in the right direction in curbing one of the country’s most visible homelessness problems.

Rendering of DignityMoves Village

At a tightly packed 47 square miles, median home costs of $1.47 million, and an unsheltered population exceeding 8,000, San Francisco has one of the country’s most visible homelessness problems. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board, which has been documenting the crisis for six years through its Homeless Project series, has described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” and the city as a Boschian hellscape, “merely an archipelago of safe islands floating in an ocean of human feces and hypodermic needles.” While the pandemic exacerbated things, the city is starting to experiment with design solutions to provide low-cost transitional housing for the unsheltered. 

One such model comes from Dignity Moves, a housing complex located on a city-sanctioned tent encampment that will provide 70 tiny homes designed by Gensler and PAE Engineers when it opens in the spring. The rooms are situated in prefabricated duplexes equipped with insulation, electrical outlets, a bed, and desk with a chair. The complex has two communal dining areas where three daily meals provided by the nonprofit Mother Brown are served. Each unit will cost the city $30,000 to maintain—an appealing figure considering the city spends double that amount per tent at homeless sites. 

“While more permanent housing is critical for alleviating the housing crisis, building sufficient permanent housing is expensive and will take years, while our unhoused neighbors need help now,” Elizabeth Funk, founder and executive chairman of DignityMoves, said in a statement. “Our streets cannot be the waiting room. The longer people are on the streets, trauma takes a serious toll, making future successful outcomes much more challenging.”

Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village. Photography courtesy of Lehrer Architects

Though San Francisco is no stranger to transitional housing with programs to house unsheltered folks in vacant hotels, DignityMoves Village is the city’s first trial with tiny homes, an approach that has found success in neighboring Oakland and San Jose. The organization plans to open facilities in Santa Barbara and Rohnert Park later this year. Los Angeles is also leaning into the idea of micro-homes, recently opening North Hollywood’s Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village of 103 brightly colored single-occupancy cabins designed by Lehrer Architects and made by Pallet. 

There, a widespread affordable housing crisis—one of the root causes of homelessness—looms large. This past year, however, city officials started fast-tracking permits for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), or standalone small-scale houses built on properties zoned for single family homes, also known as “granny flats.” Homeowners can select from an array of pre-approved designs by esteemed firms such as SO-IL, Welcome Projects, and Amunátegui Valdés. Since 2017, building permits for ADUs in the city have nearly tripled and now comprise one-fifth of permits issued for all homes. Much work remains in the uphill battle to accommodate California’s staggeringly high number of unsheltered individuals, but these programs can be seen as a promising start. 

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