by Carol Denney April 23, 2018
No Experiments on Kids- Just Say No to a Taxpayer-funded Tiny Homes Proposal, by Carol Denney
A friend of mine caught the mayor of Santa Rosa on the radio talking about the fire that ravaged through the area last fall "without respect for boundaries" of race, wealth or class. My friend then wrote a song quoting the mayor which then goes on to wonder who - which class, which race, which group - could possibly deserve the monstrous experience of burning to death or watching one's life or family go up in flames.
People probably knew what the mayor meant; fire is indiscriminate, wind-driven, unpredictable. The rich are just as likely, in an explosive 80 mile an hour wildfire, to suffer as the poor. But the housing policies which follow in the wake of such a disaster are unlikely to be so. They are much more likely to be riven with bizarre human prejudices.
Berkeley's tiny house obsession is a case in point. Although "tiny" houses are not cheaper, or greener, than renovated apartment buildings, and although they violate California habitability standards if they don't have heat, or windows, or a place to wash up, they remain the darling of a crew that often doesn't care that they're being used as a front group for developers hoping for a code-free world.
Forcing people to live in glorified lunchboxes is easy in a world where the only alternative offered is hanging out behind the dumpster. I spoke to a city council representative a couple of days ago who is getting roped in to the latest tiny house proposal, and she cited the city's housing emergency declaration and the age of the target group to be served as the special sauce greasing her wheels.
T'was ever thus. When local developer Patrick Kennedy wanted to snooker the city council for special breaks on his project requirements he rounded up local disability advocates and offered them housing - the hearings were full of talented, impassioned people with disabilities pounding podiums for his project to address an admittedly serious deficit in accessible units, people who were situated at the front of the line if the projects were approved.
But there are better ways to address the immediate needs of unhoused or marginally housed people of any age which don't require building a thing. The most environmentally sound, cost-effective approach to housing people doesn't involve absurd miniaturization at all - just the renovation or utilization of buildings sitting empty, or empty for most of the time.
Many libraries and schools have already repurposed themselves to provide showers, storage, and even shelter to people in need. The Homeless Commission is patiently waiting for the City of Berkeley to do the even more obvious thing - utilize empty storefronts and commercial spaces as shelters and day centers so people have someplace to sit other than the public sidewalk and a place to store belongings if they choose. These spaces have bathrooms, electricity, lights, etc., and often break rooms with small kitchens - no port-a-potties or wash stations necessary.
Many storefronts have sat empty for years, and are more of a burden to a commercial district than some old fart sitting in the sun, the Downtown Berkeley Association's (DBA) favorite claim. It makes more sense to create shelter spaces in manageable numbers throughout town than to build something artificially separate - the "homeless" camp - or artificially small - the "tiny house" village - for people whose needs are neither separate nor small. Marginalized groups tend to have a high ratio of specialized needs which are not best served by bizarre or miniaturized housing experiments. But they are no different than the rest of us, and don't deserve to be put in what amounts to a policy zoo. But that isn't the only option. Zillow, when I checked today, has 32 single family rental listings in Berkeley. Trulia has 36. If you take Zillow's list the average monthly cost of a bedroom is $2,226. If you share a bedroom, as most of us have learned along the way to do, the cost is reduced to $1,113. This is a room in a house with a kitchen, a bathroom (sometimes more than one), porches, backyards, front rooms, privacy, and this is market rate, no city-driven special bargain. Trulia's list is equally eye-opening; the simple math shows that the City of Berkeley could contract tonight for shelter for 180 people for $798 a month. That's $26 a day, no construction required. If the DBA kicked in some of its $1.3 million contract it could be even less, and less still if its well-heeled board of directors, who claim to want people off the street, considered it important.
So don't be fooled when the latest tiny house-promoter waves around a list of "religious leaders" who are on board an experimental "tiny house" proposal for more temporary placements kids will age out of and which will implicate the City of Berkeley in undermining hard-won tenant protections and habitability standards. They are understandably willing, in the light of a crisis, to try almost anything except the obvious; decriminalizing poverty and opening their own doors. Low-cost housing providers, on the other hand, can tell anyone who's listening that renovated boarding houses, single-room occupancy hotels, and shared apartment spaces are the most cost-efficient and environmentally sensible approach to housing.
Miniaturization inappropriate to human need has no particular benefit in and of itself - just ask any good cook trying to harbor all the elements of a Thanksgiving meal for family and guests around holiday time. If we care about the most efficient use of our tax dollars, we'll eschew the boutique experiments on kids and the cruelty of separate facilities and take the advice of those groups right here in the Bay Area who have spent decades actually providing real, full-size, cost-efficient housing to people of all ages and with the cross-section of needs that comes with any human population. Because people on the street didn't deserve the health crisis or job loss that put them there any more than anyone in Calistoga or Santa Rosa deserved to have their house burned to the ground. People without houses are exactly that: people.
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