One of many barriers to ending homelessness in the United States is a lack of affordable housing options. A handful of progressive communities around the country are solving this problem by changing the parameters of a typical house—by several hundred square feet. “Tiny home villages” are comprised of structures that are 200 square feet or less, inhabited by formerly homeless residents who share a communal space with bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry. In an apt comparison, Tim Murphynotes that a tiny home village is “a multi-roof version of the old-fashioned urban SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel” (see Home Petite Home).
The first model of this living arrangement is Dignity Village, which was established by a group of unhoused people in 2000 outside of Portland, Oregon (see Rethinking Shelter and Tiny House Communities). The group attained status as a non-profit and continues to lease two acres of property from the City of Portland at a low cost. Dignity Village houses about 60 residents in 50 self-built structures, each without electricity and plumbing. Each resident pays $25 per month for operational costs of the communal spaces, which also include a computer room, gardening beds, and a check-in desk for security.
The village is located next to a leaf-composting facility six miles away from the Portland downtown, with little proximity to residential areas, meaning that the village’s establishment did not encounter opposition from potential NIMBY naysayers. Dignity residents who wish to commute to the city for services and jobs must spend roughly 45 minutes on a public bus or bicycle, or arrange car-sharing with one of the few automobile owners. In addition to payment of the operating costs, residents must abide by several rules (including no consumption of alcohol or drugs on the premises) and engage in ten hours of service to the community per week, and initial acceptance into the community is governed by a one-month trial period.
Dignity Village is overseen by a self-governing system of annually elected residents in positions such as CEO and security coordinator. However, resident Mitch Grubic believes that an external, permanent board is necessary since “you need a village where everyone looks at each other as a peer, not as rulers,” and annual rotation leads to inconsistencies in fundraising and planning (see Home Petite Home). Another challenge for Dignity is that it was intended to serve as a temporary living situation, but some residents have remained for years. As part of Portland’s extended contract with the Village in 2012, a two year time limit was imposed for residents (see Portland’s Dignity Village: Thirteen Years Later). According to a focus group from the Partnership for Strong Communities, some residents of transitional living programs view limitations as a stressful chance for their lives to fall back into housing instability (see Barriers to Ending Homelessness: From Those Experiencing It). Thus, longer-term Dignity Village Residents anxiously wait to see if the limitation will be enforced.
As organizations in other cities such as Austin, TX, Eugene, OR, and Madison, WI begin developing their own tiny house villages, several important questions must be addressed. Where is zoning flexible enough for a village? Should there be restrictions on the people allowed to live there (non-felons and non-addicts, for example) and the length of time they are allowed to stay? What sorts of services should be provided (social workers and mental health services) and what sort of governance should manage the community? Thoughtful answers to these questions will provide one aspect of the multi-faceted approach to ending homelessness in our nation.
Guest Blogger: Sunny Soward