A worthy proposal

We’ve changed our minds on tiny homes for the poor, and we hope the community joins us

It’s been years since the CN&R started hearing chatter about a proposed local tiny house village for members of the homeless community. The idea came onto our radar via the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), starting as far back as the summer of 2014. At that time, we were extremely skeptical of the idea.

Indeed, talk about it conjured images of shanty towns—substandard and unsightly housing associated with developing nations. Back then, we couldn’t get behind an effort to build places to live that didn’t include the traditional comforts of home—a kitchen and bathroom, for starters.

But we’ve since had a change of heart, for several reasons, and we hope that the reporting in these pages inspires a change of heart in the greater community—from our friends and neighbors to the folks over at the Chico Municipal Center and County Center Drive in Oroville.

First, we’re seeing unprecedented levels of homelessness in this region compared not only with prior years for Chico and Butte County, but also with other locales and the national average. To get a sense of the scope of the problem our community faces, see the sidebars that accompany Managing Editor Meredith J. Cooper’s cover story about CHAT’s proposed tiny home community (page 16). There, you’ll find some startling statistics.

For instance, the national rate of homeless per 10,000 population is 17. Now chew on this: Chico’s rate is 120 per 10,000. You read that correctly. Our city of trees has a homeless rate that’s more than seven times the national average.

Second, we know that people who live unsheltered year-round are vulnerable in myriad ways. They are more likely to encounter violence and succumb to the elements—the heat, rain, cold. This newspaper has reported on the deaths of many homeless individuals over the past several years, including in a cover story two years ago about three people who died within eight days of each other (see “The final kindness,” Dec. 17, 2015). Thing is, we’re by no means comprehensive in our coverage—there certainly are many unreported cases.

What ultimately changed our minds on the issue of tiny house villages was conducting in-depth reporting on the subject, including visiting one such facility, 14Forward in Marysville. Seeing how it functions, and then interviewing the managers of similar facilities elsewhere as well as the folks behind the local effort, Simplicity Village, convinced us that creating a local tiny home community is one of the fastest and most cost-efficient ways to get people off the streets.

But it’s also through this reporting that we can tell how the wind is blowing at City Hall. While the Chico City Council has directed city staff to look into the feasibility of Simplicity Village, it’s clear to us that the city manager and the community development director are not sold on the idea. At the very least, they’re skeptical that Chicoans are open-minded enough to allow such a development in their neighborhoods. We hope they’re wrong.

Meanwhile, neither the council nor the Butte County Board of Supervisors has declared a shelter crisis, a designation that would allow for the construction of facilities that don’t meet traditional code requirements for living quarters. But clearly, looking at the numbers, we have reached a crisis level.

We understand that this project should be vetted carefully, but it’s important to note that most of the hard work will be accomplished by the private sector, as CHAT is primarily looking for community donations for construction costs and maintenance. We’d also like to remind our elected leaders and the administrators at both the city and county that people will continue to literally die on our streets if they do not take action on approving additional sheltering options.

Simplicity Village isn’t a cure-all. It won’t shelter everyone who needs a place to call home. But from what we’ve seen, it is a viable project aimed at addressing the root cause of homelessness—a lack of affordable housing.

This is no time to kick the can down the road.