Tiny houses, big potential

Support is growing for Simplicity Village in Chico, but roadblocks remain

Russ Brown, communications and legislative affairs coordinator for Yuba County, and Chaya Galicia, homeless project manager, stand in front of one of the tiny houses at 14Forward in Marysville.

Russ Brown, communications and legislative affairs coordinator for Yuba County, and Chaya Galicia, homeless project manager, stand in front of one of the tiny houses at 14Forward in Marysville.

Photo by meredith j. cooper

The tiny houses at 14Forward, a community near the Feather River in Marysville, are spartan—each contains two twin beds—no more, no less. Outside, there are two small patches of turf and two lawn chairs. For those who call 14Forward home, however, it's a far cry from living in a creekbed or sleeping on the streets.

The small community, which includes 20 tiny homes as well as a community building, portable toilets, a dog run and covered picnic benches, is a transitional housing program for those experiencing homelessness in Yuba County. Most of its first residents—it opened its doors in July 2016—had previously lived in nearby tent encampments. With a roof over their heads, case workers to help with finding jobs and permanent living arrangements, counselors and a rescue mission next door that offers meals and showers, 14Forward is a step up and off the streets.

“We help them build the skills they need through mentoring and intensive services,” said Chaya Galicia, homeless project manager for the Yuba County Department of Health & Human Services, which oversees 14Forward. “They build a family here. They’re safe, and they’re looking out for each other.”

The 14Forward program is just one of many tiny house villages sprouting up across the state and nation as a way to address the housing crisis. Its amenities are designed to be temporary; others are more permanent.

In Chico, talks have begun about a tiny house community called Simplicity Village, which is gaining support due to the huge number of unsheltered homeless in our community and the proven track record of similar projects around the United States. It does face obstacles, however, in the form of bureaucratic red tape and NIMBYism.

“I have been so impressed with how neat these places are,” Charles Withuhn said during a recent interview. A homeless advocate and member of the Chico Housing Action Team (CHAT), Withuhn is the driving force behind Simplicity Village. “We’re going to have to start thinking differently about our housing reality. Are there other ways [than the single-family home] to house people?”

Partnering with CHAT, Withuhn has come up with a plan to do just that. He’s presented his ideas to the Butte County Board of Supervisors and the Chico City Council. Both seem supportive, at least in theory. At the Nov. 7 council meeting, the panel voted unanimously to direct staff to consider the feasibility of Simplicity Village. Withuhn views that as a major step forward.

“We need to make something happen quickly, with as few barriers as possible,” he said. With the homeless population growing, he sees the need to do something as urgent. “Where is our outrage?”

The homeless population in the United States increased in 2017 for the first time since 2010, according to statistics released last Wednesday (Dec. 6) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The majority of that increase was attributed to the lack of affordable housing on the West Coast, particularly in big cities.

“In many high-cost areas of our country, especially along the West Coast, the severe shortage of affordable housing is manifesting itself on our streets,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a press release. “With rents rising faster than incomes, we need to bring everybody to the table to produce more affordable housing and ease the pressure that is forcing too many of our neighbors into our shelters and onto our streets. This is not a federal problem—it’s everybody’s problem.”

In the United States, on a single night this past January, volunteers canvassed the streets, riverbeds and shelters to best estimate the number of residents living without a permanent home. The total came to 553,772 people, though the actual number is likely much higher. Of all the states, California saw the greatest increase in homeless individuals and families, reporting a 13.7 percent increase over 2016 and equaling 134,278 people without housing—a rate of 34 out of every 10,000 people. It also was home to the greatest number of unsheltered homeless, with over 91,000 people sleeping on the streets as opposed to in shelters.

“While the number of people experiencing homelessness increased by just under 1 percent between 2016 and 2017, homelessness has declined by more than 83,000 people since 2010, a 13 percent reduction,” reads the HUD report. “The recent increase in homelessness is attributable to an increase in the number of individuals staying in unsheltered locations in major cities.”

But smaller communities aren’t immune to the problem. Butte County’s number of homeless also increased—by 76 percent between 2015 and 2017. While some point to a lack of volunteers in 2015 to the unexpectedly low number counted that year, the increase has generally been steady. National numbers dipped since 2010, but Butte County’s grew, from 1,422 to 1,983. The biggest reason for that was unavailable affordable housing, which also was credited with increases in larger cities like Los Angeles and San Diego.

“It’s just getting to be more and more of a crisis,” said Maureen Kirk, a Butte County supervisor whose district covers part of Chico. “There are more and more people who are being ensnared in homelessness through really no fault of their own—because they lost their job, or lost their marriage. That really gets me.”

That’s part of the reason she supports the idea of a tiny house village. She and her fellow supervisors in October adopted a resolution to support efforts to address homelessness, specifically those proposed by CHAT. The resolution acknowledges the widespread nature of the problem, including the fact that “the capacity of area emergency shelters is insufficient to accommodate a large number of the homeless …” and “the result of insufficient emergency beds results in a significant number of people unable to obtain shelter, with 747 people reporting sleeping unsheltered countywide in 2017.” Ultimately, the resolution commits the county to providing services to programs offering housing solutions through the Behavioral Health, Employment and Social Services, and Public Health departments.

The Chico City Council also has expressed its support, inasmuch as it directed staff to explore the idea of Simplicity Village. The discussion came as part of a bigger picture proposal to relocate the Jesus Center to a city parcel near the Torres Community Shelter, creating a second emergency shelter there, and also build a day center where services could be consolidated. Simplicity Village could be part of this plan, Withuhn argued. The council agreed.

“We need options—we don’t necessarily need options that only house people temporarily,” Councilman Andrew Coolidge said during a phone interview. “One of the things I like about tiny house villages is that they go beyond the immediate need of sheltering for the night and into the long-term.”

Of the nation's growing number of tiny house villages, some, like Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., which began as a tent city, gained national attention because of their controversial beginnings. Others remain smaller in scale and minimal in controversy but no less impressive in their impact.

Take, for example, Opportunity Village in Eugene, Ore., which opened as a pilot program in August 2013. Much like 14Forward, its accommodations are meant to be temporary and spartan—each of the 30 tiny homes is 60 to 80 square feet. There’s no electricity or plumbing, but residents have access to communal restrooms, cooking facilities and space to gather. It’s been a resounding success and its parent nonprofit, SquareOne Villages, is poised to open a second, permanent, community—dubbed Emerald Village—later this month.

Activist Charles Withuhn is the driving force behind Simplicity Village.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

“Residents [at Emerald Village] will pay $250-$350 per month. And each tiny house will have heat, a kitchenette and a full bath,” Dan Bryant, executive director and one of the founders of SquareOne Villages, explained by phone. “They’re very efficient tiny homes, to enable people to actually live on a modest income.”

Bryant, who’s also a longtime pastor in Eugene, pointed to the story of a local woman who decided to retire early at the age of 62. “She thought she could live on her Social Security, which is $750 a month—she became homeless within a year.”

That woman will be among the first residents of Emerald Village.

“She grew up in this neighborhood, and now she’ll have her own home and she doesn’t have to rely on a section 8 voucher. There are so many people in our community—as I’m sure there are in yours—living on SSI or disability, and without some other housing assistance, it’s impossible to live.”

Withuhn has taken inspiration from projects like Opportunity Village and 14Forward and has visited both. He’s not the only one. Bryant says it’s been part of his mission to use SquareOne’s successes as examples for use elsewhere. He’s been busy lately traveling around Oregon giving presentations.

“It’s a huge trend,” he said of the tiny house model, “simply because traditionally built affordable housing projects are just so expensive to build.”

Whereas a traditional apartment complex built for affordable housing might cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000-$200,000 per unit, Bryant said, the tiny house village can clock in closer to $70,000-$80,000 per unit—including the cost of the land.

“We think we can demonstrate there is a model for doing this type of housing that is less expensive and is still decent,” he said. “Our project is really a very attractive project. We get close to five to 10 applicants for every house that we have. There’s a huge demand for it.”

The concept of Simplicity Village is somewhat of a hybrid between Opportunity and Emerald villages. Residents will pay rent—about $150 per month—as a way to be invested in the program and the community, Withuhn said. The houses—40 of them—will be modest but nice, and the community, which would be gated and monitored, would include a garden and other amenities. Simplicity Village is envisioned as permanent housing, though not necessarily forever housing. Withuhn says he expects people will stay about six months before moving on.

Part of that is due to the fact that the tiny homes in Simplicity Village’s plans have no plumbing. Residents will have access, however, to communal restrooms and a kitchen. Eliminating the plumbing has turned out to be both a pro and a con for the project. On the one hand, it keeps the cost down—Withuhn hopes to finance the entire project through donations. On the other, it will require a resolution by the Chico City Council (assuming the project moves forward within city limits) of a shelter crisis. That designation would allow for an exception to building code requirements that a dwelling include a toilet and kitchen.

“Within our need, there’s a spot for it. We do need transitional housing,” said Leo DePaola, community development director for the city of Chico. “But if you don’t have your own bathroom or kitchen, I don’t see that as permanent; I look at it as a transitional housing solution.”

He said eliminating code requirements worries him to the extent that the codes are there for a reason, whether they be related to health or safety.

According to the CN&R’s research, the California statute regarding shelter crises is intended to allow for substandard housing because the alternative—living unsheltered—presents a larger threat to health and safety. As an example, an outbreak of hepatitis A in Southern California attributed to homeless encampments and lack of sanitation led Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a shelter crisis in that region in September.

DePaola also cautioned the city about designating a shelter crisis without considering the entirety of what that would mean.

“It’s never the people who are trying to do the right thing that you have to worry about—it’s the unintended consequences,” he said.

The county considered a shelter crisis declaration, Kirk confirmed, but decided against it. “There were too many unknowns in that,” she said. “It was pretty far-reaching and a little too much for us.”

That hasn’t stopped other communities from making such a declaration, however. In order to greenlight 14Forward, for instance, Yuba County declared a shelter crisis. The population of the Yuba-Sutter area, which includes Yuba City and Marysville, is about 172,000. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 591 homeless people there. That’s a rate of 34 out of 10,000—which matches the rate in the state of California.

In Chico, the rate is more than three times California’s average and seven times the national average of 17, with 120 out of 10,000 people homeless; in Butte County, 88 out of 10,000 people lack permanent shelter.

In Lane County, Ore., which includes the city of Eugene, there were 1,529 homeless individuals counted on Jan. 25, 2017. That’s a rate of 42 people out of 10,000 lacking housing.

If a crisis designation were to be approved, then the main question, DePaola said, would be where to put Simplicity Village. “We have 93,000 residents in the city. And there’s a general plan, and the [environmental impact report] that goes along with it. We can’t just arbitrarily throw everything out the window and decide to do something different. That’s the bureaucratic reality. It’s hard to just say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this.’”

Dan Bryant runs SquareOne Villages in Eugene, Ore., which opened its first tiny house village in 2013.

Photo by Trask Bedortha, courtesy of Eugene Weekly

Turns out, it really is all about location, location, location. Every government employee or representative contacted for this story indicated that would be Simplicity Village’s biggest hurdle.

“I think location is really, really important,” said Councilman Coolidge. “We voted to have the city study [Simplicity Village] more. My initial thought is that it would have to be put in the right place.”

A native of Marysville, he visited 14Forward and says it changed his viewpoint.

“When I ran for office, I was completely opposed to a tiny house village because I didn’t necessarily understand the concept,” he said. “Having seen what they’re doing in Marysville, I was really impressed. It appeared to me to be a hand up, not a hand out, which is really important to me. It was clean, organized, well put-together. And you’re not hearing a huge number of complaints from anyone in the community.”

While Kirk has not visited 14Forward or any other tiny house villages, she said she has done her homework and that she likes what she’s discovered.

“I’ve seen it in other places and they seem to be working,” she said. “I think it’s a great concept and I’m in favor of it. The problem is, I’m not sure where they’d put it. We don’t have any places in unincorporated areas that would be appropriate—near services like bus lines, etc. But, we never thought they’d find a place for the Torres Shelter and they did.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” she continued. “Things have gotten so bad now that we need to do something concrete.”

Chico City Manager Mark Orme, having been directed by the City Council to look into the viability of Simplicity Village, agrees that the biggest unknown is location. Withuhn has outlined some possible spots, including being part of the proposal for new homeless services near the Torres Shelter. Another is a plot of land owned by the city at the corner of Humboldt Avenue and Bruce Road.

Coolidge said he hadn’t vetted the proposed locations as no formal plan had come before the council yet. In terms of 14Forward in Marysville, though, he said, “where they’re located is kind of the perfect location.” The community is situated off of 14th Street on a piece of county land previously occupied by government offices that have since been demolished. There are neighborhoods and a park nearby, but the entrance is private. “Visibly it’s not right in your face, but at the same time it’s very close to the community. It’s really the ideal location.”

For SquareOne, location didn’t seem to be that big of a deal.

“There was a little bit of concern when we first started,” Bryant recalled. “But we talked about how it would be managed, the type of vetting process we’d go through, so that, for the most part, has disappeared.

“A tiny house village is much better than a vacant lot in any case,” he continued. “So, NIMBY issues have not been a huge factor, mostly because we manage it well.”

For Withuhn, addressing this growing problem is imperative. In addition to increasing the availability of emergency shelter beds, there must be more transitional housing available to get people off the streets and onto a safer, healthier path, he argues.

“Leaving so many people so hopeless for so long is creating a breeding ground for antisocial behavior,” he said. “We’re going to experience the consequences of that—the likes of which we have not seen.”

Withuhn’s excitement is contagious and it seems to be propelling Simplicity Village forward. His partnership with CHAT strengthens the project’s potential, local policymakers agree.

“There’s so much passion,” Kirk said. “Between CHAT and Charles, I think they could make a go of it. If it’s a failure, which I don’t think it would be, then we’d have to reassess it.”

DePaola also sees promise in the partnership. “It seems to me that Charles, specifically, is gathering quite a bit of steam, and he’s starting to get some people to financially get involved. I see him really doing a lot of legwork to generate support, and he’s done a good job. Him partnering with CHAT is a good thing in that they have a pretty proven track record. They do a good job of outreach and education. And Charles truly believes in what he’s doing—there’s no ulterior thing there.”

Withuhn’s and CHAT’s efforts have indeed gained support from important groups including the Board of Supervisors as well as the Housing Authority of the County of Butte. The latter entity issued a statement of support last Thursday (Dec. 7) that reads, “The Simplicity Village model has been successfully vetted and applied at numerous other communities. Establishment of such a facility in the Chico service area would significantly advance the community’s interest in addressing the needs of its homeless citizens. CHAT is to be commended for its vision and efforts in advancing the Simplicity Village proposal.”

Ed Mayer, director of the Housing Authority, addressed the NIMBYism aspect of projects such as Simplicity Village during a forum Nov. 29 on homelessness. “If there’s a housing development that comes to your neighborhood, show up, please, and say, ‘We welcome you,’” he said. “Don’t start throwing rocks and spears and talking about ‘those people’ who are going to live next door. Welcome any housing you can to this community—it’s terribly needed.”

Moving forward, Orme said he’s looking at possibilities for locations for Simplicity Village to bring before the City Council. He’s also considering the need to proclaim a shelter crisis, which would also require a council vote. It will all take time, he acknowledged, though once everything is in place, construction could happen quite quickly. At 14Forward, with approvals in place, the tiny homes and other infrastructure went up in just six weeks.

In the meantime, the weather will get worse before it gets better. And, like last year, the number of beds in emergency and transitional housing facilities will not be able to accommodate the need. So for now, Orme said, the local homeless population will have to rely on caring community groups to fill in the gaps.

“We’re really blessed to have organizations like CHAT in our community,” Orme said. “When we don’t have a public solution, the community steps up.”