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Tiny homes proposal aims to help end homelessness in Albuquerque

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Tiny homes clustered in tiny villages could be part of the solution to Albuquerque’s big problem of homelessness, say advocates proposing such a program.

Communities across the country – including in Texas, California, Washington, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin – have adopted some form of the new tiny homes concept to provide shelter for homeless populations.

It’s all part of the “housing first” approach embraced by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as homeless advocacy groups around the country. It calls for moving people from the streets into subsidized permanent housing and surrounding them with case management and support services to help them deal with the reasons that contributed to their homelessness – drug addiction, alcoholism, physical or mental health issues, divorce or job loss.

While some tiny home communities serve as permanent housing, others have been established as temporary short- or long-term shelter.

In Albuquerque, an informal group of advocates for the homeless – including architects, clergy, affordable housing proponents, mental health workers and homeless service providers – has been meeting since February to research tiny homes and villages in other cities, and examine how such a development could affect the homeless population here as an alternative to tent cities that have sprung up in the past.

Ken Balizer, a leader of the Tiny Home Village Working Group, sent a letter in early July to Albuquerque city councilors, Bernalillo County commissioners and others, proposing they get behind and help fund a “demonstration village” of 30 tiny homes of about 120 square feet each.

The wood-frame, insulated homes would cost an estimated $5,000 each, and all would have a locking door, windows, a bed, table, chairs and storage space.

That figure does not include the cost of land or providing electricity or water to the compounds.

“A lot of homeless people are living on streets and sleeping on pieces of cardboard in doorways, under bridges, in parks and alleys, drain pipes, ditches and arroyos,” Balizer said. “When they tried to live in tent encampments, they kept getting evicted. I’m horrified by the way the homeless are treated in Albuquerque.”

The most recent point-in-time count puts the number of homeless people in Albuquerque at no fewer than 1,287 on any given night. Emergency shelters and agencies serving this population agree that the number is an undercount – because you can only count the ones you can locate.

Capital cost of $1 million

The estimated one-time capital cost of the project is about $1 million, said Balizer, a former head of Albuquerque Development Services, which guided affordable housing and urban redevelopment projects.

Balizer said he was hopeful that half of the money would be allocated from city and county budgets, and the other half from fundraising and donations. Further, “discussions are underway with an anonymous donor for funding to purchase the land needed,” he said.

The investment is not extreme, Balizer noted, pointing to a 2013 study conducted by the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Social Research that showed it was 31 percent cheaper to house the homeless than to allow them to remain on the streets. Housing them also decreased their hospital visits by 36 percent; their inpatient costs by nearly 84 percent; their medical outpatient costs by 39 percent; and the cost of involvement in the criminal justice system 64 percent.

Local architect Jonathan Siegel, of Siegel Design Architects, has been consulting with the working group. He favors multiple designs from multiple architects, “so not all the tiny homes are cookie-cutter identical.” Although the cost of $5,000 per home is “in the ballpark,” he said, “I think it’s possible that architects and contractors could come together and donate tiny homes on a one-by-one basis.”

‘Chance for stability’

Unlike the Albuquerque Heading Home program, which targets the most chronically homeless and medically fragile, the Tiny Home Village would be for “people who are looking for work and a chance for stability,” Balizer said. Residents would be assigned a case worker as necessary and utilize appropriate social services as required to get back on their feet.

Another difference is that the Albuquerque Heading Home program places people in permanent housing, while the tiny homes envisioned for Albuquerque would be aimed at getting people stable before they move on, rather than being permanent residences. Each would have electricity, but no running water. Residents would have access to communal buildings with toilets, showers, and food prep and cooking areas.

The village would be managed by a yet-to-be-named nonprofit organization. It would be gated and fenced in, and residents would help with security. They would pay rent of $25 a month and could stay for as long as needed to become independent.

Balizer said he has not received any responses to his letter, but Breanna Anderson, communications director for Heading Home, the parent organization for Albuquerque Heading Home, said: “We think the tiny house concept is interesting, but we’re looking for permanent supportive housing rather than temporary shelter. If tiny homes could be permanent, which we’ve seen in other cities and counties, we would love that, and that’s in line with what we do.”

Austin experience

The Community First! Village outside Austin features homes measuring 150 to 200 square feet. There, the tiny abodes are permanent housing and residents pay rent ranging from $225 to $375 a month, depending on Social Security or other income sources.

As in other tiny home villages, the homes have electricity, but no running water, and residents use separate communal bathroom, shower and cooking buildings.

Quixote Village is a tiny home community in Olympia, Wash., where 30 144-square-foot cottages provide shelter for previously homeless people

Quixote Village is a tiny home community in Olympia, Wash., where 30 144-square-foot cottages provide shelter for previously homeless people. (Courtesy of Mobile Loaves & Fishes)

The 127-acre, master-planned community is operated by the nonprofit and privately funded Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a faith-based ministry that serves the homeless.

“We have an 87 percent success rate keeping people housed,” said Perri Verdino-Gates, the organization’s communications coordinator. “This isn’t just about tiny homes. It’s about housing the homeless and building community.”

Albuquerque City Councilor Isaac Benton, who has met with the working group, said the Tiny Home Village could be an alternative to tent cities. Benton said he is not keen for the city to be involved in the operation of the village and would want to scrutinize the nonprofit selected to run it.

But if the concept appears viable, he said, it is possible the City Council would support it and that the city might even donate a piece of surplus land.

The tricky part is where.

In other states, some tiny home villages are located in residential neighborhoods.

“I do know that we have very vigilant neighborhood associations that are wary of things like this coming in, so I couldn’t predict how that would go,” Benton said.

The path of least resistance would likely be in commercial business districts or areas zoned for apartments and multifamily buildings, rather than single-family dwellings, Benton added.

Seattle experience

Of five tiny home villages in the Seattle area, all but one are in residential areas, said Aaron Long, executive assistant with the Low Income Housing Institute, which manages the villages. Most of the homes range from 96 to 120 square feet.

“It’s working really well,” he said. “When a new village gets established, there’s always concern from the neighbors, so we hold community notification meetings. Once the encampments go in and the neighbors can see for themselves, they are generally supportive. The tiny homes are attractive and well maintained, and the compounds are secure.”

That doesn’t mean there are no problems. Because most of the people who live in these communities were previously homeless, some for a long time, they often have personal issues and destructive behaviors they are trying to overcome, said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle. Before being accepted, residents must agree to abide by the community’s rules and regulations, and agree to perform designated chores if they are physically able.

“If not, they can be barred temporarily or permanently, pending a grievance process, if they wish. The tiny communities all have security people on site to deal with problems “and they will call police if necessary.”

The Community First! Village operates more like a rental property. Communal chores are not required, but volunteering is encouraged. Residents must agree to three covenants: pay rent, abide by civil law and observe the “community rules,” said Verdino-Gates.

Security cameras and local police and sheriff’s deputies regularly patrol the gated compound. Thus far, everything is working well and nobody has been evicted from the property, she said.

One thing that doesn’t work well is the continued “criminalizing of the homeless,” Balizer said.

“The biggest impediment to allowing homeless people to live in tent encampments, or tiny home villages for that matter, is people don’t want to see the homeless,” he said. “They want them to be invisible.”

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