Monday Member Digest - Hardest time of year to be homeless

Well it’s my turn for the Monday Member Blog Roll, welcome! A few week’s back you may have noticed at gap in this series, when I dropped the ball. In my defense, I had just returned from two weeks in India and promptly fell sick! In a future post want to share some of my reflections on traveling in India and the ways that it has influenced my own thinking about informal urbanism.

First off, it was great to catch up with Chuck and Jim in Warwick, RI, where they were running a passel of New England civil engineers through the mind altering experience of actually looking at the built environment and asking “does this make sense?” Strongtowns continues to be in demand at conferences to shake up the thinking of engineers, planners, and city and town managers. And, as always, it was fun hanging out with Chuck and Jim, grabbing a beer, talking urbanism, and staying up way too late on a school night—highly recommended.

I’ve been wanting to connect the strongtowns crowd with Andrew Heben from Tent City Urbanism for a while now. Andrew is a planner in the PacNW who has been studying the emergent self-governance in informal homeless encampments.

"Tent City Urbanism explores the connection between two separate phenomenon that have been of growing significance in recent years—the rise of tent cities self-organized by the unhoused and the tiny house movement started by already housed folks looking to downsize their environmental footprint.

"The product is the tiny house village—a practical, sustainable, community-based approach for restoring very a low cost housing option in the U.S. This progression from camp to village has inspired the development of three distinct models that offer a spectrum of options between the street and conventional housing: the sanctuary camp, the transitional village, and the affordable village."

There are never enough shelter beds for the homeless in your city. Besides that, many people prefer their autonomy to the strict paternalistic rules of most shelters. The defacto villages that are created, however, are rarely a hit with their formally housed neighbors, and the sites can last a few months to years before they are cleared and the homeless “problem” pushed on to a new site. The clearing of The Jungle in San Jose is a recent example. We also continue to criminalize being outside the formal housing system, whether criminalizing small accessory apartments, boarding houses, feeding the homeless, or even sleeping in public, for example.

Tent City Urbanism now has a great book out now that traces the rise of modern homelessness to the redefinition of acceptable housing to middle class standards, leading to the loss of a whole range of intermediary options including lodging houses, dormitories, and shacks that were still better than sleeping outside. Meanwhile, building affordable units to middle class standards continues to be very expensive ($200,000 per unit, or more, is not uncommon). Andrew and others have identified a very strongtowns style response. The existing emergent homeless village model can be married to the hip tiny house model to provide a low cost, DIY response to lack of affordable housing and community—and because lots of middle class folks who would normally be NIMBY opponents of homelessness any where near them, can be lured in because tiny houses are cute and sustainable. They are also cheap, depending on frills, code compliance, and who does the labor, tiny houses can run from $10,000 budget versions to $80,000 gold plated units, still vastly cheaper than formal housing, allowing the same investment to provide housing for far more people, and housing that can be moved or repaired by its residents.

What emerges are models for urban tiny houses that cluster them together into small villages which provide the unhoused with community, resources, security, and support without denying them agency and autonomy in how they will live their lives. See what it looks like here. What if that were a model for incremental urban change more generally... 

And here's a couple videos to place this idea in the larger context of the tiny house movement:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has middle class applications as well.

“Unlike much of the affordable housing found in other places that end up being segregated from the rest of the community, Prospect’s ADUs are perfectly blended within the town overall—and actually help contribute to the development’s success.”

Ross Chapin also in the PacNW has shown that even those with means would do better to have smaller homes and a better commons.

From our friends at Granola Shotgun, we have another great post on “good enough urbanism,” with lots of inspirational case studies and pictures:

“My point is that many of the just-scraping-by locations are ripe for reinvention as incubators for small family owned mom and pop businesses if the local authorities cut folks some slack. Not everything will work, but there isn’t much to lose in trying.”

And, I’m sure that you’re all hotly waiting for the new BBC show, The Planners, as I am. Well, now the show that explores planning in the UK, can be found on youtube:

Meanwhile, closer to home, there is a lot of interest in the Boston area in strategies for reviving our smaller second and third tier post industrial cities (“gateway cities” or “legacy cities” in local parlance) as one strategy to provide more walkable urban areas in a region that is very hostile to new development and change. One program that is just getting started up looks like it has good potential, using a placemaking approach to reenergize stuck neighborhoods and commercial districts. Take a look and please give us some feedback. How can we influence this program in a strongtowns direction? 

Lastly, I have a strong citizen mini-challenge: whenever you see someone writing or talking about a “solution” to a problem, replace the word with “response.” This goes back to an old post of Chuck’s Try it out and see if it helps you question our certainty about finding the right, permanent solution to our problems—or even the very identity of our problems!

Have a great week all.