A Strong Towns Response to Homelessness

We're very proud to welcome Rachel Quednau as a regular contributor to this blog. She adds an important voice to our growing movement that we're eager to have you hear. Please give her a hearty Strong Towns welcome.

Last year, on a given night in January, more than 600,000 Americans were homeless. That means they were sleeping in their car or under a bridge or in a temporary shelter in towns across America. Most of the time when we see disabled veterans asking for change or single mothers waiting in line at food pantries, we turn away and ignore their presence in our towns. We even design our public spaces to try and prevent homeless people from being in them.

Your town is not strong if some of your residents lack homes.

But homelessness is an issue that we as Strong Towns advocates should care about. It impacts our cities. It impacts us. Put simply: your town is not strong if some of your residents lack homes. It is my belief that a Strong Town has available housing options for all of its residents, no matter their age, abilities or income. How can we get there in a practical and lasting manner? Seth Zeren did a fantastic job of highlighting homelessness issues in his Monday Member Digest a couple months back, with links to articles about the rise (and destruction) of tent cities, and the amazing potential for tiny homes to be solutions to homelessness. I want to expand on that today.

First, a little history. One of the big reasons why homelessness has grown in the last fifty years is the loss of affordable housing, particularly Single Room Occupancy buildings or “SROs” which were historically a go-to option for low-income single people. These were apartments with bedrooms and very small or shared bathrooms and kitchens, built somewhat like a dormitory. They weren’t perfect, but they provided dignity, independence and most importantly, housing for people who needed it. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the rise of the suburbs, McMansions and more single-family homes, many of these buildings with small units were knocked down. In order to reverse the tide of homelessness in this country today, we will need to return to more modest housing options like the SROs of the past. Luckily, this country has seen a significant movement in that direction over the last several years. Here are some fantastic examples of what that looks like:

Tent Cities: Tent cities have been a housing option for the homeless for many years. While they may have drawn attention during the Occupy movement, they existed well before that. Naturally, when they are located in well-trafficked areas, tent cities often create a lot of conflict with the police, community leaders and neighbors--all of whom usually complain that they are dirty and dangerous. But those accusations are not always true. For example, a few years ago in Champaign, IL, a tent city called Safe Haven developed (and was eventually demolished) on an empty lot in which homeless residents create a code of rules, kept one another safe, and even rented hygiene facilities. Tent cities are not the most permanent nor the most desirable option, but they provide an alternative to sleeping under a bridge or in a bus shelter. Think of it like guerrilla urbanism: We paint lines on the edge of streets that don’t currently have sidewalks and a few years down the road (pardon the pun), if enough people are walking in those areas, the city government might come in and spend money on a real raised sidewalk. Similarly, if a tent city succeeds in a particular space, a developer can soon recognize its viability as a location for permanent affordable housing.

Tiny Homes: By now, most of you are probably familiar with the tiny home movement, and while it is primarily being spearheaded by the young, hip, DIY-crowd, it is slowly making inroads in homeless populations. In Madison, WI, for instance, community members designed a prototype tiny home village, complete with public spaces, gardens and artwork primarily to meet the needs of the homeless. In collaboration with architects, builders, and volunteers, homeless people are constructing their own tiny houses for very little money. It takes some finagling, particularly when faced with codes that exclude this sort of housing, but tiny homes builders are proving that it can be done in towns throughout the country.

Microapartments: Depending on the density of your city, microapartments might be the most realistic option for affordable housing. Microapartments are basically the modern SRO, except now they come with upscale amenities like tiny coffee makers that flip down from the wall, and little desks that can fold into drawers. They became particularly publicized after New York City hosted a contest to design an affordable 200-350 square foot apartment a couple years ago. It would be great to see more of these popping up in our towns, offering affordable housing for individuals and small families.

Accessory Dwelling Units: Accessory Dwelling Units or “granny flats” are small homes that homeowners build onto their existing property--either as an attachment or as a detached unit. These can combat homelessness in a couple ways. First, they are usually very affordable to rent because they’re small. Second, they are often used as a cheap or free housing option for elderly relatives of the homeowners, hence the term “granny flat.” As horrible as it is to picture your grandfather homeless, seniors are one of the demographics that is quite vulnerable to homelessness because they are on fixed incomes and cannot always afford inevitable hikes in rent or property tax. Thus, by creating more accessory dwelling units, we open up options for seniors in our communities. Accessory dwelling units have been gaining traction over the last few years, although they often take a while to be approved by local governments. Most recently, Minneapolis, MN approved them. Here’s a great article from Smart Growth America about their potential for increasing affordable housing. 

In short, if we shift away from an insistence on large, suburban living quarters, we’re much more likely to be able to meet the demand for housing for everyone. The creation of nontraditional, smaller and more affordable housing options is a vital step in ending homelessness and it’s something that I hope to see more planners, politicians and developers tackling in the future. But it is also something that everyday Strong Citizens can participate in. You can help build tiny homes and granny flats. You can advocate against the destruction of tent cities. You can attend the next meeting about a new apartment complex and encourage smaller, more affordable units.

If the goal is to move our cities in the direction of prosperity, we cannot accomplish it when a portion of our population is homeless. Government subsidies and temporary shelters are not a lasting solution to this issue, but affordable housing can be. Within the next decade, I hope to see more growth in affordable housing options like these ones, which have the potential to remove hundreds of thousands of people from situations of homelessness and enable our cities to be stronger and more resilient.

Top photo credit: Matchbox Studios



Rachel Quednau is a Midwesterner currently working to end homelessness in Milwaukee, WI. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. Rachel writes for her blog The City Space, and also for Urban Milwaukee. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.