Saturday, August 30, 2014

Destiny's Bridge—a new documentary on tent cities

I'd like to highlight this powerful documentary about a Tent City in Lakewood, New Jersey.  The film overlaps with the ideas presents in my new book by covering life in an informal tent city, the ordered demolition by formal actors, and the demand for simple, grassroots housing options like the tiny house village.

The clip below captures the wrecking of Tent City. Here we see the human consequences of the narrow definition of "home" held by city officials and professionals, in their stubborn unwillingness to accept citizen-led solutions.

"DESTINY'S BRIDGE is about a homeless minister living in the woods who doesn't believe in the shelter system that has become the standard for housing the homeless in America.  Minister Steve Brigham, the founder and resident of this homeless community in the woods, known as Tent City, has dedicated his life to changing the way we house homeless people. He believes that addressing the emotional needs is the first step to returning a homeless person back to society...

...Minister Steve advocates that owning a home, even if it's only a tent, is important to moving a homeless person forward, especially when the only other option is sleeping on a park bench, at a bus station or even in a city shelter that kicks you out to the street every morning. This concept of ownership and community leads us to the Destiny's Bridge model of building tiny homes that are affordable to people who work for minimum wage and prefer a simple lifestyle without all the luxuries that most people depend on. The film questions our human rights as American citizens.  Zoning laws make it illegal to build a house that you can afford in most areas of the country.  Township ordinances that are designed to keep poor people out of their communities have made it virtually impossible to build small, affordable, energy efficient and eco-friendly houses in America...

...Over an 8 year period, there have been between 80-120 people living in Tent City at any given time without any government subsidies, effectively saving tax payers millions of dollars.  In the film, we hear the lawyer for Tent City state that over six million dollars was spent in one year on hotels for homeless people in Ocean County, a Jersey Shore resort area that refuses to create a homeless shelter.  Not only does the documentary explore new ideas for housing the homeless, it also challenges us to see what we can learn from the people living in Tent City and to use it to improve our broken housing system."

This documentary is complete, but finishing costs have held back the distribution of this important film that explores similar ideas for housing the homeless to those presented in Tent City Urbanism and exemplified by Opportunity Village Eugene.

You can help this documentary reach a wider audience by contributing to their Indiegogo Fundraing Campaign that is running until September 14.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"It Takes A Village" — Tiny House Magazine Article

from Tiny House Magazine issue #20

Read the full PDF article here.

Subscribe to Tiny House Magazine here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Movement is Growing

A flurry of media coverage the past few days on tiny house villages as a response to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing:

How Tiny House Villages Could Solve America's Homeless Epidemic - Inhabitat

"Could the tiny house phenomenon solve America’s homeless epidemic? Andrew Heben, urban planner and professional tiny house builder, says it can. His new book Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages explores the growing trend of American tent cities and how micro housing villages could transition people out of homelessness for good."

Tiny houses for homeless people? Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is 'infatuated' with the idea, advisor says - The Oregonian

"Portland is preparing to endorse the construction of communities of tiny houses on publicly owned land to get homeless people off the street and offer low-income residents safe, clean and cheap places to live. Josh Alpert, Mayor Charlie Hales' director of strategic initiatives said the question isn't whether the so-called micro-communities will happen, but when. Tiny houses offer a cheap and replicable method of trying to address the city's nagging homelessness problem, Alpert said. 'Let's figure it out.'"

Prototype by TECHDWELL being considered in Portland

Tiny houses aim to help homeless - USA Today

"Tiny houses are getting attention recently as a solution to chronic homelessness. They can be built relatively quickly and for minimum cost, but can have a big impact on the life of someone struggling with a lack of stable housing"

Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit - The Oregonian

"In the Northwest, Portland's Dignity Village is often cited as the torchbearer of tent cities evolving into more permanent communities. But a decade after that experiment first took root in Northeast Portland, Austin and a handful of other cities are taking concrete steps to move beyond tent cities and transitional housing developments to a more permanent community-based approach."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Regional Approach in California

With the release of my new book I've had several inquiries from people trying to start a village in various areas throughout the U.S. But California is by far the state I have heard the most from, and this has led to a small Tent City Urbanism Tour scheduled for Northern California. Locations include:

  • November 10 — Nevada City, CA
  • November 11 — Martinez, CA
  • November 15 — Humboldt County, CA

While there has been significant interest, the concept has not been an easy sell in the state so far. Projects like the Santa Cruz Sanctuary Village have faced significant resistance, particularly from a blog called However, the idea that the congregation of homeless people automatically warrants concerns of increased crime has already been disproven by our experience at Opportunity Village:

“It has gone better than I thought it would," said Lt. Eric Klinko of the Eugene Police Department, "(The village) has not been a burden to the neighborhood in terms of a crime impact.”

But an even more common argument is the magnet theory—the idea that by opening a project like this swarms of homeless folks from other areas will descend on that town. This concern seems to be intensified by the attractive setting and temperate climate of California.

California = largest homeless population in U.S.

While I hope to debunk the magnet theory in a more comprehensive fashion in a future post, my hope is that by taking a regional approach in California, we will be able to demonstrate that these are not unique burdens, but that several cities within a close proximity are trying to do very similar things, and that they can be an asset rather than a band-aid. A collective approach to a common cause.

Any other areas in California interested in joining in? Other states?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Broadening the Scope of the Tiny House Movement

I recently stumbled upon a blog post titled “Why Tiny Houses Aren’t the Best Homeless Housing (IMO),” which made the argument that using tiny houses to address homelessness could be ruining it for everyone else. Since this blog suggests the opposite—that the unhoused are a complimentary ally to the tiny house movement—I thought it deserved a response. Here is what I believe to be the heart of the post I am referencing:

"To decrease homelessness is a noble cause and should be sought but I am leery of developments wanting to use a tiny house model as a solution, I fear it may have negative consequences on the tiny house community as a whole... I feel that tiny houses are a luxury of the middle/upper class, I feel there are better solutions to cure homelessness, I am fearful that tiny houses will be put into the category of ‘low income housing’, putting them out of reach for the average person." (Read the full post here).

In all fairness the author opens by saying she was “airing some thoughts”, so this is not personal, but I’d like to address the fears presented here. As far as I know, this was the first time these points have been made publicly, but I was already fairly certain that it was a common sentiment shared by many in the tiny house movement wanting to preserve the novelty of the contemporary “tiny house.”

The fact that several people who first commented on the post agreed with the author—commenting things like “very well put” or “great article” or “brilliant”—verified this.

So, I posted it to the Opportunity Village Eugene facebook page, encouraging those who follow our page to let the author know what they think. And they did. We left dozens of comments until we finally convinced her (and hopefully others as well) to rethink things.

The original post exhibits both class bias and status anxiety, but I tried to focus on the crux of the matter—that her fears were unwarranted—writing:

“I really think I can address your concerns of being limited to only low-income folks, and that was my primary intention from the beginning. In my opinion, your concerns have a lot more to do with funding than they do building codes and zoning. If developers go out and seek public funding specifically tied to low-income/homelessness, than sure those projects will be exclusively for that demographic. But that does not stop others from going out and doing it a different way. They just have to find another kind of funding.

This is where we run into the problem of codes/zoning. But cities are not changing these regulations specifically to only accommodate the homeless. They are being accomplished through planned unit developments and conditional uses. City officials are, however, being more lenient in their interpretations of existing regulations in an effort to deal with the emergency of homelessness (I have great examples of this).  However, from what I have witnessed, this is not limiting the legalization of tiny houses for middle class people. Instead it is setting precedent for it (a city councilor here in Eugene said that last part on his own). That's why I believe these early "tiny house villages" focused on homelessness are opening the doors to similar communities for all income levels, and that is a major theme of my book.”

This response led to the follow up post, "Tiny Houses as‘Homeless Housing’ Part II," which states, “After this discussion do I think these developments are in any way a threat to others wanting to live in a tiny house?  No, I don’t.”

While I was initially outraged at the original post, I am glad this conversation was had and that we can now move forward. This may have just been a brief exchange in the blogosphere, but I believe it to be a pivotal moment in the tiny house movement.

It is time we broaden the scope of the tiny house movement beyond the tiny house as a novelty—beyond the template fluff pieces that have been appearing in the news media for over a decade—and beyond the trailer and excessive gingerbreading—toward a pragmatic and affordable housing option for anyone, no matter what your income or status.

That's not to say that those things aren't important, but that it's time to make use of the attention they have generated to influence large-scale change in the housing market.

But if you’re worried that your posh little tiny house won’t be as cool after it gets all that poor people stigma all over it, there’s not much I can do. That’s just something you’re going to have to get over.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Quixote Village: The High Cost of Federal Funding

The tent city Camp Quixote formed in 2007, and after years of planning, the camp closed at the end of December 2013 when the residents transitioned to the new tiny house village known as Quixote Village. After our visit to Dignity Village in Portland, Jeff and I headed up toward Olympia, Washington to see the newly opened village. 

The development includes 30 tiny houses at 140 square feet each with little variation aside from color. Each unit is wired with electric heat and plumbed with a bathroom in the rear. Along with a personal sleeping and living space the units are supported by a 4,000 square foot common building that includes a kitchen, dining room, living room, meeting space, staff offices, and restrooms with showers.


You can find the Rental Agreement for Quixote Village here.

The standard of living at Quixote Village is significantly higher than both Dignity Village and Opportunity Village, but it came at a cost. More specifically—a capital budget of $3 million for the 30-unit tiny house village.

The project received substantial public funding (including HUD CDBG grants), which came with formal strings attached that precluded many of the more informal elements found at DV and OV, such as volunteer labor. Instead, a low-income housing developer was brought in to manage and build the project, and residents moved in once the development was complete.

In my new book, Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages, I further discuss the implications of public funding for a grassroots model such as this. I'll conclude with an excerpt from that:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Portland's Dignity Village: Thirteen Years Later

Portland's Dignity Village was one of the original inspirations behind my new book, Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages. But after thirteen years in operation, rumors abound that the community is losing sight of its original vision.

My friend Jeff and I were in town for City Repair's annual Village Building Convergence at the end of May, and so stopped in at Dignity Village, which was one of the participating sites of the VBC. 

After signing in we saw Mitch, a resident and leader within the community whom we had met on previous visits. He was showing a group of visitors around and getting people integrated in the gardening project that they had organized.

After a few minutes he recognized us. He approached us with a wide smile and was eager to hear about how things were going at Opportunity Village. I showed him a review copy of my newly finished book which he took and thumbed through. Mitch has long expressed a desire to see organization amongst the various tent city and tiny house village projects throughout the country, and was pleased to see the comprehensiveness of the book.

“We were still the first though, right? As far as places with tiny houses in the US? We’re really glad that we could be a template for these other places. And, as bad as it sounds, that you can learn from our mistakes.”

Mitch was right. Projects like Opportunity Village, Quixote Village, and OM Village are all now receiving a good deal of attention, but we all have learned a great deal from the experiences of Dignity Village—particularly around the consequences of an internal membership-based non-profit structure. Since opening in 2001 this place has been an inspiration to many, and has attracted delegations from throughout the world.

I admired the piecemeal growth that had transpired over the years as we strolled through the village. Many buildings had evolved to incorporate porches, bump-outs, or even a second-story. In terms of building inspections, DV primarily interacts with the fire marshall rather than the building department, and so fire safety is their primary concern. For example, the fire marshall has helped the village find a creative yet safe way of heating the dwellings with propane tanks outside of the house that pump heat in.

“You know what your missing at OVE?” Mitch asked. “Landscaping… there’s nothing between your buildings!” DV had an impressive array of raised garden beds, and several planting boxes even contained decent sized trees. This was key for dealing with summer heat on the asphalt-covered site. I told him how a short-term lease and contaminated soil had limited us significantly on this front.

Next, Mitch showed us a new addition to his house—a trellis above his south-side facing window with robust vines growing up the wall from a planter box below. “I bet you guys are just starting to realize how shading and ventilation is so important in buildings this small. Now that it’s getting nice outside, these places heat up like you wouldn’t believe.”