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Texas Is Using Tiny Houses To Solve A Big Problem

Could this be the solution to homelessness?

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Tiny homes for homeless people in Austin's Community First Village, built by homeless outreach group Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
Courtesy of Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

When Mark Denning saw the frame of his new home for the first time earlier this month, the chronically homeless Amarillo man started to sob. “I’m getting my life back,” Denning told the Amarillo Globe-News. But there was something different about his home-to-be: it’s tiny. Denning’s new home is part of a new movement across Texas in which “tiny homes” are being used to house the homeless.

The benefits of housing the homeless in tiny homes are manifold: they’re cheap and quick to construct, aesthetically quaint, environmentally friendly, and save cities tens of thousands of dollars with each person who gets to live in one. Thanks to donations and volunteers, Denning’s home in Amarillo will cost just $2,000 for Yellow City Community Outreach, the non-profit organization building his tiny abode. According to the Globe-News, this is the first of many tiny homes Yellow City hopes to build in Amarillo.

Texas’s tiny-homes-for-the-homeless trend appears to have started in Austin, where an organization called Mobile Loaves & Fishes began construction on a 27-acre community of tiny homes in 2014. Now, the 140-home community seems like a true shining city on a hill, albeit a miniature one. The homes are about 180-square feet, and rent is as low as $225 per month. It’s a communal experience, with shared bathrooms and a large kitchen and dining space (though some of the tiny homes have their own bathroom and kitchen). There’s an outdoor movie theater run by Alamo Drafthouse, and a brand new medical center opened within the community late last month. About 80 residents have moved into the community since January, and Mobile Loaves & Fishes expects to reach its full capacity of 250 residents by mid-to-late-2017.

“The pace is unhurried, and the conversation is congenial and open, everyone managing to do their respective jobs and tasks while maintaining genuine interest in what each has to say,” Curbed Austin wrote in May. “When one takes in the homey surroundings, pastoral setting, friendly hum of activity, and colorful, mildly eccentric décor, the next thought is often wistful and a smidge envious. Why wouldn’t someone want to live here?”

Construction in Austin's tiny home community.
Austin’s tiny home community.

All photos courtesy of Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

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While Austin’s homeless population continues to rise, Mobile Loaves & Fishes says the tiny home program has an 87 percent success rate of keeping people housed, and that success has inspired homeless outreach advocates everywhere from Albuquerque to Pittsburgh to look into the tiny-house approach to combatting homelessness. The idea has also spread to Dallas, which opened “The Cottages at Hickory Crossing,” a community of tiny homes for the homeless, in September. Dallas has historically been woefully inadequate at handling its homeless crisis—the city has shut down several massive tent cities in the past few months, and the situation has gotten so bad that Mayor Mike Rawlings recently said that he’s considering housing the homeless in an old jail—so the tiny house community could be a game-changer, particularly in light of the city’s goal to get 600 homeless people off the street by the end of the year.

Twelve of the planned village’s 50 tiny homes were completed in early September, and residents were expected to start moving in later that month. The total price tag of the tiny house project was $6.8 million, but homeless advocates say that’s a bargain, based on estimates that each person who moves into the cottages would cost the city $40,000 a year while living on the street, compared to less than $15,000 while living in a permanent home with easy access to supportive services. “The answer to homelessness is homes,” Rawlings said at the village’s grand opening, according to the Dallas Morning News. Particularly tiny ones, it seems.

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  • Walt Longmire

    Wonderful work!! Seems like one of the most intelligent ideas I have seen in a long, long time — and I am old.

    Goodness, some of those homes are delightful to look at. I would live in one if my wife and I were to run into serious issues and poverty.

    One thing I do wonder, however, is how the utilities are handled. It would seem to me that perhaps untilities would be the major cost of these homes. If people are homeless, how would they handle even the quite modest rent and the expensive utilities?

    When I helped a family myself, I made sure that I paid for a year’s rent and all utilities, and bought them a window air conditioner so that they would not bake in the summer. The family created a spotless home and abode for themselves and within a year were able to pay back a portion of what we had paid [we forgave about 50%, after we saw that they were working diligently to pay us back — despite their illegal status.] But as it turns out, the utilities were the most expensive part of that endeavor, and I hope it does not ruin this one described in the article.

  • Lars Eighner

    There are more vacant existing housing units than there are homeless people. A few matchbox houses which charge less rent will not reform the economic system that creates homelessness for profit.

  • Charlie Primero

    This is hilarious. When I was a kid tiny houses constructed from recycled building materials were called “shacks”. Places where transients lived in shacks were called “bum camps”.

    The difference back then was that every homeless person did not have three “community activists” leeching off them to get grants, subsidies, and fund-raising photos.

    I do appreciate Austin encouraging mentally ill and drug addicted wayward folk to move from my town to theirs.

    • FatherHeathen

      There is a big difference between a “shack” and these homes. The structure quality, actual utilities, and a legitimate address. Unlike “bum camps” this could help them reestablish into society.

  • Kathy Cameron

    How do I get more info on this?? I’m interested in this. I live in Iowa and absolutely hate it am looking at a new situation this would be great!!