Philly Considering Plans For Tiny House ‘Village' as Homeless Camps Remain

The plan has been in the works for about two years, but sites and funding are still being worked out.

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With 40,000 people in Philadelphia on wait lists trying to get into affordable housing, the city is considering one tiny solution that could help in a big way.

Many details are still being worked out, but the city is exploring plans to build one or more "villages" of tiny houses, that can be built at a lesser cost than redeveloping some existing homes, advocates say. The plan is one effort to fight homelessness by getting people into a home of their own.

Mayor Jim Kenney and other leaders have mentioned tiny houses, once placed in 2021, could alleviate some concerns of people in 3 homeless camps around the city. This summer, negotiations between Philly leaders and organizers of the camps stalled on a key demand: providing permanent affordable housing, immediately, to the camp residents.

City leaders have said immediacy is impossible due to a lack of federal funding, and that immediately housing people in the camps would be unfair to the 40,000 people on wait lists.

And the Philadelphia Housing Authority says it needs money to rehab a slew of vacant properties before it could make them available for affordable housing. PHA has not followed through with a commitment to make 62 homes available for nonprofits to redevelop into affordable housing, activists say.

The city offered campers shelter beds and other services that were temporary options; once in those programs, they can get assigned a case manager who will put them on a plan to housing.

Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, in an emailed statement, said tiny houses could be "an innovative addition to the mix of housing options available to people struggling to find shelter."

Other cities including Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas have built tiny homes as a way to combat homelessness.

Through careful design, tiny houses can fit at least a bed, kitchen and bathroom. They've sparked a move toward simplifying life and fitting it into that smaller space. There's even an HGTV show all about searching for the right tiny house.

How Will This Work?

Last month, members of City Council toured a Lancaster County company that builds tiny homes, said Stephanie Sena, an anti-poverty fellow and professor in Villanova's Charles Widger School of Law who has been working on the tiny homes plans for years.

There are two categories of tiny house villages being considered - transitional and affordable. Transitional housing is more basic, providing a roof over one's head, with amenities like bathrooms and dining space in a separate shared building in the village, Sena said.

The other category, affordable housing, is more like what's in the photos from Lancaster County and a more permanent placement.

"The model of shared bathroom and dining site...in the age of COVID, that's not the best right now," Sena said. She would rather see more of the affordable homes with their own amenities where residents can maintain social distancing.

Philadelphia City Council members including Allan Domb, Mark Squilla, Helen Gym, Kendra Brooks and Jamie Gauthier visited Liberation Tiny Homes in Lancaster County. (Courtesy of Stephanie Sena)

She provided statistics showing that about 15% of homeless people are considered "chronically homeless," meaning they have been for a long time. Most people become homeless because of a sudden life event or loss of shelter, including due to eviction. Others are one big expense away from financial hardship.

The economic situation due to the coronavirus pandemic has increased a sense of urgency.

"As the eviction courts open up, we’re going to see more people in that category, as our economy starts to freefall, that population is going to be hit hardest and first," Sena said.

Locations and funding are still in the works. Sena said some private donors have taken an interest in the project. Village residents who work would pay a portion of their income, which could help fund the community center and other costs.

"One thing that Philly has which makes a tiny home development attractive is a large amount of publicly owned vacant land," Gauthier said. "Furthermore, housing units are notoriously difficult and expensive to build due to Philadelphia’s high construction costs, and pre-fabricated tiny homes take big developers out of the equation."

A spokesperson for Councilman Mark Squilla says he is interested in new ideas for affordable housing for city residents and the homeless.

"At this time, there is no location or cost estimate for the project," a statement said. "We are working with [Licenses and Inspections] on amendments to the City code to allow these types of structures."

"We're not going to stop until we have something that works," Squilla told independent journalist Lucy Noland, who posted a Facebook Live video of the tiny house tour. (Noland has been working with Sena on the project and attended several meetings with her.)

"Houses on average are $150,000, $175,000 in Germantown right now, but if we can bring that price down to $90,000, that would satisfy a lot more people and make housing a lot more affordable," developer Ken Weinstein told Noland.

Sena and Gauthier both said that the homes would be one part of a broader effort around affordable housing.

"Ultimately, the tiny home conversation has to be part of a larger push for more social housing in our city, expanding tenant rights, and preventing neighborhoods from becoming so unaffordable in the first place, Gauthier's statement said. "This necessarily includes advocating for more housing funding from our state and federal legislators."

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