Philly's first tiny house village could open by summer. Is it an answer to homelessness?

2022-11-24 04:38:27 By : Mr. Jianzhang Wang

Philadelphia has resisted the trend, but the 2020 Parkway encampment forced the city to reconsider the low-cost housing option.

If you wander around Seattle these days, you might think the entire population has gone gaga for gardening. Clusters of shedlike structures have sprung up by the dozens — on vacant lots, in church parking lots, on grassy fields with mountain views, even on a block near Amazon’s global headquarters. They can be found next to suburban homes and slotted into the waste spaces between commercial buildings. But these particular sheds aren’t meant for storing shovels and rakes. They’re places to live and have been dubbed, without irony, “tiny houses.” 3 Bed Prefab Houses

Philly's first tiny house village could open by summer. Is it an answer to homelessness?

In normal times, no one would dare call such buildings, which lack private kitchens and bathrooms, “houses.” But as the nation’s homeless population soars, and people turn to cars and tents for shelter, the tiny house movement has captured the imagination of housing advocates around the country, who see them as a cheap, fast solution to the growing humanitarian crisis. Because the bedroom-size cottages are assembled in factories, they can be installed on-site in a single day. And unlike group shelters, they offer people the dignity of private space.

Tiny houses first began appearing in pricey West Coast cities, where affordable housing is scarce, but they are now found in places as varied as booming Austin, Texas, and rural Newfield, N.Y., just outside Ithaca. In the greater Seattle area, housing advocates have installed over 900 tiny houses, and more are in the pipeline. The cottages are typically organized in clusters around a central amenity building equipped with showers, toilets and cooking facilities — sort of like a campground.

Yet, until now, Philadelphia has resisted the tiny house trend. That’s partly because our homeless population is smaller — 4,300 people, according to the city’s last count — than many big cities. Our shelter system is also more extensive.

And, as Liz Hersh, who runs the city’s Office of Homeless Services and calls herself a tiny house-skeptic, points out, Philadelphia already as its own local version of tiny houses: “They’re called rowhouses.”

But after homeless activists set up a protest camp on the Parkway in 2020, the Kenney administration agreed to give the approach a try. With architects now putting the finishing touches on the design, the city’s first tiny house village could open by early summer on a grassy site near the Delaware River in Holmesburg.

It’s ironic that those 28 tiny houses might be the first tangible project to emerge from the Parkway protest, which drew extensive national attention and was lauded as a breakthrough event. The activists had largely focused their efforts on getting the city to transfer 50 houses from its large portfolio of vacant property into a community-run land trust. Tiny houses were further down on their wish list.

But a variety of setbacks, including the death of protest leader Jennifer Bennetch, slowed the group’s progress over the last two years. The land trust has so far received only two vacant houses from the city. Meanwhile, Mosaic Partners, the developer selected to oversee another negotiated project — 12 low-cost rowhouses on Aspen Street in West Philadelphia — has yet to secure financing, according to a city spokesperson.

That leaves Sanctuary Village, a Hatfield-based group that has never built housing of any type, to save the day. The nonprofit was founded by Catherine Farrell, a Johnson & Johnson executive who first learned about tiny houses from a story in Penn’s alumni magazine. Farrell, who volunteers with several church groups that focus on homelessness, first approached the city with a tiny house proposal in 2017. Her ideas seemed to be going nowhere until the Parkway deal.

After spending months looking for an appropriate location, the city found a site a short walk from State Road, wedged between a prison, a former city nursing home and Pennypack Park. The site, it’s also worth noting, is several blocks from Holmesburg’s residential neighborhoods. Sanctuary Village was formally awarded the tiny house contract in February 2021 and has raised more than $700,000 toward the project.

Even that may not be enough, however.

One of the main selling points of tiny houses is their low basic cost. The structures really are sheds, often purchased directly from garden supply companies, but tricked out with cottage-like details. Philadelphia’s 8½-by-12-foot tiny houses, which are being designed pro bono by Rustin Ohler of Harman Deutsch Ohler Architecture, will have a peaked roof, a three-foot-deep front porch, and a window at either end.

Sharon Lee, who has built dozens of tiny houses for Seattle’s enormously successful Low Income Housing Institute, told me that it costs her group less than $5,000 in materials to assemble a tiny house in the factory. But that’s just the beginning. A tiny house can’t just be plopped on a vacant lot.

You need to prepare the site and connect it to the electrical grid, Ohler explained. Even though the structures don’t require the deep foundations of permanent houses, they still need to be elevated on some type of concrete base. Because the seasons change in Philadelphia, they will have to be outfitted with insulation and a unit for heating and cooling.

Seattle, by contrast, doesn’t need insulation or air-conditioning because its climate is so mild. Lee’s group has also been able to keep construction costs down by using volunteers to install the houses. But that’s a no-go in Philadelphia, where union labor is required for all government-sponsored projects.

With all the add-ons here, Sanctuary Village estimates that its $700,000 will allow it to buy, outfit and install just 12 tiny houses. That works out to almost $60,000 a house. And because of inflation and shortages of construction materials, Farrell said she worries the cost could rise. That’s a lot of money for what is essentially a bedroom, especially in a city where you can still pick up a rowhouse shell in some neighborhoods for about the same price.

Hersh agrees, even though she remains supportive of the Sanctuary Village project. “If you spend $40,000 on a bedroom, it’s not viable or replicable,” she said.

Hersh told me she’s been pushing Sanctuary Village to cut costs, but it’s not clear how much fat there is to trim. Since Sanctuary Village is being built just a few feet from the city’s former nursing home, the group plans to use the existing bathrooms and kitchens. That will eliminate the need to construct a separate amenity building. Yet Sanctuary Village plans to install heated sidewalks because it wants to ensure residents can walk safely from their cottages to the facilities when ice is on the ground.

To Dennis P. Culhane, a Penn professor who has studied strategies for reducing homelessness, tiny houses look like a fad. “Every few years there is a new architectural solution to homelessness. It’s part of a pattern of boutique approaches,” he said. The city, he said, should use its borrowing capacity to leverage Sanctuary Village’s fund-raising. “That way, you might get 10 housing units for $60,000.”

Hersh, who was initially resistant to tiny houses, believes Sanctuary Village’s project is worth trying. The village is being targeted to a long-overlooked population: women over 55, who have been living on the street for more than a year. Case managers will be on-site around the clock and help residents access health services and permanent housing. In other cities, most residents spend less than six months in tiny houses before getting a permanent placement.

It’s also important to understand that Seattle’s tiny house program isn’t exclusively tiny houses. Lee’s group, LiHi, operates several tiers of affordable housing, from subsidized apartment buildings to shelters.

The nonprofit also banks vacant land for future projects and uses those sites to host tiny house villages. When LiHi is ready to construct an apartment building, it simply dispatches a forklift to move the tiny houses to another site, and the cycle begins again, Lee explained.

Because the homeless population in King County, which includes Seattle, has reached 15,000, with about half living unsheltered on the street, local government agencies have responded by eliminating zoning variances for tiny homes. That has helped reduce costs. Incidentally, Seattle’s homeless population is dwarfed by Los Angeles’, which recently hit 70,000. As Philadelphia’s housing becomes more expensive, Culhane worries that the city could soon see a sharp rise in homelessness.

Given that it costs over $450,000 to build a single unit of government-subsidized affordable housing in Philadelphia and that the process can take a decade, it seems like there should be a place for tiny houses, even if they’re not the dominant strategy for addressing homelessness.

Philly's first tiny house village could open by summer. Is it an answer to homelessness?

Tiny House Prefab No one claims they are the solution to homelessness in Philadelphia. But once Sanctuary Village opens, we’ll find out if they can be one of the solutions.