Tiny Tuesday: Do Tiny Houses Cause Gentrification?

Gentrification: the ugliest term in housing, and one of the biggest drivers of inequality. Family A earns $40,000 a year; Family B earns $100,000. Family A lives in Greenwood where rent is $1000/month; Family B lives in Riverdale where rent is $2000/month. Developer builds a new complex in Greenwood and charges $1500/month. It’s a great deal for Family B, enough for them to move from Riverdale to Greenwood. But it’s unaffordable for Family A, which already spends 30% of its income on housing. Repeat enough times, and Family A can’t afford to live ANYWHERE in Greenwood, forcing them to move someplace less desirable. Meanwhile all the Family Bs now living in Greenwood are saving more income than before. Inequality grows.

Trendy tiny houses, with a high cost per square foot, are a prime example of the sort of housing that entices Family B. And the industrial east side of St Paul, Minnesota, looks a lot like the proverbial Greenwood. So Loren Schirber’s proposal for East Yard, a 52-unit tiny house village on a 3-acre lot, has a lot of residents worried about gentrification. The expected price tag of $130,000 to $170,000 (for a unit no larger than 530 square feet) bears out this concern.


Proposed layout for East Yard tiny house village.

But wait. Haven’t I previously hailed tiny houses as a tool for anti-gentrification? The key to integrated neighborhoods is to provide housing for a wide range of incomes side-by-side. But any such balance is an unstable one, easily upset by a few wealthy residents who attend Developmental Review meetings and rally against new low-income developments. (The cited concerns tend to be crime, filth, or reduced property values.) Tiny houses as accessory dwellings offer mixed housing but spread them out, minimizing the usual concerns.

Schirber’s village of groundbound tiny houses (not on wheels) would follow a very different model. It would be an outpost of higher-income housing in a low-income neighborhood. As the first such development on the east side, it could help turn a segregated ward into an integrated one. But it could also pave the way for more developments as Family Bs across St Paul grow more comfortable with living in this Greenwood. Gentrification is a deep social issue, far more than one complex will change.

Read this Minnesota Public Radio story for arguments both for and against East Yard. (Winning sentence from the article: “‘I don’t know how anyone could live there,’ says Dick Goulet, who has lived in the neighborhood for 21 years.”)

Thanks to Laura Schutz.

Tiny Tuesday: Big House, Little House

Portland, Oregon famously has some of the most tiny-house-friendly laws in the country. This NPR article notes that last year Portland averaged one new accessory dwelling unit (ADU) per day, partly because the city enables almost any homeowner to build one and exempts them from certain permitting hurdles and parking rules. But the ADU boom is also a response to zoning laws that go the other way, ones that encourage very large houses and gentrification.

Portland, like most cities, limits the number of primary dwellings that can be built on a lot. This causes developers (who are only trying to make a living, after all) to build out instead of up, so most new construction consists of the most profitable single-family dwellings possible. Usually that means maximizing interior square footage, taking up as much of the lot as setbacks allow. Thus neighborhoods become more expensive to live in, and residents who can’t afford it are forced to leave.

ADUs don’t quite prevent gentrification, but they decelerate it by enabling a diversity of income levels within the same neighborhood. Smaller than the primary dwellings but efficient in terms of both HVAC and use of physical space (mainly since they tend to be new construction), ADUs offer more affordable options that fill in the fabric of an existing neighborhood. Big house, little house.

Here are some other articles I’ve written about ADUs. Thanks to Laura Schutz.

Tiny Tuesday: Housing First

Housing First is a strategy that moves people who live on the street directly into their own apartments, eliminating middle steps like shelters and group housing. Traditionally, a period of transitional housing would include job counseling and treatment for the issues that led to homelessness in the first place. The principle behind Housing First is that giving individuals the stability of an independent house right away makes that treatment more effective.

Many cities have Housing First programs, and increasingly they provide that independence with tiny house villages. This Curbed article compares 10 such villages. Most of them are funded by grants and private donations. Residents typically pay below-market rents of $200 to $400 or up to 30% of their income (the threshold for affordable housing as defined by HUD) and may enjoy rent-to-own options.

I appreciate CASS Community in Detroit, which houses students and seniors in addition to the formerly homeless. Integrated neighborhoods can more easily fold into the fabric of the city, whereas developments envisioned as 100% “homeless encampments” seem destined for neglect. In Dallas, The Cottages at Hickory Crossing has onsite medical and mental health care, making it a sort of assisted living facility. Several sites have community centers and shared gardens, akin to a pocket neighborhood.