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Tribune Editorial

Editorial: Tiny houses for Chicago’s homeless better than massive tent cities



JUL 03, 2021 AT 5:00 AM

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Hope of the Valley development associate Fonda Rosing hangs a print inside one of 39 units at a new Tiny Homes community that houses people who are experiencing homelessness on Feb. 1, 2021, in North Hollywood, CA. The community is the first of its kind in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Tiny houses are just what they sound like — miniature dwellings about the size of a one-car garage, equipped with kitchens, bathrooms and beds. They’re not what most Americans or Chicagoans envision as a dream home. But for people who live on the streets, they can be a godsend. Around the Midwest and beyond, many cities have embraced this option as a way to combat homelessness. Our question: Will Chicago get on board?


Last November, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced plans to put 50 of these micro homes on a downtown lot formerly occupied by an RV park. Occupants were supposed to start moving in on Dec. 1. The city is using $600,000 of the funds provided in the federal CARES Act to purchase the buildings and lease the land.


“Tiny houses are a lot safer, more secure and comfortable than living in a tent,” Krewson said. They performed double duty during the pandemic — providing shelter and while helping to block the spread of COVID-19. And tiny is the right term: The homes, most about 240 square feet, take up slightly less space than a typical one-car garage.


Minneapolis planned to spend $2 million of its CARES money on a similar project, putting 100 even smaller homes — each about the size of a parking space — inside a larger climate-controlled space, something resembling a self-storage facility. Support services for residents would be offered on-site. In 2019, the city council passed a law to permit such dwellings, which had been barred under the zoning rules for most residential areas.


Tiny houses have also gone up in Detroit, Madison and Des Moines, among others. They’re part of a formula for addressing homelessness known as “housing first.” As the National Alliance to End Homelessness explains, “This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to anything less critical, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.” Some cities launched “housing first” programs targeting homeless military veterans first.


Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Krekorian holds a press conference to announce the first Tiny Homes community that houses people who are experiencing homelessness on Feb. 1, 2021, in North Hollywood, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)


The advantage of these ultracompact structures is that they are inexpensive, can be erected quickly and take up little space. They afford the occupants far more privacy and independence than the typical homeless shelter. In a pandemic, they have the invaluable benefit of giving residents a place to isolate themselves from others.


They may be needed now more than ever. Chicago’s homeless population got swept to the side during much of the pandemic. Who could continue with volunteer efforts, food preparation or temporary housing when most everyone was stuck indoors and afraid to be near others? For months, homeless men, women and children had no shelter space — many were closed or downsized — and no downtown foot traffic to collect spare change or ask for a sandwich. The city for a time put the homeless up in hotels, but that practice has largely ended. And as a result, tent cities have exploded across Chicago.


Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle warned that 2021 could bring a “catastrophic” wave of evictions following eviction moratoriums lifting, which would mean more people without a place to live.


Yet Chicago has passed on the tiny house option. City regulations don’t allow houses smaller than 700 square feet and don’t allow multiple houses on one lot. “The major obstacle is zoning,” says Brien Cron, president of Chicago Tiny House Inc. His organization would like to put five dwellings, each 303 square feet, and a community center on a lot in Bronzeville.


It would require the city to grant a zoning variance, which the organization is seeking. Cron says the city’s planning department has been so backed up due to COVID, he can’t even get an appointment to have a conversation.


His group, which is privately financed, arose to help people living under bridges and viaducts in Uptown, furnishing them with tents, blankets, meals and clothes. Cron hoped to put tiny houses in that neighborhood but was unable to find a lot. He still travels to various encampments to bring food, water and supplies.


The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 77,000 people lack housing. So a handful of mini-homes is obviously only a partial solution. But facilitating this sort of innovation would be a useful experiment in addressing the needs of the homeless while providing them with the support to help them get their lives back on track.


Homelessness is a big, complex problem that won’t yield any single remedy. But every tiny bit helps.

The Editorial Board

Chicago Tribune

The Tribune Editorial Board advocates for the equality of the individual, for personal responsibility, for a limited government role in the lives of the governed. The Tribune advocates for personal liberty, opportunity and enterprise, for free markets, free will and freedom of expression. Our editorials seek to help readers make sound decisions.


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