Editorial: L.A.'s village of tiny homes comes with a giant price tag

Karen Morea, 62, hugs her dog Jack-Jack in her tiny village house in Riverside on November 30th (Los Angeles Times)
One of the most innovative ways to protect the homeless is by setting up so-called tiny houses or houses. They are made of aluminum and composite materials and are built for living. They generally measure a tiny 64 square feet.
In LA, hope is to make it a viable, if temporary, solution in dire circumstances: lack of housing and shelter for the city's estimated 41,000 homeless; a raging pandemic; and pressure from US District Court Judge David O. Carter to get thousands of homeless people under protection as soon as possible. Villages with tiny houses on empty lots seem like a quick and inexpensive alternative to traditional housing and scarce emergency shelters.
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But it turns out they're not that cheap - at least not in Los Angeles, where a soon-to-be-opened village of 39 tiny houses on an empty urban lot in North Hollywood cost a staggering $ 5.2 million to open. In contrast, the city of Riverside built a village of 30 tiny houses last year for a total cost of about $ 514,000.
Why the difference in magnitude? It's not the houses themselves. Both cities bought 64-square-foot shelters from Pallet, an Everett, Washington-based company that builds prefabricated houses with built-in beds, shelves, heating, and air conditioning for about $ 4,900-8,600 each.
Both cities have showers and toilets connected to plumbing. (All of these villages rely on shared bathing facilities.) Laundry facilities are also available on the North Hollywood property. Riverside doesn't. Both cities had to supply the sites with electricity in order to illuminate them. Both had to connect their villages to sewage systems.
LA city officials said their job was expensive because they started with less infrastructure. The riverside site was already a parking lot (although it was being redeveloped). The North Hollywood location - shaped like a narrow lateral triangle - was a weed-strewn field between the Orange Line bus route and Chandler Boulevard. The city cleared, stepped, and paved it while paving sidewalks and a 20-foot-wide access road for emergency vehicles through the property. It spent $ 651,000 to operate a sewer line to the property and $ 253,000 to build concrete slabs for each unit. An administrative office for service providers, a stand for a security guard (requested by service providers), tables and chairs have been set up for residents to visit themselves or their case managers, and a small fenced-in area for dogs to play.
It's nice but expensive. Even city officials would agree that they could have cut back afterwards. They insist that subsequent websites are cheaper to build because they don't require as much work as this one. And we'd find it hard to scold them for using the North Hollywood property, difficult as it was if we repeatedly berated them for not looking closely enough for urban properties to build apartments or housing can.
Housing the homeless is a challenge. No matter how cheap or expensive an animal shelter project is, if homeless people don't agree to live there, it's a failure. Tiny houses offer something that even the nicer transitional shelters lack: real privacy and the feeling that the units belong to the people who live there.
Ken Craft, executive director of Hope of the Valley, the nonprofit that provides services to residents of the site, insists that the amenities - the sidewalks, outdoor tables, and dog romping area - are also big A role in persuading the homeless is played by the people who live there and, just as importantly, stay and work with case managers and counselors to move to permanent housing.
But the city cannot build million dollar villages with temporary shelter if it is to house and house most of its homeless population. It is therefore imperative to find a way to reduce costs.
The city has bought 466 tiny houses for a total of seven locations. The North Hollywood Site was the first. Officials have six other opportunities to bring costs down to levels that make the program meaningful and sustainable.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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