The blog of the Urban Institute
August 11, 2020

What Does It Take to Launch a Tiny Home Village of Permanent Supportive Housing?

Tiny home villages have cropped up across the country as a means of helping house people experiencing homelessness. They have grown in popularity because they are cheaper to construct than multifamily housing, offer a neighborhood design and can be paired with supportive services. But not much is known about how to turn plans into a reality and create a stable community of quality tiny homes and services that help people live healthy lives.

A pilot program kicked off more than a year ago in Bozeman, Montana, to build a new community of tiny homes as permanent supportive housing (PSH) over a two-year timeframe. Led by the Human Resource Development Council of District IX (HRDC), Housing First Village (HFV) will include up to 20 tiny homes. Each home will be approximately 130 to 250 square feet and will include a bathroom and kitchen facilities. The larger home will be ADA-compliant.

As the program’s learning and evaluation partner, we’ve gleaned some initial takeaways on what it takes to pull together partners and think through design and implementation. Though HFV plans do not yet reflect all these principles, there is still time left to embrace them during year two. These lessons may also be helpful for other communities considering using tiny home villages as a solution to chronic homelessness.


1. Do the research.

The HFV concept grew out of one community member’s vision of a tiny home solution to Bozeman’s ongoing challenges with homelessness, but partners have refined it by sifting through options, asking questions, and testing outcomes. The HRDC and partners visited other tiny home communities and permanent supportive housing facilities before developing and testing a model tiny home—with input from people experiencing homelessness—for design, comfort, and safety.

Though evidence is thin on how to develop tiny home communities as PSH, organizations like the Corporation for Supportive Housing have guidance on key characteristics, funding sources, and partnerships that can make PSH work. Organizations with limited experience in PSH development, such as the HRDC, can leverage existing knowledge to ensure they are incorporating best practices into their design.

2. Clarify goals and roles across partners.

Cross-sector partners can be important champions of affordable housing projects within a community, but they often come to the table with different interests and assumptions around people experiencing homelessness and the best ways to house them and meet their service needs. This can complicate developing a shared understanding of what each partner brings to the table and wants to provide to the development and implementation of the community concept.

HFV’s planning partners come from different sectors and roles in addressing homelessness: housing design insights come from the Montana State University architecture department, land-use and zoning assistance comes from the Bozeman city government, housing development and homeless services are provided by the HRDC, and additional services come from local health care providers, the county detention center, and faith leaders. Goals, roles, and project commitments were not initially clear but are crystallizing through improved communication as the project gathers momentum.

3. Plan for who to serve and how to serve them.

Identify tenants who will be a good fit for tiny homes, such as those who can live independently, desire privacy, and prefer a detached home over other multifamily options. Individuals or families who require more space or need a higher level of support (such as live-in or 24/7 care) will need other housing opportunities.

Based on anticipated tenant needs, plan the right mix of services to provide and identify who will provide them. PSH programs often provide intensive case management services with smaller caseloads across a multidisciplinary team that delivers services to individuals where they are most needed. HFV could consider this model and how it integrates with others already being used in the community to see what adjustments are necessary and feasible.

4. Target trauma-informed design.

Tiny home design, when used as PSH, must acknowledge and accommodate traumatic experiences, including living unsheltered outside. Trauma-informed design (PDF) emphasizes natural light, calming colors, open spaces, noise abatement, durable furniture, and other principles to convey a sense of welcome, safety, and privacy. Similarly, the property should be designed to protect the privacy of tenants while fostering a sense of community through shared spaces or smaller clusters of units.

Though HFV home construction and site plans are not final yet, initial evidence shows intentional pursuit of these ideals. This includes a low-trafficked site with a proposed community layout balancing privacy with community, with private walkways but a shared central courtyard with places to congregate. The prototype home emphasized a high ceiling and natural light with a private bathroom and small kitchen to support independence.

5. Seek innovative funding approaches.

Many existing funding sources for building affordable housing don’t work for tiny homes. But stable housing supports health. Investigate the potential for hospital systems and health plans to partner in the development of affordable housing through donating or trading land and committing resources through loans and grants or pooling investments through a unique fund. HFV partners are still exploring options for covering capital costs, supplementing rent payments, and funding services.

 

As the need for affordable housing has increased nationwide, so too have innovative ideas to help people experiencing chronic homelessness. Tiny homes have emerged as one promising—but understudied—solution. It will still be another year before HFV welcomes its first tenants, and longer still until outcomes for tenants become available. However, monitoring early outcomes for HFV will help others learn how to design and implement a sustainable model that meets tenants’ needs.

Lila Fleishman, Human Resource Development Council of District IX (HRDC)

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