Terner Center Blog: No Limits

Are Tiny Houses Useful and Feasible for Addressing the Homelessness Crisis?

Posted on by Rebecca Coleman

As part of our commitment to the education and professional development of UC Berkeley students, the Terner Center highlights exceptional student work that connects to our mission and research agenda. The analyses and policy proposals put forth in these projects may not be reflective of the official position of the Terner Center.

This piece is the fourth in a series to be released this summer by recent graduates of the City and Regional Planning and Public Policy graduate programs at UC Berkeley. The full report is available here.

Tiny houses are on many people’s minds as a possible solution to address our homelessness crisis. Tiny houses are by definition less than 400 square feet and cheaper than conventionally-built housing. (1)  They can also be built faster and with relatively unskilled labor compared with conventional housing. Depending on their construction type and the services offered, tiny houses can offer either permanent supportive housing or rapid re-housing to provide more stability than homeless encampments. Perhaps for all of these reasons, there are over a dozen sanctioned tiny house villages for people experiencing homelessness across the U.S. with at least 75% built in 2013 or later.

According to the 2017 homeless census, there are 5,629 people experiencing homelessness in Alameda County, California alone. This is the highest it has been since at least 2009, and while this census provides a point-in-time snapshot, it is estimated that 2-3 times more people experience homelessness during the course of a year. To better understand whether tiny houses can be useful and feasible to help address homelessness, I conducted a survey of staff working at 11 tiny house villages that serve homeless individuals across the U.S. as part of the larger report, which I prepared for Alameda County Housing and Community Development, exploring the use of tiny houses for homeless individuals.

I found the characteristics of effective, functional tiny house communities for people experiencing homelessness include:

  • having a local entity that is willing to put in the leg work;
  • support services including placement to more stable housing options if the housing is transitional;
  • a selection and approval process for residents;
  • common buildings with shared facilities; and
  • access to transportation if the community is not located within the city center.

Some efforts in Alameda County to pursue tiny house projects include: Tuff Shed shelters built on two sites, one leased by the City of Oakland from PG&E and one owned by CalTRANS in Oakland; development of tiny houses on wheels in a backyard in Hayward; a nonprofit that is pushing for permanent tiny houses for homeless youth in Berkeley; and a proposal to build six temporary and transitional tiny houses on wheels in a church parking lot in Castro Valley. We can see from these efforts that tiny houses can be feasible in infill locations, built on land that is already underutilized, or built provisionally on land that is owned or leased by a city to bring more services to an existing encampment.

Map: Tiny Houses for the Homeless in California: Planned and Existing as of 2018 (2)

Tiny houses are a solution that is being implemented across California. The map above shows a predicted growth from 6 existing to 18 total developments of free-standing tiny houses of varying construction types from 2004 into the foreseeable future based on data crowdsourced from The Village Collaborative and supplemented with information from secondary sources and interviews.

The state has taken note of these developments and is easing the way to using tiny houses to address homelessness. A recent change to the California Building Code creates new minimum standards for emergency housing that significantly reduces the barriers to build tiny houses for homeless people. (3) This change is significant because outside of these new minimum standards, tiny houses either need to comply with state building codes meant for conventional single family homes or to comply with RV standards – both of which can be prohibitive and out of scale with these projects. Both Berkeley and Oakland have invoked the new emergency building standards to expedite building transitional shelters for their homeless populations. (4)

Ultimately tiny houses should be pursued as part of a multi-pronged effort that includes building permanent supportive housing through large scale affordable housing projects. But we can’t wait for these developments to be built to address our homelessness crisis. To make it easier to build tiny houses, public agencies can start by taking some concrete steps right now. Emergency shelters should be permitted in more zoning districts (in Alameda County the General Ordinance Code currently allows for emergency shelters only in the R-4 multiple residence district). Waiving permit fees, adopting building code standards that are unique to tiny houses rather than applying existing building standards to tiny houses, identifying additional parcels that can be zoned as mobile home parks, and compiling best practices for building tiny houses would also be important steps. The scale of the homelessness crisis demands that we bring forward our most innovative thinking.


(1) “Information Bulletin on Tiny Homes.” May 9, 2016. California State HCD. Retrieved from: http://www.hcd.ca.gov/docs/IB2016-01.pdf

(2) Data was retrieved The Village Collaborative and supplemented with information from secondary sources and interviews. The Village Collaborative website has a map that crowdsources information on where people are either in the planning or development stage, or if they have completed building the village. Sources: The Village Collaborative. Retrieved April 14, 2018; “10 tiny house villages for the homeless across the U.S.” Retrieved April 14, 2018; “Yuba County homeless become ‘tiny house’ residents,” the Sacramento Bee. Retrieved April 14, 2018; “At River Haven in Ventura, domes near end of Life,” VC Star. Retrieved April 14, 2018; “Compassion Village.” Retrieved April 14, 2018;  Poverello House, Retrieved April 14, 2018. 

(3) “Emergency Housing – Adoption of Emergency Regulations.” May 9, 2018 Information Bulletin. California Department of Housing and Community Development. Retrieved from: http://www.hcd.ca.gov/docs/IB2018-01.pdf

(4) To invoke the new emergency standards a local ordinance must be passed declaring an emergency housing crisis along with adopting the new emergency building standards, and a local re-zoning may be necessary. 


School District Employee Housing in California

Posted on by Sean Doocy

As part of our commitment to the education and professional development of UC Berkeley students, the Terner Center highlights exceptional student work that connects to our mission and research agenda. The analyses and policy proposals put forth in these projects may not be reflective of the official position of the Terner Center. This piece is the third in a series to be released this summer by recent graduates of the City and Regional Planning and Public Policy graduate programs at UC Berkeley. The full report is available here. Housing costs in California have risen dramatically in recent years, particularly in employment-rich coastal urban…


Mapping Oakland’s Vacant Parcels

Posted on by Hayley Raetz

As part of our commitment to the education and professional development of UC Berkeley students, the Terner Center highlights exceptional student work that connects to our mission and research agenda. The analyses and policy proposals put forth in these projects may not be reflective of the official position of the Terner Center. This piece is the second in a series to be released this summer by recent graduates of the City and Regional Planning and Public Policy graduate programs at UC Berkeley. The full report is available here. Vacant Parcels in Oakland Despite Oakland's high demand for housing, vacant parcels remain abundant…


Measuring the Housing Permitting Process in San Francisco

Posted on by Brian Goggin

As part of our commitment to the education and professional development of UC Berkeley students, the Terner Center highlights exceptional student work that connects to our mission and research agenda. The analyses and policy proposals put forth in these projects may not be reflective of the official position of the Terner Center. This piece is the first in a series to be released this summer by recent graduates of the City and Regional Planning and Public Policy graduate programs at UC Berkeley. How long does it take to get a building permit in the Bay Area? Ask 10 developers, you will likely get…


Aligning Sustainable and Affordable Development in California

Posted on by Sarah Mawhorter and Carol Galante

California has long been considered a leader in combating climate change, but the state’s housing crisis—with inadequate supply in urban cores and a legacy of sprawling suburban development—threatens its ability to achieve its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (Senate Bill 375) aligns land use and transportation planning in order to drive development in transit-accessible places and reduce car dependency and vehicle emissions. SB 375 resulted directly from the goals laid out in the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (Assembly Bill 32) and was signed into law in 2008. SB 375 requires California…


Highlights from the James R. Boyce Affordable Housing Competition Studio Symposium

Posted on by Carol Galante

As the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness remains at troubling heights, particularly in high-cost regions, planners, architects, and developers are working to confront the crisis with innovative design, financing, and construction methods. Through the James R. Boyce Affordable Housing Studio course—generously funded by a gift from CED alumni James R. Boyce (M. Arch. ‘67) and co-taught by David Baker and Daniel Simons of David Baker Architects—Carol Galante, Faculty Director of the Terner Center and the I. Donald Terner Distinguished Professor of Affordable Housing and Urban Policy in the College of Environmental Design, connects students from a variety of…


Why We Need a New Conversation on Rent Control in California, Today.

Posted on by Carol Galante

Leaders seeking to address California’s housing crisis are facing an important challenge: how to take meaningful and significant policy action to “stop the bleeding” of rising costs, eviction and displacement without generating new challenges that will only prolong the state’s deep affordability challenges. Today’s debate over rent control, and particularly, the movement to repeal Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act (which places statewide limits on how jurisdictions implement rent control), has pushed this challenge to the fore. One side of the debate is working to qualify a measure on the November ballot that would fully repeal Costa-Hawkins, enabling localities to expand rent…


A ‘Safe Haven’: Resident Stories Convey the Benefits of Affordable Housing

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) has become the most important funding source for affordable housing development in the United States, producing nearly 3 million housing units since its inception in 1986 and housing over 13 million people. Despite its significance in the housing market, relatively little research has been undertaken to document and understand the experiences of residents living in LIHTC-funded properties. Today, the Terner Center is releasing a new study addressing this research gap. Our analysis sheds light on how living in LIHTC properties impacts low-income residents, particularly with regard to housing stability, economic mobility, and access to…


Renting the Dream: The Rise of Single-Family Rentals

Posted on by Carolina Reid, Carol Galante, Rocio Sanchez-Moyano

Tenants living in single-family homes in the United States represent the fastest growing segment in the housing market today, but neither academic literature nor public policy has kept pace with their growing importance. Today, the Terner Center is releasing a new study seeking to better understand this group of renters, the homes and neighborhoods they occupy, and the policies that might better support their success. Our study presents data on single-family renters living in a range of housing markets across the country. Our first question: why has this market segment grown so fast? In short: a boom in single-family home…


It All Adds Up: The Cost of Housing Development Fees in Seven California Cities

Posted on by Sarah Mawhorter and David Garcia

In the summer of 2017, the Terner Center embarked on a seemingly straightforward task: determine the amount and type of fees levied on new residential development in seven California cities. What was initially thought to be a clear assignment turned into an odyssey of combing through difficult-to-obtain fee schedules, cobbling together piecemeal information across city departments, and repeatedly interviewing various city planning officials. The onerous and lengthy process our research team faced tells the story of the development fee process in California. While fees act as an important tool to mitigate the effects of new construction, the development and administration…