Tiny House Village: SF Gets A New Idea To Help Solve Homelessness

This article, written by Mark Hedin, was originally published in Central City Extra's May 2016 issue (pdf). You can find the newspaper distributed around area cafes, nonprofits, City Hall offices, SROs and other residences, and in the periodicals section on the fifth floor of the Main Library.

While San Francisco political office-holders argue over whether the homeless situation in The City is just really, really bad or an official “crisis,” two bicycle-riding activists — one of them an also-ran in the 2015 mayoral election — are invoking the name of the saint for whom the city is named in floating a suggestion on how to help.

Their proposed Saint Francis Village would provide secure, safe sleeping quarters, storage space for campers’ stuff and access to social workers to help navigate their needs for health care, jobs, benefit programs, you name it.

Co-founders Amy Farah Weiss and Ken Fisher, who in April approached the San Francisco Study Center, publisher of The Extra, for fiscal sponsorship, don’t yet have a place for their village lined up.

Weiss says they’re hoping to persuade the city to provide unused property or that a sympathetic property owner will let them set up on unused land.

It’s an idea that’s akin to a program currently serving 450 homeless people in Seattle.

Their plan is to begin with a pilot program that will serve five to 10 people for three months and, hopefully, ramp up from there. 

A community-minded plan

They both have, separately, taken the lead in establishing community gardens in San Francisco, navigating bureaucracy, raising money and coordinating volunteers to get things from the drawing board to the salad bowl.

Fisher says he raised $40,000 “to rehab an entire city block” on 22nd Street between Castro and Diamond in Noe Valley, the Jungle Stairs. The effort involved 50 community volunteers, he said, and included installing irrigation, planting a mix of 1,000 trees, shrubs, native succulents and more.

A tiny house in Seattle | Photo: Low Income Housing Institute

Every step of the project, from 2012 to 2015, is closely documented at junglestairs.wordpress.com.

Saint Francis Village co-founder Weiss got 23,099 votes — 12.13% — to finish third in November’s mayoral election.

Back in 2011, she paved the way for another community garden, in the NoPa neighborhood at New Liberation Church, on Divisadero between Turk and Eddy.

“I had approval from the property owners,” Weiss wrote The Extra, “so I didn’t need to go through any type of approval process with the city. “We had insurance through the church and had volunteers sign a hold-harmless agreement.”

As for Saint Francis Village, they have a slide show that starts with a rendering of a mere 1,600-square-foot space, with five different prototypes of the proposed housing units, which they anticipate building about 4 feet high from a base of two pallets, to 6 feet 8 inches long.

Planter boxes, a storage shed and an EZ-Upstyle canopy such as vendors sometimes use at farmers’ markets add resources and ambiance to the site.

Their projected budget to set up such a site for three months is pegged at a bit less than $4,000 — $1,000 for the five housing structures, $1,000 to buy six locking storage sheds, the rest for the canopy and miscellany such as fire extinguishers and first aid kits, entrance beautification and a garbage/compost/ recycling center.

Then there’s the $4,475 monthly operating budget, consumed mostly by $3,200 for an “on-site coordinator/ project manager.” Another $400 is allocated to monthly Porta-Potty rental and twice-weekly servicing, $400 in car rental through Zip, $250 for garbage/recycling and $100 for insurance, per a quote from Pennbrook Insurance.

In that projection, the costs come to $895 per month for each of five residents. But there’s an efficiency of scale when the site is large enough to accommodate 10 people. Then, most of the fixed costs stay the same except for the toilet service, which doubles. The cost per resident thus drops to $515 each.

Less clear is what legal hurdles a Saint Francis Village might face.

Weiss says she’s waiting for someone in the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnership and Engagement (HOPE), which oversees the Navigation Center in the 1900 block of Mission, and is seeking to open a new one in Dogpatch, to get back to her on a contact at the Planning Department.

“We want to make sure we’re doing it completely on the up-and-up,” Fisher told The Extra. So far, for Saint Francis Village, it’s been a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.

A tiny house getting added to a lot in Seattle | Photo: Low Income Housing Institute

Fisher and Weiss said owners of open space who might be willing to contribute it to the cause, or perhaps, in one scenario, donate rent paid back to the project and receive a tax deduction once Saint Francis Village obtains 501(c)3 status, are reluctant to sign on while it’s unclear if they’d be vulnerable on liability or lawlessness issues.

The challenge from here

But at City Hall, the co-founders are finding, it’s tough to line up allies on a project that is, in itself, homeless.

For instance, in the office of District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who wrote the ordinance the board passed April 12 “declaring the existence of a shelter crisis in San Francisco” and is calling for six new Navigation Centers on city-owned property, his aide, Carolyn Goossens, told The Extra that as far as Saint Francis Village goes, they would have “no comment at this time, until we have more details.”

Downstairs at the office of HOPE, Director Sam Dodge, who’s also met with Fisher and Weiss, told The Extra, “It’s tough. It needs to be thought through. There is a myriad level of code and inspection agencies — fire, health, building code, there’s more — that are not able to simply be told, that can’t just be ignored. And for good reasons.

“They are pretty focused on being outside,” he continued, “and for a lot of things I wonder if running water, electricity, the potential for heat” warrant more consideration.

“They are talking about this for five people. It’s really primed to be a church property, either a church basement or space that they have.”

Churches do have an advantage over the private sector, in that they’re free of some legal constraints other types of organizations would face.

The Seattle tiny village in action | Photo: Low Income Housing Institute

In Seattle, for instance, which now operates 10 “transitional encampments” serving about 450 people, about 20% of that city’s homeless population, a church’s generosity was key to getting the program started.

“A church has the right to do this because it’s protected under the Constitution, the right to provide sanctuary,” Cynthia Roat, president of Greater Seattle Cares, told The Extra.

That was a key in Seattle, where the concept of “transitional encampments” is well-established. They got their start in 1990 when the Immaculate Conception Church’s offer of space for a shelter helped resolve a dispute around a tent city that had formed near the Kingdome after the Goodwill Games.

Last year, Seattle passed legislation written by Mayor Edward Murray to sanction three little-house camps for up to a year, with a possible year’s renewal, to serve up to 100 people each.

Saint Francis Village organizers are hopeful that having mobile housing structures may provide some freedom from building codes, as has proved the case in Ventura, which operates a similar program.

But in San Francisco, their slideshow points out that Police Code Sec. 97 bars the use of vehicles for human habitation on public property such as residential neighborhood streets.

In Seattle, however, accommodations have been made. Weiss and Fisher are hoping that keeping their structures mobile will make them eligible for similar leniency if they can’t get around that regulation by setting up on private property.

This prototype of a Saint Francis Village structure to temporarily house the homeless was built on a base of two wooden pallets. The design includes a window, locking door, a fold-up desk and shelving. | Photo: Ken Fisher

Another key question is what sort of documentation is needed to assure landowners who might be willing to offer their property for a Saint Francis Village pilot program that doing so would be permissible in the city’s eyes.

So far, their efforts to do things strictly by the book, Weiss says, have been frustrated by a lack of buy-in at No. 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place.

“That’s the real story,” she told The Extra. “It’s doable if we’re able to get the city to be a partner.”

“I’ve got a lot on my plate,” Dodge admitted. “I don’t have lots of open land at my disposal. We are working diligently to open two more Navigation Centers, four more buildings with supportive housing.”

But, he said, “Whenever we bring on extra supply, it really would be utilized. It really is evident to me that there is a strong demand for shelter.”

Weiss says that, in a city where many are seeing declining membership, she's so far been unable to find a church that has appropriate space available, “especially if it means giving up parking space for Sunday.”

But she’s gotten Lava Mae, which provides mobile shower facilities, on board with her project and expresses confidence in her ability to raise private donations and sufficient volunteer muscle to make it all happen once she gets a green light.

“No matter where they (Saint Francis Village) go, they’ll get pushback from the community,” Kelly Cutler, of the Coalition on Homelessness, told The Extra.

“It’s very rare, kind of unheard of, a ‘welcome.’” Weiss says that since the November election she’s been spending from a quarter to half of her time advancing the Saint Francis Village vision.

She and Fisher have raised $5,000. In Noe Valley, not far from the JungleStairs project, Fisher’s residence is doubling as a construction space for a prototype of the small homes the co-founders of Saint Francis Village hope to provide (see photos). As of press time,it’s taking shape, but it still lacks wheels.

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