Sandra Luo: It takes a village, but tiny homes aren’t enough

Is this ‘community’ set up to appease people who don’t want to interact with unsheltered folks?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall talks about the status of her goal to have a tiny home pilot in place this winter during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 29, 2021. At rear is a conceptual drawing.

Salt Lake City’s latest solution to address homelessness isn’t innovative. Rather, it has been attempted in cities like Los Angeles and Seattle with little success. A “tiny home village” neither addresses housing insecurity nor sustainably assists unsheltered people – especially as the Salt Lake City Council considers zoning changes that prioritize tiny homes (village) and SROs but not actual affordable housing.

This proposed “community” is far removed from the rest of Salt Lake – both physically and communally. Taking design cues from the panopticon (and maybe even an alien crop circle), these tiny homes are supposed to provide housing for unsheltered people. However, they are not an efficient use of land given the increasing need for affordable housing. Tiny homes may seem better than tents, but this comparison paves the way for cheap materials and construction. We need real, robust quality of life and quality of construction of homes for those who lack them.

Immediately, the rendering’s emphasis on car access already excludes those this project claims to support. A neighborhood that lacks access to reliable and consistent public transit, grocery stores and recreational spaces within walking distance won’t improve people’s financial and social opportunities.

Perhaps this “community” is set up as its own to appease people who don’t want to see or interact with unsheltered folks. By literally othering this neighborhood — in its naming convention and physical boundaries — it feeds into people’s biases of what unsheltered people deserve access to, why they should be monitored, and who they’re allowed to be around. Rounding up a group of people experiencing homelessness and shoving them elsewhere is not “community building.”

A shared geography doesn’t always facilitate a community; a “village” that operates on surveillance, policing and curfews doesn’t foster meaningful relationships. It may just fuel the fear, stress and anxiety that prevents people from seeking already-inaccessible assistance. It’s important to acknowledge that there is already a community within this group and to respect the relationships they’ve built. Removing people from their networks, through camp abatements and shelters/programs shuffles, is detrimental to one’s well-being and willingness to trust.

While a strong support network can help, chronic homelessness isn’t just a result of loss of family. It is a result of gentrification; unlivable wages; food insecurity; medical and credit debt; criminalization of poverty, homelessness and sex work; and cyclical incarceration that capitalizes on people’s vulnerabilities.

In this ongoing pandemic, the common thread of our experiences is the importance of space: to work, to rest, to recreate. A tiny home lifestyle doesn’t suit everyone when people have a diverse range of needs — whether that be a disability that requires more space or a need to establish functional boundaries within our homes. A “one-size-fits-all” approach neglects the people who don’t fit into a 400-square-footage box.

How many unsheltered people were actually included in these discussions? The money for this project could go toward things like housing vouchers with more flexibility in housing accommodations, affordable housing and rent control, job/educational resources and health care instead of a “community” where people are subjected to punishment and/or removal if they’re unable to “fix” themselves.

Will people then continue to be shuffled around, program to program, with no tangible change? With plans to find a location that can accommodate expansion, are we creating another neighborhood that will eventually fall prey to “luxury” development and unaffordable rent?

Expanding on former City Council Member Andrew Johnston’s comments, a tiny home village alone doesn’t solve homelessness; nor does it prevent gentrification, which facilitates homelessness; nor does it promise affordability to people who can’t access housing, physical/mental health services, and employment assistance; nor does it guarantee the cultivation of supportive relationships — especially if it imposes the same barriers that shelters have.

But at least this isolation makes it easier to ignore the exploitative conditions that continue to put people on the brink of evictions and foreclosures?

Sandra Luo, Salt Lake City, is an incoming City Planning and Public Policy graduate student at the University of Utah. She spends her free time volunteering with local community organizations, primarily Decarcerate Utah.

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