Micro-Dwellings: Tiny homes, big purpose

Since its origins in dense cities like San Francisco and New York City, the concept of micro-dwellings has taken off. Often measuring 300 square feet or less, the single- or double-occupancy units can be a cozy yet preferable option, compared to sharing a standard-sized pad – and outrageous rent – with multiple roommates. The mini-me movement has been embraced outside city limits as well, by single-family homeowners seeking a self-imposed simplification of their 3,000-square-foot lifestyle.

But now, non-profits and municipalities across the country are building tiny homes for a much grander purpose: helping homeless and low-income residents find a fresh start. From farmland in Kansas to city lots in San Jose, here’s how micro-housing for the homeless has gained traction over just the past few months.

Chattanooga Area

In August, We Care, a non-profit that assists low-income families in Rhea County, Tenn., opened its first micro-home, with the intent of providing temporary housing for the homeless. The neighborhood of fully furnished, 200-square-foot tiny homes – costing about $10,000 each – will help fill a void in shelter services that’s common in rural areas, the organization says.


Portland took a bold step way back in 2004, sanctioning a homeless tent community, Dignity Village, which has evolved into a collection of wood-sided homes housing about 60 people. Now, the city is looking to expand on the idea, launching a task force to examine creating communities of tiny homes on surplus city land. Residents would pay between $250 and $350 per month to rent the 200-square-foot homes. The first homes could be ready by late February 2015.

Students visit Dignity Village in Portland. Courtesy of World Affairs Council of Oregon, via Flickr

Rural Kansas

Non-profits and city governments aren’t the only ones building micro-communities. A New Mexico couple is walking across the country to raise money to buy farmland, where they’ll provide land for homeless people to farm and build micro homes. Plans for the faith-based property also include classes on solar and wind energy, to help residents find work, and a chapel, meal hall and counseling services.


Not everything is big in Texas. In September, a faith-based charity, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, began building the Community First Village in Austin. The 100 or so homes, measuring less than 200 square feet, will house about 225 previously homeless residents, who will pay between $120 and $250 in rent. Beyond permanent housing, this mini-community will offer a movie screen and chapel, a community garden which will provide much of the village’s food, a medical building and a store with basic food and household supplies.

San Jose

In San Jose, the city’s Community and Economic Development Committee is looking into creating a community of micro homes as one solution for the community’s overwhelming number of homeless residents. The concept is part of a project to close a long-term homeless encampment referred to as “The Jungle.” A proposal presented by the city’s director of housing included 50 units, with residents living in the micro-homes for 90 days up to a year.

Tiny homes could provide safe housing for the thousands of people who live on the streets. Courtesy of NPR, via Google Images

Eugene, Oregon

After a successful year, the city of Eugene extended its operating agreement with Opportunity Village, allowing the micro-home community to remain on city-owned land through mid-2016. Opened in August 2013, the community operates without any public funding. More than 60 formerly homeless residents – who either have jobs or do volunteer work for the city – have lived in the 60- to 80-square-foot homes, paying $30 a month in rent.

Despite these success stories, micro-communities are just one answer to a macro problem, as an estimated 610,000 people in the U.S. sleep without shelter every night, according to a 2013 report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.


Cover photo: A tiny home for the homeless, built by Occupy Madison. Courtesy of Emily Mills, via Flickr