L.A. Built a Tiny-House Village for Homeless Residents, and Some Aren’t So Sure About It

A community of 103 tiny homes is opening today in L.A.’s North Hollywood neighborhood. Photo: Courtesy of Lehrer Architects

Like so many of the parks in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, Alexandria Park is little more than a sliver of grassy land along a concrete-lipped wash dotted with picnic tables, the landscaped embankment of a freeway onramp. Today, though, local officials are pointing to it with pride, as 103 tiny homes to be used as transitional housing for local homeless residents have opened in the park. At a press conference last Thursday, where Alexandria was called the “biggest tiny-home village in the state,” city leaders milled about this mini-neighborhood, which has been laid out with the precision of a suburban subdivision, with a dozen or so homes painted in neon yellow, hot pink, and red diagonal stripes to create a disarmingly charming effect. It is the second such site in L.A.; another tiny-house village opened in February two miles to the southeast, and a third is under construction near Echo Park Lake with several more to come. But unlike the other tiny-home villages, which are located in parking lots, the Alexandria village has retained its parklike attributes, including large mature shade trees, which this morning’s speakers mentioned several times. L.A. city councilmember Paul Krekorian said this project would serve as a citywide model for turning a public space that had been a “significant problem” into housing solutions. “This was a community park that couldn’t be used by the surrounding neighborhood because of the state that it was in,” he said. “And we’re changing that today.”

On the other side of a nine-foot chain-link fence threaded with white privacy tape, Michelle had been using Alexandria Park as a place to live, along with a community of a few dozen other people, when she started seeing city crews coming through earlier this year. “We noticed them putting flags, different colored flags, on the lawn,” she said. “My fiancé does construction, so he was like, ‘Oh, they’re mapping out the gas and water lines.’” A few weeks later, homeless-outreach workers came by the park, putting people who lived there on a list for one of the future homes. Michelle and her fiancé (she jokes that they’re known as the “Jackie and JFK” of the camp) signed up for a tour, got information about the restrictions they would have to agree to for entry, and were shown a video of the first tiny-home site. Although the houses seemed small — “I just learned they’re smaller than a jail cell,” she said — she was willing to give it a chance and received a move-in date of May 2. “I don’t really mind the rules that they have. It’s just that I have a lot of shit,” she said. “And to only be able to bring in, you know, two trash bags?” She waved her hands at three wheeled carts stacked high with suitcases. Last Tuesday morning, she was sorting through her belongings when LAPD officers came through the park for a “cleanup” of the camp, along with two dozen vehicles from a half-dozen state and local agencies, including Parks and Rec, Public Works, Sanitation, and Caltrans. As someone who has been on and off the streets for years, Michelle says her initial instinct was to pack up and get moving. “My first homeless ticket was for having a structure up in a park,” she said. “It wasn’t even mine.”

Six days before the tiny-home village was to open, a ribbon of yellow police tape fluttered in the breeze. It cut off access to the park from the parking lot of the nearly dead Valley Plaza mall as city crews descended upon the camp, scattering its residents. Yards from the new houses, along the embankment that runs parallel to the freeway, longtime residents had built their own tiny homes with beds, furnishings, and doors that locked. But as the opening date approached for the city’s tiny-home village — and particularly after the violent eviction of dozens of unhoused people from Echo Park Lake just a few weeks before — there was growing anxiety that the residents of the informal village who opted not to trade their own shelter for a tiny home, or who still have reservations about moving in, would be forced out. In fact, said Uri Niv of the NoHo Home Alliance, which has been providing food and services to the people in Alexandria Park for over a year, many residents had already left. “There’s a lot of opinions about the tiny homes. Fine, let’s put all of that aside,” he said. “The thing is that a majority of the people in this encampment are on the list to move into this shelter in six days, and now they’re all scattered.” Niv was particularly frustrated that he couldn’t get a clear answer from the city’s many overlapping agencies about why a cleanup had been scheduled at all, but he had a hunch. The ribbon-cutting with the mayor and the councilmember would be the first in a string of events — including a “sleepover” scheduled at the village for that weekend, which offered donors an opportunity to stay overnight in the tiny homes, complete with dinner and live entertainment. It was being billed as the “ultimate date night.”

The Alexandria Park Tiny Home Village is situated in a city park where, until a few months ago, dozens of people lived on the other side of the construction fence. Photo: Courtesy of Lehrer Architects

Inside the village, at bright-red tables with matching red umbrellas, as workers mopped floors and began to unroll mattresses in each cabin, architects Michael Lehrer and Nerin Kadribegovic described the task of erecting the villages, from concept to completion, within the city’s 13-week time frame. Lehrer’s eponymous firm has worked on homeless housing for two decades, including several temporary housing projects in the Valley. “This is an important place in our city,” said Lehrer. “They should elicit joy. And there should be some quality of beauty, which is the idea that we are honoring the people by making them.” A big part of their job as designers was making the village palatable to local homeowners, Kadribegovic said. “It’s really important through our work as architects and planners to destigmatize these types of projects so that the neighborhoods are actually more accepting of them.” (In fact, they made adjustments to the site plan after the developers of a new shopping center across the street asked the architects to move the homes farther back on the property so they would not be in view of Trader Joe’s shoppers.)

The village manages to strike a visual note somewhere between a summer camp and those temporary field offices that crop up for years at major construction sites, with modular buildings and portable trailers providing accessible shared bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities; the all-important dog run (pets are welcome and will receive their own suite of services); and common spaces for meetings with caseworkers and meals (three per day are provided). But the tiny homes themselves were the one element the architects couldn’t spec: The eight-by-eight-foot shelter made by a Washington-based company named Pallet was preselected for them by city contractors. The buildings are made from insulated plastic and feature four windows and a pitched roof, a heater, an AC, lights, outlets, and two fold-down beds (although current COVID restrictions will keep them single-occupancy unless couples or family units want to share). Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times critic Carolina Miranda, who visited several of the city’s emergency-housing facilities, spoke with one tiny-home resident who said the only change he would make to the site was adding more bathrooms. And while the design of the home — which is, admittedly, more garden shed than prefab accessory dwelling — has elicited strong criticism from some in the unhoused community, there is more concern about the fact that the villages are being built as temporary housing with nowhere permanent to go.

The villages mark a puzzling shift in L.A.’s strategy, which had previously declared tiny homes insufficient for housing. Just a few years ago, three dozen of them — also painted in bright primary colors — were built around the city through a crowdfunding campaign led by activist Elvis Summers, but the city attempted to seize the occupied homes. “Mayor Eric Garcetti does not favor tiny houses for homeless people,” a spokesperson said in 2016. “The mayor is focused on providing permanent supportive housing that gets people off the streets for good.” A November 2020 analysis of another L.A. temporary-shelter program named A Bridge Home — which has built two dozen emergency shelters around the city using repurposed buildings, construction trailers, and sprung structures — showed that only 15 percent of bridge-housing residents were placed in permanent housing after their stays, which average 120 days; nearly one-third of participants returned to living on the streets.

“The city keeps investing in these temporary shelters, but everyone acknowledges that there’s nowhere to move to from these shelters. And if it’s not permanent housing, it doesn’t actually solve homelessness,” says Shayla Myers of the Legal Aid Foundation of L.A. “Everyone says we need all of these options, and there’s no question that’s true. But at some point, the level of investment that’s going into temporary shelters starts to supplant permanent solutions.” Just this week, the city opened its first government-run safe-camping site: a parking lot with painted squares where people can pitch their tents and get access to meals, bathrooms, and services. The cost to operate the campsite for 120 people is $2,663 per person per month. If 200 people end up being housed in the Alexandria village, its total construction cost, which was about $8.6 million, works out to $43,000 per bed, and running the site costs $55 per person per day. That’s $3,300 to operate each tiny home each month, more than the monthly mortgage payment on a median-priced L.A. County home.

This type of criticism is familiar to Laurie Craft, the chief program officer for Hope of the Valley, a faith-based service provider that runs the Alexandria site as well as several other temporary housing centers in the San Fernando Valley. This is why Hope of the Valley offers walking and drive-through tours to people who are interested in seeing the facility, which she believes help to combat negative sentiment, though she confirmed the donor sleepover had been canceled after an outcry. “There is a lot of NIMBYism,” she said. “There’s a lot of ignorance and disinformation, and we have to try to mitigate that.” And even though both tiny-home sites already have waiting lists, there is also negative sentiment to overcome from the unhoused community, she said. “When people say, ‘It looks like a prison, I don’t want to follow those rules, that triggers trauma for me,’ I have personally told people, ‘Please, just take a tour.’”

The site provides 24-hour security. Curfew is 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., but there are exceptions for situations like work schedules. Hope of the Valley doesn’t require sobriety — as some service providers do — but no drugs or alcohol are allowed inside the facility so bags are searched. And to make sure no weapons are brought on-site, residents are waved down with a metal-detecting wand. Anything that’s not allowed inside can be placed in a locker just outside the gate, like what one might see in a break room at an office. Residents don’t get a key to their storage lockers — staff members hold those — nor do they have a key to their tiny home. But they can secure their door from the inside, and Craft thinks that alone will improve housing-placement numbers compared with shelters. “Having a space where they can lock their door and sleep peacefully is huge,” she says. “That’s where we see the transformation in so many people.”

At the ceremony on Thursday — which, inexplicably, featured a speech from actor Tim Allen yet none from anyone experiencing homelessness and which drew a protest from advocates, one of whom held up a sign that read “Being Houseless Is Not a Crime” — L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti declared the opening of the village a turning point. “I know it doesn’t feel like that when you drive through the city,” he said. “Because people say the city looks dirty and people are camped everywhere. But to me, it is a moment of deep hope.” Earlier that week, Garcetti had announced that nearly $1 billion would go to homelessness in his 2021 budget. The next day, a federal judge named David Carter dropped a 110-page injunction requiring the city to offer housing to everyone in the downtown neighborhood of Skid Row by October. It was the second such injunction filed against the city, which is currently racing to offer housing to everyone living under and around freeways, per Carter’s orders.

Carter’s plan theoretically sounds great, and $1 billion for homelessness is the most the city has ever spent in a fiscal year. But, per the settlements being made in federal court, once the city has created enough beds to make temporary offers of shelter to a certain percentage of homeless residents, it can start to enforce its ban on sleeping in public spaces, particularly in parks, which some councilmembers say is the point. That casts a different light on the city’s quick scale-up of temporary shelters. “Over the past year, we have grown concerned that politicians are using this litigation to justify investment in emergency shelters instead of housing,” says Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network. “We need housing, not handcuffs, even if the handcuffs are preceded by an ‘offer’ of a shelter bed.” In this light, Krekorian’s final statement at the ribbon-cutting was not hopeful but ominous. “With the completion of this facility and the next tiny-home village that will be finished within the next few months, in this district, we will have enough bridge-housing capacity to house every single unsheltered homeless person in my entire district,” he said. “Every single one.”

Standing in the shade of an oak tree at the park’s far end, Victor Nuño was extremely skeptical that an offer of shelter would be made to him at all. “They were supposed to call me so I could talk to them today. They never came,” he said. “They don’t come over here and worry about what my next meal is or how can they help me to get back into society.” Even if he is placed on the list for the tiny-home village, he thinks he prefers the park because, to Nuño, the village looks like a prison. He would know, he says, because he was incarcerated for 13 years. “I need help from somebody. I just don’t know how to go about it,” he said. “But I live here, you see? I didn’t move. I live here. I don’t care what they’re building next door.”

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