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Tiny Homes For ABQ’s Homeless

Nicolás Boullosa via Compfight CC

Tiny homes are being praised around the country as an affordable solution to homelessness. Voters in Bernalillo County approved 2 million dollars a year ago to launch a tiny home village project for people experiencing homelessness in the Albuquerque area.

Andrew Heben is the project director of a nonprofit that works on these projects. He traveled here last week from Eugene Oregon to speak about the advantages of tiny home villages and practical concerns—like where to put them in a city. He spoke with KUNM about the time he spent visiting and living in self-organized homeless camps.

HEBEN: The physical conditions were obviously far from ideal, but there were some positive social dynamics that I thought were going on that actually addressed some of the gaps in more formal responses to homelessness and poverty, where it was more horizontally organized, where you had peer support and democratic decision-making.

And so I thought about: How can you retain some of those positive social dynamics of community and the sense of belonging that came from staying in those tent cities, and the tiny house village naturally lends itself to that, because it has a similar physical form but obviously drastic improvements of the physical infrastructure by moving up from a tent to a small house.

KUNM: What are some of the problems that you see with the formal responses to homelessness that were being mitigated by these tent cities?

HEBEN: Well first of all, you know I don’t know of any city that has adequate shelter to house their homeless. So at a most basic level, there’s inadequate supply of shelter, so this is just a necessity. But then there’s also people that the shelter model just doesn’t work for. For example, often times, males and females have to separate. So in our opportunity village project that we opened in Eugene, we allow couples to stay together. And you’ll have couples that are living out in the woods because they don’t want to be separated that can finally come have a place together.

You’re not allowed to have pets. You have to leave during the day, so take all your stuff with you. You can’t keep your stuff there. So things like that, the traditional shelter model is just not very accommodating to.

KUNM: We’ve had tent cities spring up in Albuquerque, and they get shut down by the city. And I’m sure you’ve seen that elsewhere, too, in your study of tent cities. What do you think of municipal responses to tent cities? And how is a tiny home village different?

HEBEN: Sounds like a very common story to many of the places I’ve visited. These camps often get evicted from spot to spot to spot. And each time that happens, that costs money. It’s really counter-intuitive, because it’s breaking up positive social relationships that people have built and isolating people. I think, you know, either a sanctioned tent city or a tiny house village allows something like that to happen in a more safe, sanitary and legal condition. So I think that’s something that’s better for everyone than, you know, just simply moving the problem around from space to space.

KUNM: What does it take to make a successful tiny home village? What are some of the key components? 

HEBEN: What we found successful was including both prospective residents and a broad range of members of the surrounding community in the process in proposing it. And then coming to the neighborhood association early in the process, rather than at the point where you have a plan ready to build.

Every time you’re going to pitch this idea, you’re going to get a big backlash of fears and concerns, and so I think you just have to take those in, respond to them and involve those people in the process of continuing to develop and refine a plan that works for that specific neighborhood.

KUNM: So those fears and concerns being like: Hey, we don’t want a homeless tiny home village in my backyard.

HEBEN: Yeah, I just think people have those preconceived notions that it automatically equates to increases of crime and violence a lot of times is what you’ll hear. But we have our police chief who’s a big supporter of our organization, who has said they had similar concerns when we first proposed the project, but it turns out it hasn’t been an impact in terms of crime. In fact, I would argue that it’s actually created a safer area by providing more eyes on the street.

KUNM: Tiny homes as I understand them and I read about their history, they seemed like they kind of sprung out of this idea that in some places property costs are exorbitant and people still wanted to like own a home versus renting an apartment or something for a similar price. The exorbitant property cost thing is not really the case here in Albuquerque. We have abundant land. Do you think that is a factor as people are thinking about going the tiny home route versus just building regular-sized homes for folks?

HEBEN: Yeah, no, if that’s a possibility, that’s great as well. The advantages of the tiny house community—so not necessarily building isolated tiny houses, but in a clustered  subdivision, for example—it’s more cost effective. You can build them at a lower cost, so when that’s a concern, I think you can get more units per the dollar. And it also creates I think a greater sense of community of the way these villages are designed, rather than maybe an apartment building, where you might have more likelihood of having casual interactions and relationships with neighbors and such. So I think it has that social advantage.

And then, of course, there’s environmental benefits of having a small footprint. There’s broad interest in the topic, and I kind of got attracted to the idea because I kind of see it as a way of sort of blurring the line between the unhoused and the housed.

The tiny house movement kind of caught interest by people that aren’t necessarily constrained by income that just simply wanted to downsize. I think from this other perspective that I kind of got more involved in, it also provides a more accessible and sustainable way to transition out of homelessness. So it kind of is that in-between solution.

It also has lower operating costs. So, getting into a house, that’s not the last step, right? You have to be able to maintain that house, and pay for utilities and such. So a smaller house obviously comes with lower operating costs.

KUNM: Do you live in a tiny home?

HEBEN: I’m building a tiny home at the Emerald Village Project.

KUNM: For yourself?

HEBEN: Yes, so, soon-to-be.  

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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