Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

Until recently most Angelenos likely regarded tiny houses — residences as small as 70 square feet — with bemusement, as fodder for cable TV series or design magazines. Last month, however, tiny houses became a social justice cause when the city seized three that had been donated to people who are homeless.

Boxy and brightly painted, with wheels, lights and a lockable door, these particular crowdfunded shelters were constructed by Los Angeles resident Elvis Summers and provided to homeless people in South Los Angeles as a step up from the tents and tarp settlements that now dot the city. His act of good samaritanship has sparked a debate among city officials, activists, homeless individuals, and neighborhood residents over whether tiny houses are blight or salvation.

They are likely neither, but in the face of an unabating housing crisis, tiny houses could be part of a system that supports rather than criminalizes those who fall into homelessness.

The housing situation here is dire. Vacancy rates in Los Angeles are below 3%, among the lowest in the nation. Rents have skyrocketed: Advertised studio apartments in central Los Angeles now start at $750 a month, and most are above $1,100, a precarious price point for hundreds of thousands of people. Summers built his 6-by-10-foot structures for $1,200 apiece, and more permanent units in Seattle were constructed for as little as $2,500.

Los Angeles needs to adapt, and quickly.

Amid efforts to reclaim the Elvis Summers tiny houses for their occupants (including a rally in front of City Hall on Friday), one has to wonder why L.A. hasn’t already followed the example of Dignity Village in Portland or Square One Village in Eugene, Ore., which use tiny houses to provide otherwise homeless populations with more secure and sustainable shelter.

In Portland, Dignity Village defines itself as a cross between transitional housing and an intentional community, sheltering up to 60 people a night in 42 tiny houses on city-owned land abutting the airport. Residents contribute a monthly fee to the self-governed village and, by city contract, can stay for up to two years.

The homes are spare, just a bed and a heater. Only some have solar panels; shared bathing facilities and portable toilets serve the whole site. But what the village lacks in plumbing, it makes up in safety and humanity — values currently missing from L.A.’s crackdown on those living on the street.

Over the last decade and a half, Dignity Village evolved: Several homes are painted with murals, while others have added awnings. There’s a community garden and microbusinesses that serve residents, including a hot dog stand.

Some Angelenos might draw comparisons to homeless advocate Ted Hayes’ project Genesis I, the dome village in a downtown parking lot near the Harbor Freeway. When it opened in 1993, city officials worried that allowing an alternative housing solution was a slippery slope, that waiving certain health and safety regulations would reduce the overall quality of low-income housing stock. Still, it mostly worked and attracted federal grants until soaring property values led to an unaffordable rent hike in 2006.

Today, city officials and residents in San Pedro, where many of Summers’ homes were located, claim blight, safety fears, and illegal activities inside as reasons to remove the structures. Given the housing crisis, they insist, tiny-house villages are simply a Band-Aid — well meaning, but ultimately limited in scope. What’s the benefit of a couple dozen beds when tens of thousands are sleeping in tents or in doorways every night?

What’s the benefit, on the other hand, of leaving those few people without even a small roof overhead? Indeed, tiny-house villages could be just one component of an arsenal of housing solutions, from apartments with supportive services on-site to transitional living to rent-stabilized low-income units.

Dignity Village isn’t a complete solution, but it is a successful housing experiment — now being replicated in Seattle, Nashville and elsewhere — and we desperately need more experiments.

Naturally there’s room for improvement. While Portland and Seattle’s Dignity Villages give agency to underserved populations, from an architectural point of view, they are a bit unsophisticated. That’s not only because the houses are constructed on the cheap, but also because their design resembles a child’s crayon scribble. A pitched roof and small windows don’t always provide the best shelter. L.A., drawing on a rich history of experimental residential architecture, has an opportunity to develop tiny-house solutions for Southern California that take advantage of the climate. We can build houses with better natural light and ventilation, in villages with landscaped public spaces.

Housing — affordability, density and equity — is the crux of nearly every debate over Los Angeles’ future. It cuts across economic lines. Residential high-rise towers are popping up on our skyline, to the dismay of some neighbors. Multi-house projects made possible by the Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance suggest that our city is no longer (and perhaps never was) a sprawl of single-family homes. There is a longing here for new ideas about how to live, and how we can better live together — and these problems need creative solutions not only by policy makers and social service providers, but by developers and architects. The Star Apartments downtown are just one example of what’s possible: designed by Michael Maltzan Architecture, the building is made of stacked pre-fab units, and is now run by the Skid Row Housing Trust as permanent supportive housing.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has set a goal of 100,000 new affordable housing units by 2021, but the realization of these projects is still years away. Tiny-house villages can help bridge the gap between now and then. And, in the simple acts of providing shelter and community, they allow us to better recognize the humanity of citizens at the margins. In a city so squeezed by rising rents and the dearth of affordable units, L.A. can’t afford to dismiss any inventive approach, no matter how small.