Sonoma County housing activist, architect promote tiny house campaign for homeless people

The campaign mirrors another effort already underway to house homeless veterans at the county government’s administrative campus in northern Santa Rosa.|

Sonoma County’s housing crisis became personal for River King about two years ago, when she and her 2-year-old son found themselves without stable shelter and wound up living in a car through a county-sanctioned overnight parking program.

During the two months she spent there, King was struck by the high demand for the safe-parking service.

“The parking lot was full of cars every single night,” she recalled. “The one I was in was one with children. Tons of children ... That’s when I realized I had to be part of the solution.”

Fast forward to today, and King and her son, Asa, now 4, are “very comfortably housed” with friends in Santa Rosa’s Junior College neighborhood. But King never lost sight of her experience with homelessness; it motivates her work now on a project she hopes can help others avoid similar circumstances in the future.

Called the Tiny Houses for Humanity campaign, the effort aims to get a handful of miniature dwellings on wheels stationed somewhere in the county to provide permanent shelter for homeless people. King has teamed up with Jay Shafer, a Sebastopol architect and longtime tiny house designer, to promote the project, which has so far raised more than $21,500 of its $100,000 goal.

The housing advocates plan to start small, with five or six homes, but if those are successful, the project could expand later on.

The campaign mirrors another effort already underway at the county government’s administrative campus in northern Santa Rosa, where a village of 12 tiny houses for homeless veterans is planned. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved in May a three-year ground lease for a trial run of that concept, known as Veterans Village.

While separate from the county-sponsored version - and not limited to veterans - the concept advocated by King and Shafer is similar in its overarching goal: to expand the region’s short supply of available homes and address its long-running homeless problem by promoting the spread of scaled-down dwellings.

“Homelessness in Sonoma County has reached kind of ridiculous and absurd proportions,” King said. “I’m not under any illusion that tiny houses are great for everyone, but it’s definitely an important piece of the puzzle.”

The project hasn’t secured an exact location yet, but King said she’s exploring several possibilities. She’s also been in touch with a few local high school wood shop instructors about the possibility of enlisting their classes to help construct the houses.

Shafer moved into his first tiny home about 18 years ago, and said he’s built about 20 similar structures for other people around the country in the years since then. He even wrote “The Small House Book” about tiny houses.

For the Tiny Houses for Humanity campaign, Shafer said he came up with a more efficient version of his earlier designs, using less materials, that should contain construction and labor costs to less than $20,000 per house. That’s about half of what they previously cost, he estimated.

Like King, Shafer has a personal motivation to house homeless people in tiny houses, since he was once homeless himself.

“It is just criminal what we let people slip into in this country, and the fact that we’ve let so many of them slip into it in Sonoma County and the Bay Area is unconscionable,” he said. “One thing homelessness has done for me is acquainted me with true necessity, the idea of what do people, including myself, really need to be happy, comfortable and safe? Not that much - certainly less than our culture tends to saddle people with.”

Even though many of the details remain uncertain, Jenny Helbraun Abramson, the homeless and community services manager for the county’s Community Development Commission, was encouraged to hear about the Tiny Houses for Humanity project.

“Generally, we are supportive of anything that is legitimately permanent housing,” Abramson said. “So as long as the houses they build can basically pass whatever (permitting) code kind of stuff, and as long as they are actually large enough for people to live in and the intent is that people live there long-term, then great, because we need it.”

Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts was involved with the county’s tiny home efforts when they were in their earlier stages, developing a mock-up of a village for supervisors in 2015, before he was elected to city government. He has remained optimistic about how they fit into local efforts around housing and homelessness.

“I think they fill an important need that a lot of people have, and that’s the need for independence and self-determination,” Tibbetts said of tiny homes. “Too often, models around homelessness involve packing people into a single space together, whether that’s the shelter model where they all occupy the same actual room or you have a lot of people in small rooms as part of a larger project.”

Through his involvement in the county’s efforts, Tibbetts learned of the various financial challenges that can hinder such projects, but he expressed interest in learning more about the Tiny Houses for Humanity initiative as it moves forward.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337.

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