Sonoma County to spend $75,000 to study proposed tiny homes for homeless

The Board of Supervisors authorized spending $75,000 Tuesday to study six sites in Santa Rosa that could host 8 to 12 units, including possibly mobile trailers, small cabins or shipping containers.|

Sonoma County could join the ranks of local governments across the country turning to tiny houses as a low-cost way to provide shelter for homeless people.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday advanced the concept, authorizing $75,000 for county staff to analyze six sites in Santa Rosa that could host a village - eight to 12 structures, including possibly mobile trailers, small cabins or shipping containers.

Supervisors said the idea is to choose one site in December, then enlist private or nonprofit developers to submit their own concept for the village. If successful, the model could be replicated across the county.

“We are in crisis mode when it comes to affordable housing,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, referring to the latest homeless census, which in January pegged the county’s homeless population at just over 3,100 people, more than 2,000 of whom were sleeping outside. “We really can’t afford not to use every single tool in our toolbox, and here is another one.”

The discussion Tuesday did not address how many people might be housed in the initial village. The units could range from 50 to 400 square feet and can be mobile or permanent.

Over the next six weeks, the county plans to explore which site to use for the pilot program. Choices include the parking lot of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, vacant lots at the county administration campus near Administration Drive and Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, and other county-owned properties off Russell and Kawana avenues in Santa Rosa.

County staff members offered examples of tiny-home communities other cities and counties have developed to give supervisors an idea of what the model could look like and how much it could cost.

Under a program in Olympia, Wash., for example, a homeless encampment was converted into a small village comprising 30 tiny homes. The site is operated by a nonprofit agency and the formerly homeless people who live there. The $88,000 cost of each unit mostly was covered by state and federal funding, in addition to some private donations. Each resident pays $20 per month in rent, according to county staff.

A similar initiative in Madison, Wis., includes roughly seven units in a rehabilitated old car garage. The units are mobile, and each one cost roughly $5,000 to build.

Another 30-unit community in Eugene, Ore., cost about $212,000 to construct on government property, and each resident pays $30 per month in rent, plus volunteer time.

Developing a similar initiative in Santa Rosa drew mostly praise on Tuesday, though some supervisors questioned spending $75,000 for a site analysis, and one person spoke strongly against the proposal.

“These ideas are not new,” said Linda R. Picton, who said the proposal would not help alleviate the housing crisis or provide much aid to homeless people.

“I don’t understand this infatuation with tiny homes,” Picton said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said he had major concerns about whether the structures would cost less than other homelessness interventions, and whether they should be located on government property.

“If it’s much cheaper, I’m all for it,” Rabbitt said. “But I’m not convinced.”

Others said they were excited about the possibility of a building a tiny-home village in Santa Rosa, then replicating it in other parts of the county.

“It solves a problem with common sense,” Supervisor James Gore said. “We see homelessness everywhere, and we see empty lots.”

Jack Tibbetts, a member of Santa Rosa’s Board of Public Utilities who says he plans to run for City Council, first approached Zane with the idea last year. He said he sees the concept as one way for homeless people to help themselves out of poverty.

Residents in such villages could pay into individual savings accounts, backed with federal low-income housing money, to help in times of need, such as job loss, injury or illness, he said.

“Providing housing is a vitally important step,” Tibbetts said. “But building a capital cushion sufficient enough to protect them in the event of a layoff, illness or some other unforeseen event is what will keep them from becoming homeless again.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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