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Sonoma County to study tiny homes as way to provide shelter for homeless

Tiny houses. Some call them a quaint fad, fancied by those without the space demands of a family. Others tout them as the ideal, eco-conscious structure, the symbol of a minimalist movement taking hold among a new generation of American homeowners.

Amid that debate, Sonoma County officials now are looking to the diminutive domiciles to help provide housing for the homeless. The concept has been raised as another way to address the chronic shortage of shelter for the homeless in the county - a shortfall compounded by the area’s torrid housing market, including skyrocketing rents.

“It could be a fast, efficient way of getting people housed,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is spearheading a county move to study the effort.

Currently featured on a number of reality TV shows, tiny homes are a hot housing option these days for those who already have the comfort of shelter but are looking to simplify their lifestyle and downsize their environmental footprint.

Jay Shafer, a pioneering Sebastopol-based tiny house dweller and designer, has put Sonoma County at the forefront of the trend, announcing plans earlier this year to develop a private village here for miniature homes.

But tiny houses also are being eyed by municipal governments and homeless aid groups in the state and across the country as a way to provide stable and inexpensive housing for the shelterless.

Such makeshift villages have popped up in Oakland and Los Angeles, and communities in Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin and Texas have also explored the concept, mostly through the private sector and nonprofit groups.

On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors launched a project that could lead to a cluster of such houses for the homeless. It would start small, with about 10 homes situated on a piece of vacant county-owned land, officials said.

“If it works, we could scale it up,” Zane said. “Government is just too slow, slow, slow on these matters, and I’m tired of waiting.”

The county is set to spend $10,000 for staff members from six county departments to study the concept over the next two months. The idea, if advanced beyond the study, is to enlist the help of developers and nonprofit agencies to build the structures, ranging in size from 98 to 200 square feet - smaller than a typical two-car garage. Ideally, they’d be mobile, cheap to build and located near transit and other services, officials said.

Startup costs for the tiny houses would be covered by grants, private fundraising and perhaps federal housing assistance money, Zane said. The county’s role would be to provide the property for the miniature homes free of charge.

Zane said the county has not identified a specific location or future cost estimates for the initiative.

“Don’t get all panicked,” she said at a board meeting Tuesday. “We have not chosen a site. We don’t really know where it would be, but we have land.”

In total, Sonoma County owns 12,428 acres of land, 3,210 of which are vacant.

Between now and fall, officials from the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Permit and Resource Management Department and the Department of Health Services, among others, will analyze what land would be feasible to house the homeless village. Officials said they’ll seek help from local homeless service providers and the county’s homelessness coordinator to develop a plan for overseeing the program.

One Sonoma County man said he sees the approach as a way to help people escape poverty.

“We’re feeling a squeeze in the rental market, and there’s really nothing affordable for people trying to get out of homelessness,” said Jack Tibbetts, who developed a mockup of a tiny-home village for the Board of Supervisors.

Tibbetts, who is director of government and community relations for the private Santa Rosa-based energy startup California Clean Power, said his idea was sparked during his experience working with homeless people while pursuing a political science degree at UC Berkeley.

“So many homeless people I encountered were working or families living in cars,” Tibbetts said. “I thought about how terrible it is to be employed and not able to find stability or get out of poverty.”

The proposal fits with county’s urgent call to find more housing for those in need, especially the low-income and homeless.

Zane pointed out that the Board of Supervisors also signed off on a plan in December seeking innovative ideas to house local residents.

“We do want to look at nontraditional structures for housing,” Zane said.

The county already has endorsed other programs to address homelessness, including allowing people to park their vehicles and sleep on county property overnight, and a new outreach effort aimed at housing the chronically homeless while linking them with mental health and substance abuse services.

Jenny Helbraun Abramson, the county’s homeless services coordinator, said tiny houses can fill a critical gap in the county’s tight housing market.

“I hear the urgency Supervisor Zane is feeling, we’re feeling that urgency too,” Abramson said. “Reports indicate it could be an inexpensive way to create housing.”

Abramson, however, echoed some critics at national homeless organizations who say tiny homes may not be the best way to address homelessness long-term.

Many advocates say permanent supportive housing - a model Sonoma County has adopted to house people and provide them with ongoing aid, social and health services - is more effective.

A preliminary survey of the county’s homeless population indicated that roughly 15 percent simply need an affordable place to live, while the remaining 85 percent would benefit from permanent housing combined with a wider range of services, officials said

“There is a certain percentage of the homeless population that doesn’t need services, but there is also a great need for services,” Abramson said. “So both are true.”

Supervisors’ brief discussion Tuesday did not address who would be placed in the tiny homes, nor how much money they would cost or how long people would be housed.

Zane said those details are set to be worked out in the coming months.

“This is really about funding staff time and vetting the project,” Zane said.

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

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