I Always Hated the Tiny House Movement. Now, I Know Why


You know how those Hollywood movies about Hollywood, where they cut to a wanna-be director holding his hands up in a box shape, as if looking through a camera, and he says to his aspiring stars, "Picture this."

Well, I did just that after reading this article and it really made for an ugly scene in my mind.

In August, the county Board of Supervisors approved a $550,000 pilot program to build a handful of small backyard houses, or upgrade illegally converted garages, for homeowners who agree to host a homeless person or family. Then in February, Bloomberg Philanthropies awarded L.A. a $100,000 Mayor's Challenge grant to study the feasibility of backyard homeless units within the city limits.

Rents under the county's pilot program would be covered by low-income vouchers, with tenants contributing 30% of their incomes. The county is also sponsoring a design competition, streamlining permits and providing technical aid and financing options.

While the idea of backyard homeless units might seem far-fetched, officials hope it could be a fast and relatively inexpensive way to house the most stable individuals among the 58,000 homeless people in L.A. County. ...

A prototype backyard unit with financing and design sponsored by Mayor Eric Garcetti's Innovation Team is rising behind Trent Wolbe's house in rapidly gentrifying Highland Park.

"This is all about adding [housing] stock to a neighborhood that has gotten out of reach for everyone," said Wolbe, 35, a freelance creative director for tech companies.

L.A. city voters agreed to tax themselves $1.2 billion for homeless housing, but units can cost $350,000 apiece and are largely for disabled people. It will take years to reach the goal of 10,000 new apartments.

Local government could finance a homeless granny flat for three years for as little as $15,000 annually — roughly the cost of a shelter bed.

Backyard units expand housing options without compromising the character of the region's single-family neighborhoods, the mayor's design consultant said.

"People are looking at what they can do to make our neighborhoods more affordable and help more Angelenos find stable places to live," Garcetti said. "That's why [backyard units] are attracting so much interest — they're a relatively low-cost way for homeowners to play a big part in expanding our city's housing stock, and make some extra money while they're at it."

I too have a vision of getting the homeless off the streets; safe, medicated, in treatment, trained, educated, or whatever it is that enables them to lead productive lives. But my inner cynic tells me that this good-natured attempt to solve the homeless problem is actually part of some grander scheme, like the end of private property.

First of all, proponents quoted in the article fully admit it's about "adding [housing] stock" to an expensive and desirable neighborhood. We'll see how desirable it is after 58,000 homeless people move into backyard shanties. That sounds something akin to another "inequality" argument: "Oh, and by the way, since you all who have so much worked so hard to earn it, we're going to start by asking you politely to voluntarily give up some of what you got."

And if that doesn't work? Just imagine the squatters' rights that the County of Los Angeles will implement to side with tenants against homeowners, who out of the goodness of their heart or a self-interest in seeing their streets cleaned up (nothing wrong with that), offered to open their yards to tiny houses but ended up with the tenant that wouldn't leave. It has happened before — bizarre rules that strip property owners of their rights and eventually their properties.

Don't get me wrong. I appreciate the novelty of this effort, and I do feel badly for people condemned to sleep on concrete every night. They need help, and I have my own ideas how — like maybe tax breaks for abandoned mega-mall and shopping strip owners for donating their empty facilities to build out boarding homes.

Furthermore, I'm a social butterfly. I love when company visits. I've owned several rental properties with great tenants, including properties where I once lived. Two things I can say about these experiences: 1) Company needs to leave at some point; I don't care if they're in the "guest house" (which I never had), and 2) tenants never treat your property as their own. Now imagine tenants with few obligations to improve their situation.

I've not read the fine print, and I'm betting the 100 homeowners who initially expressed interest in this particular project haven't really gotten in the deep yet, but if they're going to do this, there ought to be some rules like time limits on tenancy or work requirements that enable able-bodied and -minded sheltered folk to start improving their situation by a certain deadline, with a consequence that if they don't they go into an institution or shelter of some kind.

If you really want to help the homeless, then help them build hard and soft skills that they can utilize to help themselves. Don't just drop them in your backyard out of sight, out of mind. It's not going to work out the way you would hope.

And I mean, honestly, does no one remember Michael Keaton in Pacific Heights? This tour de force tells you all you need to know about California — a lot of unstable people and limited housing make for a homeowners' nightmare. You'd think Hollywood would have read its own script.