By Caiti Kinnear and Kenny Konigsberg
Eviction and homelessness have become major problems in Pennsylvania, and especially in Allentown–over 400,000 Pennsylvania households are currently at risk of eviction. They have left people living on the streets, in their cars, with little to no access to shelter, food, water, showers, haircuts and laundry. After many attempts to reduce or solve the issue, the city of Allentown is still in search of new ways to step towards solving the crisis. Housing services, warming stations, and charities in the area have provided a foundation for the homeless to temporarily sustain themselves. However, without more of a solution to the problem, the people of Allentown remain in urgent need of help.
In Allentown, rents have increased by over 28% since the start of the pandemic, which has contributed to the high number of evictions and has caused it to rapidly increase. Therefore, people have been left scrambling to find a place to live, and it is not possible to find housing on such short notice. Communities in other cities have faced similar issues, and have since been successful in reducing their homeless population by building tiny, affordable homes for people to live in. Tiny homes have many benefits, especially for someone who was recently evicted from their property such as The Community First! tiny home village in Austin, Texas which supplies the homeless with small, affordable shelters to live in. Local housing activists from Operation Address the Homeless (OATH), an organization that provides meals, showers, haircuts, clothing, and job opportunities to those who do not have access to it, have been inspired to promote tiny homes as a solution to the eviction and homeless problem in Allentown.
The idea of tiny home living is gaining popularity. For example, there are TV shows that highlight tiny house living such as Tiny House, Big Living and Tiny House Hunters, and Instagram accounts Tinyhomeslife and Tinyhome.lifestyle. There are also festivals where tiny home enthusiasts can gather and share ideas, such as the Florida Suncoast Tiny Home Festival in Pinellas, Florida and TinyFest California in San Diego, California. These all showcase living minimally in tiny homes made from refurbished vans to sheds. It is much more cost-efficient to live in a tiny home than it is to live in an apartment, or a bigger house. Tiny house owners have less credit card debt than the average American, which shows that even though they may struggle to afford a bigger house, they are still in a better position financially while living in a tiny home. This is in part due to how cheap tiny homes are as tiny house monthly expenses can be as low as $600.
However, the tiny homes promoted as solutions to the housing crisis are much more simplistic. They are cheap to build, often using materials like pallets, and may not include amenities like working kitchens or much furniture. The cost of these homes are what make them so intriguing as a way to provide affordable housing. Tiny home villages such as Community First! in Austin, Texas, and potentially Hope Village are clusters of tiny homes that provide everything that one needs like communal dining halls and showers along with the shelter. OATH’s Hope Village proposal states that, “these durable structures are mold, mildew, and rot resistant and made of organic material. It offers a HUGE step up from a tent. Each unit has electricity, a locking door, and windows. The shelters come ready to go with heating and cooling, as well as safety features like an egress hatch, fire detector, and a fire extinguisher.”
OATH’s Hope Village proposal of a tiny home community in Allentown would provide emergency housing for those in need. “We proposed to the city a solution for homelessness which included the tiny homes as it provides security as well as privacy when it comes to women and children without separating families. So we thought about it as being the best solution, and shelters are not something that they’re really open to or accepting to because of how uncomfortable it could be for families to be in shelter beds,” said Tommy Rodriguez, the president and founder of OATH. “However, the city turned it down because they said there was no land as well as no budget.”
In an opinion article in the Morning Call, Executive Director of Ripple, Sherri Binder, explained why the tiny home village might not be the right solution for Allentown. “Ultimately, tiny homes are a temporary Band-Aid intervention that fosters housing segregation, perpetuates substandard living conditions, and does little to break the cycle of chronic homelessness.”
Rodriguez expressed his frustration at why OATH has not received the city’s grants, “Every dollar that we’ve gotten has been used for the program. Why they didn’t approve it is beyond me. Budgets are difficult to get for anything if you’re not in a circle using the buddy system. The buddy system is the city saying, ‘We’re gonna secure a million dollars for Ripple.’ It’s a revolving door.”
OATH feels that tiny homes are important to families seeking shelter because they allow families to stay together. “There is no targeting every single individual’s needs, they’re treated as a population: ‘This is what you got. This is what you’re gonna follow, take it or leave it. If you come in here, you can’t be with your wife and your kids, they have to go somewhere else,” Rodriguez says. “There’s a lot of restrictions.” Allentown’s homeless population needs this but there may be no direction in sight yet.
“When you talk about separation of families, to me, that’s a big no no. I believe that families are important, especially when you go into trauma. How do you support somebody emotionally when you separate somebody’s child or wife or husband? I don’t think that’s the answer.”