Economy

Los Angeles Is Seizing And Destroying Tiny Houses Donated To Homeless People

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Vogel

A homeless man eats his lunch by his tent on the street in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.

Less than a year after an online funding campaign began donating tiny houses to homeless encampments in and around Los Angeles, the city is confiscating and destroying the donated miniature dwellings.

The crowdfunded effort has built and donated at least 37 of the portable units around the L.A. area since last spring. The people behind “Tiny House, Huge Purpose” deliver the homes to existing informal campsites, often near freeway underpasses, in hopes of providing a bit of privacy and comfort at those sites.

The portable shelters are big enough to lay down in, but not much larger. The idea to build micro-housing for people sleeping on sidewalks and in tents took off on a crowdfunding website last year, after a formerly homeless man named Elvis Summers shot a video about building such a unit for a a 60-year-old woman named Smokie.

But city officials decided last year to give themselves greater power to dismantle and break up such homeless encampments. Lawmakers amended a law requiring 72 hours notice before clearing an encampment, and the city can now move in with just 24 hours of lead-time for camp denizens. The reforms also allow the city to confiscate and destroy items deemed bulky — including tents — without any notice at all.

Now officials are using those powers to go after the tiny houses. Three of the units are in a city impound lot, and Summers told the Los Angeles Times he’s started taking the others down to prevent them from being seized.

Cities around the country frequently take this sort of aggressive approach to encampments. It’s a mistake, according to the premier group of experts on how to combat homelessness. The federal government officially discourages cities from forcibly breaking up camps and dispersing occupants. Agencies that provide key homelessness funding have begun warning that cities may see less federal money if they treat homelessness as criminal.

Los Angeles is the nation’s homelessness capital, with tens of thousands sleeping on the streets each night. Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) declared a state of emergency last fall, and the city has approved a rough 10-year plan for ending chronic homelessness. It is projected to cost $1.85 billion, however, and the city has no plan yet for finding that money.

In the context of Los Angeles’ particular homelessness crisis, sending workers out to confiscate houses is particularly jarring. Failing to build anywhere near enough affordable housing for the city’s low-income residents has caused the homeless population to boom, according to an analysis of the city’s 10-year plan.

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The housing policy failures underlying the Los Angeles situation were driven partly by the state’s decision to close down housing redevelopment agencies. Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) move saved California about $2 billion per year, but erased the best and most consistent source of money for affordable housing investments around the state. Nothing has yet replaced the roughly $1.2 billion per year in redevelopment money that Brown canceled, though state lawmakers have weighed ideas to recoup a large portion of those lost housing dollars.

It’s all too familiar for the homeless and those on the brink of homelessness to lose out in complicated budget-balancing work. But investing in permanent supportive housing for the homeless would save society a great deal of money compared to the status quo. Choosing not to house the homeless means paying police, hospitals, and jails to handle the people who communities decide to leave outdoors — and it’s about three times cheaper to just give people free homes, tiny or otherwise.