A hint of exasperation creeps into Andrew Heben’s preternaturally relaxed demeanour as he talks about some of the ways his work has been reported on. “I never said that this was the solution to homelessness. It’s one experiment, we need more.”
As we walk around the neat, colourful collection of tiny houses in Opportunity Village, sitting on an acre of grassy city land in Eugene, Oregon, it’s clear that the problem he’s trying to solve is not homelessness as such: it’s housing.
In conversation, and in his book, Heben offers a diagnosis that overlaps with what other people in the so-called Tiny House Movement say. Since 1950, the American family home has become two and a half times larger, even as fewer people on average are living in them. Housing and utilities are claiming an ever-greater share of our income, whether we’re renting or paying a mortgage.
Developers and legislators will say that it’s all demand-driven – we want more space, we’re wealthier. But what about all that unmet demand we can see among the homeless, in the streets and parks, bikeways and bridges of every city in America?
Part of the problem is the widespread withdrawal of social housing and mental health services. But Heben also points to the tiers of affordable housing that once existed, and which have been zoned and coded out of existence.
Those disappeared in the second half of the last century as the middle-class single-family home became the model that policy was structured around. This was and still is unaffordable for many: the best governments could offer was a subsidy to live in a home that exceeded your means, and probably your needs. For many of those without access to such support, options dwindle until they find themselves living on the street. “We lost affordable options and made people more dependent,” Heben says. ….