New Tiny Home Village in Oakland Opens Doors to Unhoused Residents Amid Ongoing Homelessness Crisis

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Rows of tiny white homes in a line .
Rows of tiny homes comprise Lakeview Village near Lake Merritt, a new site expected to soon accommodate some 65 unhoused people. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A new complex of tiny homes near Lake Merritt in Oakland opened its doors this week to a small group of unhoused residents, part of the city's effort to address its ongoing homelessness crisis.

The seven people who moved into Lakeview Village, at 2nd Avenue and E 12th Street, on Wednesday are the first of about 65 residents the site will soon accommodate on a temporary basis, with additional small groups expected to move in over the coming weeks. Another set of pallet shelters on the same site, but separately managed, will temporarily house an additional 16 people.

The stark, white-walled cabins are arranged in neat rows on a small plot of city-owned land that will likely soon be developed.

A waiting list has already formed, with unhoused residents in the immediate vicinity — including in the encampment that abuts the site — offered first priority, according to city officials.

Each of the tiny cabins is equipped with electric heat, a locking door, smoke and carbon monoxide monitors, a fire extinguisher and some storage space. The complex also provides drinking water, showers and onsite security to residents. It will also offer three free meals a day.

"Upgraded tiny home shelters ... are critical to addressing homelessness in Oakland, especially with the rains upon us and winter approaching," Oakland City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said earlier this month, during a media tour of the complex, which is located on the edge of her district.

A tent encampment with miscellaneous items all over the ground. In the far background behind a row of trees is Oakland's skyline.
A tent encampment bordering Lakeview Village near Lake Merritt on Nov. 3, 2021. The tiny home community will provide transitional housing for unhoused people in the area. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Bas called the village a "supportive shelter project" because residents will be offered help with a range of services, including health, employment, public benefits, criminal record clearance, housing applications and credit repair. They also won't have strict move-out deadlines, and can bring in pets and visitors.

"We are using public land for public good, for interim homeless solutions to rapidly improve the living conditions of our unhoused neighbors," Bas added.

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With more than 4,000 unhoused people currently living in Oakland, and nowhere near enough permanent supportive housing options to accommodate the vast majority of them, the city is increasingly turning to complexes of tiny homes as a means to provide more immediate shelter and services — albeit on a temporary basis.

Unlike permanent housing, which often takes years to approve and build, and can be prohibitively expensive, temporary tiny home villages can be erected within weeks, at less than $8,000 per cabin — and easily relocated if the vacant land they sit on is eventually developed.

Oakland spent roughly $2.4 million to prepare and build the sites at Lakeview Village, as well as a nearby site at 3rd and Peralta streets that is expected to soon accommodate 40 additional people, Bas's office said. The city will pay the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, an Oakland nonprofit, $1.3 million a year — mostly from federal emergency pandemic funds — to operate the Lake Merritt site.

James Vann, who lives close to the new site and helped start Oakland's Homeless Advocacy Working Group several years ago, called the new complex "critical to improving the dignity, security, and living conditions of our unsheltered neighbors."

A look inside a tiny cabin. In the photo there is a mattress and a shelf with three levels holding a white plastic bag, a plate, bowl and fire extinguisher.
The interior of one of the Lakeview Village tiny cabins. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Vann said he sees no way to meet the demand for housing by only providing traditional housing options, which can cost up to $600,000 per unit and take up to five years to build.

Instead, he said, his working group advocates for an "accommodations immediately" policy.

"Lakeview Village comes close to achieving that aim," he said.

Some advocates of the unhoused, however, argue that while these new tiny home complexes are a significant step up from the heatless converted garden sheds that the city erected in 2017, they still fall short of addressing the bigger issue of housing insecurity in the city and wider region — and the urgent need to build much more permanent housing for low-income people.

"The tiny homes will not solve or be a solution to trauma, poverty and racism — the multiple abuses that lead to people being on the streets," said Lisa "Tiny" Gray-Garcia, the co-founder of Poor Magazine, a nonprofit group that offers resources and media access to people experiencing poverty.

Gray-Garcia said she's also concerned the new temporary housing projects will give the city additional license to continue aggressively clearing tent encampments, even as it fails to provide suitable alternatives.

Last year, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a controversial encampment ban that prohibits setting up tents in certain places near schools, homes and businesses, and authorizes officials to tear down camps in those restricted areas.

"Yay, they're doing something, but how about you stop sweeping us?" said Gray-Garcia, who until recently was unhoused herself, and called the city's enforcement actions "violent."

In 2011, Gray-Garcia's group raised almost $90,000 to buy an empty lot on MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland, and built a duplex that she and her son and four other residents eventually moved into.

A row of tiny white homes sitting on gravel, with a chain link fence behind them and blue sky visible above.
Some of the tiny homes in the still-mostly-vacant Lakeview Village complex. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But, she said, when her group tried to expand their efforts — a project she calls "Homefulness" — and purchase a second property, with plans to build additional units for more unhoused people to live in rent-free, they were stalled by a litany of permitting, zoning and parking requirements, each adding significant additional wait time and costs to the project.

"What I'm concerned about is that all that money was spent to create those 65 temporary little tiny houses that no one could possibly live in forever, when [land for] permanent housing stands vacant and nobody can move in," said Gray-Garcia.

This story includes additional reporting from KQED's Matthew Green and Keith Burbank of Bay City News.