Are Tiny 'Homes' for Houseless People Solving a Problem, or Creating One?

For-profit villages of tiny "homes" for houseless people are cropping up just as cities are seeking to justify intensified sweeps and crackdowns.
Are Tiny 'Homes' for Houseless People Solving a Problem, or Creating One?
Image: Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

On January 6, Birmingham, Alabama became the latest city to propose so-called “tiny homes” as a short-term way to address unsheltered homelessness. In what he called a “Home For All” pilot project, Mayor Randall Woodfin announced a plan to purchase 100 sheds for the city’s unhoused population and a plan to provide on-site social support, including navigators to transition people into permanent housing. By January 10, the Birmingham city council had approved the pilot, agreeing to use $1 million in federal funds to purchase an initial 50 sheds and then acquire another 50 after a year if the pilot is successful. 


But advocates for the unhoused across the country are vocally opposed to the use of sheds, which can be as small as 64 square feet and are largely being built by for-profit companies. In Birmingham, for example, the shacks are being sold by a Washington-based startup called Pallet, which specializes in what it calls "rapid-response shelter villages." 

The U.S. has seen a 3.4 percent increase in unsheltered homelessness since 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), while the overall unhoused population has increased only .3 percent in that time. For a variety of reasons, including unsafe conditions within city shelter systems, people without houses turn to living in DIY encampments using tents or other makeshift shelter. These encampments tend to stoke the ire of neighboring locals with homes, and are often cleared in violent (and expensive) displays of force by police

Encampment sweeps by police have already preceded the arrival of shelter villages in Los Angeles County, and more "beds" for the unhoused have been proposed to justify sweeps of encampments. 


Pallet wants cities to buy its tiny shelters to use as sanctioned transitional housing for unhoused people. These “tiny homes,” “tiny sheds,” or “micro-shelters,” as Mayor Woodfin called them, are easily mass-produced and assembled enclosures, typically made from aluminum and plastic. They have been adopted more widely since the beginning of the pandemic to address the increase of unsheltered homelessness. 

But unhoused people across the country have had mixed experiences with sheds. Some have embraced them because they provide a level of privacy and safety not available in congregate shelters, where people are crammed into dorm-like barracks, causing tension, theft and violence. Advocates have said that some people flat-out refused to use them, either because of their small size or because the “villages” that cities have created around the sheds can feel carceral, with stringent rules, limits on visitors, and curfews. These mirror issues many unhoused people have with homeless shelters. 

The sheds have also been criticized for justifying calls for even more heavy-handed crackdowns on unhoused people living in unsanctioned encampments. One critic of the plan compared it to operating for-profit prisons. Other efforts, like the Toronto carpenter who built tiny shelters and distributed them via a mutual aid network, are often the target of legal action by municipal governments. 

Woodfin’s initial tweet announcing the pilot drew ridicule (and some praise) on Twitter, with some criticizing his use of the word “home” to describe the sheds, and others comparing the shelters to jail cells, concentration camps, and Hoovervilles. Some observers criticized the reliance on tiny shacks when so many houses in the region remain vacant. As of last fall, the Greater Birmingham area had a rental vacancy rate of 8.1 percent, according to Anytime Estimate, which looked at HUD, Zillow and U.S. Census Bureau information. The overall vacancy rate for the area is even higher at 13.2 percent, one of the highest in the country.


Calling the pilot program "Homes for All" is also a misnomer, as even advocates in Birmingham who approve of the plan say that the shelters are not homes. Birmingham officials contend that the program is designed to eventually connect people to permanent housing. Officials said the population that they intend to reach with these sheds are people who are “chronically unhoused,” which HUD defines as someone who has been without a home for 12 months or more and who has one or more disabilities.

When asked during a press conference why the mayor chose to acquire tiny sheds rather than rent traditional housing, Dr. Meghan Venable-Thomas, the city’s director of community development, said it was because they intended the sheds for high-need individuals unprepared for traditional housing. 

"A lot of research tells us that people are not immediately prepared to move into traditional housing. They need opportunities to build their confidence in spaces, to build security, to start feeling safe within a space on their own,” Venable-Thomas said. In a Medium post, Venable-Thomas said the sheds are just one part of the city’s larger housing plan.


While there are a number of companies that produce these shelters, among the most widely-used is Pallet, which is a public benefit corporation—basically, it’s a for-profit corporation with bylaws that state it prioritizes the public rather than shareholders. Pallet boasts shelter “villages” in 9 states, most prominently California, where they’ve garnered the most controversy. 

The sheds are typically small and do not meet most definitions of housing, as they do not have kitchen space or individual bathrooms, which are sold separately and often shared among several village residents. Their main benefit is that they provide more security than a congregate shelter; doors can lock, belongings can be stored. They’re also cheaper to build than congregate shelters. Pallet says their shelters start at $6,995 each, although Birmingham’s plan will cost $11,500 per unit, which includes taxes, assembly, delivery, heating and cooling, according to a spokesperson for the city.  

In a statement emailed to Motherboard, the ACLU of Alabama praised Mayor Woodfin for the proposal but called on him to do more. JaTaune Bosby Gilchrist, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, urged the mayor and city council to also consider “expanding affordable housing options, mental and public health support, job training, addiction services, child care, and community-based social service support.” 


“This is definitely not home, and I believe that everyone deserves [a] home”

Avery Rhodes is executive director of Community on the Rise, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that works with unhoused people, including employing them to recycle plastic waste, helping them find housing, and helping them to secure forms of identification they may have lost. Rhodes was at Thursday’s city council hearing and was encouraged by what she heard.

“I was very heartened and hopeful about what I learned,” Rhodes said. “This is definitely not home, and I believe that everyone deserves [a] home. This is a real step toward that.” Rhodes said a big benefit is that people can store their personal belongings somewhere without having it stolen or discarded, something she hears about often. “This is a starter path for people to have somewhere safe to be, somewhere safe to keep their personal items,” she said.

Despite those perceived benefits, these plans have at times come in lockstep with more policing of unhoused people. 

Across the country and in California, specifically, modular shelters have been proposed hand-in-hand with greater crackdowns on unhoused encampments and as a way to increase so-called homeless sweeps. This strategy stems in part from a federal appeals court decision from 2019 called Martin V. Boise, where a judge ruled that cities could not conduct homeless sweeps if there was not adequate shelter space nearby. This led some city leaders to lean more heavily on ersatz solutions to unsheltered homelessness, including city-sanctioned homeless encampments, sanctioned RV parks, and “tiny home” villages, allowing them to legally approve encampment sweeps.


A troubling example of this occurred in Los Angeles's North Hollywood neighborhood in 2021, when officials opened a tiny home village in a park that was being used as an encampment site by unhoused people. The village's opening was preceded by a reportedly chaotic sweep of the encampment that included police. Curbed reported that encampment residents feared that people who did not sign up to move into a tiny home would be forced out, and many had already left by the time of the sweep. “The thing is that a majority of the people in this encampment are on the list to move into this shelter in six days, and now they’re all scattered," Uri Niv of the NoHo Home Alliance told the outlet. 

A lawsuit by business leaders against the city and county of Los Angeles required the city to spend billions of dollars on increasing short-term options like shelter capacity and tiny sheds, specifically so that the city could legally sweep people experiencing homelessness from Skid Row. The City of LA settled the lawsuit last summer and LA County is currently seeking to settle the lawsuit with a promise of 300 additional beds in the shelter system. 


Rhodes, from Community on the Rise, said she hasn’t heard any talk of impending camping bans in Birmingham, and none were mentioned in Woodfin’s presentation at Tuesday’s city council meeting. In a statement, Mayor Woodfin’s office said they are not considering a camping ban. “No. That is not a consideration,” a spokesperson from the mayor’s office told Motherboard. “The city will continue to work with stakeholders to find compassionate and effective programs focused particularly in the area of safe sleep and transitional housing.” 

“While that definitely could be a point of contention, I haven't seen it yet,” Rhodes said of potential camping bans. “I hope that won’t be the case.” 

“I have definitely seen situations where folks have maybe been in camps or under bridges where they've had to move because of the city's zoning ordinances and they have lost things in the process,” she said.

The small size of the pilot makes it less likely that the city can use it to implement a camping ban. Birmingham’s total unhoused population is 943, according to Alabama-based advocacy group One Roof, which conducts estimates of homelessness rates with HUD. 342 of those people are unsheltered, meaning they’re living outdoors in tents or in vehicles,according to the county. One of the city’s largest shelters has frequently been over capacity in the past year. The pilot will only increase the number of “beds” for unhoused people by 50 in its first year.


“The cost of renting an apartment and trying to survive continues to go up, while wages really haven’t”

There are also numerous safety concerns tied to the modular shed villages. Last year, a fire broke out in a village of shelters built by Pallet. A larger fire in Redlands, California destroyed 20 Pallet shelters. Pallet says that the shelters are equipped with fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors and are as fire-resistant as possible. 

In an emailed response to Motherboard, a Pallet spokesperson said that the Oakland fire was the result of a propane tank explosion  “and not a result of anything related to our shelters.” 

“We work to support the cities and service providers running our sites to guide them on making sure shelter spacing is approved by local fire authorities and we also suggest to site operators that there are regular checks in units to make sure residents are not using open flames, hoarding flammable items and are keeping access/egress clear of obstacles,” the spokesperson said.

Asked about the potential for fires, a spokesperson for Mayor Woodfin’s office said, “We understand that any type of shelter can pose potential risks, which is why we are working closely with Pallet to ensure that all necessary safety measures are in place. This will include regular inspections and maintenance of the units to minimize the risk of fire or other hazards.” They said outside vendors they hire to provide services will also be responsible for ensuring the safety of the structures. 

While the fires didn’t come up in Tuesday’s city council hearing, the issue of severe weather, particularly hurricanes and tornadoes did. “I feel like that probably is one of the major concerns that anyone potentially providing a space for the micro shelters would need to have, because we're in Alabama, and we're under a tornado watch right now,” Rhodes said. A Pallet spokesperson said that their sheds can withstand 110 mph winds and that they offer a “heavy-duty” option that can withstand 170 mph winds.

Another concern is that people will remain in the shelters long-term because of a lack of affordable permanent housing. 

Rhodes said some of the people she works with at Community on the Rise are working 40 hours a week but remain unhoused because of the mismatch between wages and rents. 

“The cost of renting an apartment and trying to survive continues to go up, while wages really haven’t,” said Michael Forton, director of advocacy at Legal Services, Alabama. 

Alabama’s minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. The median rent for a 1-bedroom in Birmingham is $1,100 according to Zumper. There are still a lot of open questions regarding Birmingham’s tiny home village. The city will issue a request for proposals that will determine what entities will be providing wraparound services, and has yet to create a set of rules for the village. 

Rhodes said that because the announcement and approval happened so quickly, she did not have time to speak with many of the unhoused people she works with about whether they would want to use the shelter. At least one person told her they’re interested in it.

“I would really like to have more conversations with them about what they think about what a micro shelter would be like to live in, if they feel like that would be a safer space or not,” she said.