26 August 2019
A decision to place homeless people in a row of newly-built tiny homes on vacant government land has sparked a vigorous debate about whether this is the best way to house vulnerable community members.
There is intense community interest in the tiny house concept, even though there is an unclear planning and taxation system in place for these dwellings.
Tiny houses are appealing to people who are looking for an affordable and mobile housing option, and also want to reduce their environmental footprint.
Tiny houses are defined by the Australian Tiny House Association (ATHA) as being moveable dwellings which are capable of being used for permanent accommodation and less than 50 square metres in size.
More recently, Melbourne-based community agency Launch Housing, has come up with a new use for tiny homes – putting an end to homelessness.
Making use of unused land to house the homeless
According to Launch Housing, around 195 hectares of government land is sitting empty across Melbourne. It says that tiny houses are perfect fit on this land and will help accommodate some of the 25,000 Victorians who are homeless on any given night.
Early August saw the unveiling of the first phase of Launch Housing’s Harris Transportable Housing Project, which involved six of 57 tiny homes being built on VicRoads land in Melbourne’s inner west.
Deborah, one of the incoming residents, said was delighted with her home (shown above the headline).
“I get to stay here for as long as I need to. It’s a really big gift [to have this home] and because it’s a gift, I want to take care of it,” Deborah said.
“For the first time in a long time I feel like I’m in a stable environment… I can look at becoming a peer support worker, or working in women’s shelters. That’s my goal in life, to help people. This place gives me hope.”
This is not the first time government land has been used for a tiny house village for homeless or vulnerable community members. In 2018, four tiny houses were also built on council land on NSW’s Central Coast.
But is this the best option?
Not everyone thinks it is a good idea to use tiny homes in this way.
Writing in the irreverent business blog Macro Business, former Australian Treasury economist Leith van Onselen says that tiny homes are a band-aid and sub-par solution to homelessness.
van Onselen’s point is that, while new tiny home villages for the homeless are popping up, in the same breath governments are allowing caravan parks - which traditionally helped house those on very low incomes - to close down.
He also says that a range of more meaningful solutions need to be made to help the homeless, including greater investment in public housing, lower immigration, reforming ‘property tax rorts’ and freeing up land supply.
“So while the mainstream media is busy talking up a handful of tiny homes being built on unused government land, literally thousands of caravan parks are closing down, throwing many times more people into homelessness,” van Onselen writes.
“Tiny homes are really just marketing spin.
“They are nothing more than caravans rebranded to sound trendy.
“Tiny homes are branded to sound environmentally sustainable and cute, whereas caravans and trailer parks are associated with poverty and marginalisation.
“Regardless, the outcomes are the same. Tenants are usually poor and just one rung above homelessness. They live in a confined space. And there is no actual ownership since they don’t own the land.
“The overwhelming majority of tenants do not choose to live in these types of accommodation, they do so because they have no other choice. It’s a tiny home or caravan, or it is living on the street.
“They are a band aid solution to a housing crisis that policy makers have no genuine intent on fixing. It’s time the mainstream media sees tiny homes for what they are: caravans in disguise and a marketing con job.”
A further point that could be made is that putting homeless people in small rows of tiny homes, in unused government land alongside roads, means residents are being placed in locations with a poor amenity and away from a supportive community, facilities and public transport.
It begs the question: “What’s the solution?”
Multiple options have been tossed around as a solution for homelessness. But perhaps we could take a leaf from Finland’s book. It’s the only EU nation where rates of homelessness are on the decline thanks to a radical policy introduced a decade ago.
As the World Economic Forum noted, the Finns turned the traditional approach to homelessness on its head.
Rather than first trying to help people sort out the problems that led to being homeless – like family breakdown, substance abuse or mental health problems, Finland does the opposite. It gives them a home first. Residents do pay rent but they are still entitled to social support services to help get their lives back on track.
To facilitate the project, Finland’s government used its existing social housing stock, and also purchased apartments from the private market and built new housing blocks (in established residential areas) to provide additional homes.
The downsize of this approach, of course, is the cost to broader society.
By Mark Skelsey, Editor of Downsizing.com.au - email Mark at [email protected]