Can Silicon Valley sensibilities help reduce homelessness in S.F.?

Tiny home pilot program provides high-tech housing solution—but its future remains unclear

“Move fast and break things” has come to define the ethos of the Bay Area’s technology industry. So when the pandemic began exacerbating conditions for San Francisco’s unhoused population, tech and investment veteran Elizabeth Funk stepped in with a new idea.

The plan was to quickly and cheaply build dozens of tiny homes to provide a more secure and uplifting temporary shelter option for people experiencing homelessness. But the long-term future of the project remains unclear.

“I know how complex and challenging and time-consuming those permanent supportive housing buildings are. I commend the people who are working on them. But we decided that while permanent housing is so critical, people need a place to come now,” said Funk, founder and executive chairman of DignityMoves, a newly formed nonprofit behind the cabin home initiative. “They need an interim spot where they can feel safe, and can be sheltered while they’re figuring out their permanent exit out of homelessness.”

Funk, who has held positions at Microsoft, Yahoo and CML Global Capital, started DignityMoves during the pandemic after serving on boards such as at Glide, which offers homelessness services in the Tenderloin, and LifeMoves, a homelessness services organization in the South Bay and Peninsula.

In less than a year, Funk and the DignityMoves staff raised $2 million from private donors and rapidly opened 30 cabin-style tiny homes after breaking ground only about three months ago.

“Our streets cannot be the waiting room,” for permanent housing, said Funk. “The longer people are on the streets, trauma takes a serious toll, making future successful outcomes much more challenging.”

On Tuesday, city and industry leaders announced the opening of the tiny homes at 33 Gough St. Each unit is carefully and fashionably designed with details such as living plants, bookshelves and artwork, and features a bed, air conditioning, a desk and electricity. Bathrooms, showers and an eventual computer lab are all part of the development, which will get a wrap-around mural before the opening of all 70 units later this spring.

The project is off to an inspiring start. Every individual who was initially offered a room said yes, according to multiple people familiar with the project, a remarkable statistic alongside challenges with referrals to congregate shelters and backlogs on waitlists for other extremely low-income housing options that The City offers. The 30 spots were offered to people staying at a safe sleeping site set up during the pandemic for homeless residents.

But time is now ticking to figure out how the tiny homes will ultimately be relocated.

The cabins, beautiful as they are, sit on a parcel of land owned by a private developer who plans to build permanent housing on the location once permitting goes through. The Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing has secured a lease for the site until March 2023.

“We’re fortunate to have it now. And we’ll have to spend this next year figuring out what we’re going to do because we obviously need this as part of our system,” said Shireen McSpadden, executive director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. “This gives us another option for non-congregate shelter for people who are experiencing street homelessness. It may be an option for other parts of The City.”

Given its uncertain future, the entire development is built with portability in mind. Each modular unit comes as an easy-to-build Lego-style kit from Boss Cubez, a Los Angeles housing and construction company.

“When a project is finished and the land needs to be returned to the owner, we can pick them up literally with a forklift and move them to a new location,” said Funk.

Supporters of the project say it’s a useful addition to the scope of homelessness services that The City already offers, and that it intends to be a transitory site to help move individuals off the street and eventually into permanent housing. It’s positioned as an alternative to group shelters, which may not always be a safe or appropriate choice for some individuals or families.

“We’ve really learned that people want places with some privacy, and are also really service-rich so that they can continue working through the system,” said McSpadden.

There have been many visions for the site at 33 Gough, including a homeless navigation center and various forms of housing. During the pandemic, it became one of The City’s safe sleeping sites for people living on the street, supervised by the nonprofit Urban Alchemy, which continues to operate at the site.

While the tiny home approach has seen success in other cities such as Detroit, Portland and Oakland, the long-term sustainability for the project remains to be seen.

“There’s an opportunity for us to work together to extend the lease, which is exactly what we would love,” said DignityMoves Executive Director Sharon Lai. “It would be really nice for us to be able to stay at the site for a little longer,” and to be able to lower costs over a longer period of time.

About 60% of the cost for the $2.1 million project went to building the site infrastructure and erecting the units, according to Lai. Each unit costs around $30,000 to build.

Unlike in counties such as Santa Barbara, where DignityMoves has a similar project underway, San Francisco is holding off on directly funding the housing alternative, which is being referred to as a pilot project. San Francisco is providing security and other on-site services, but the building and construction was funded through philanthropy raised by DignityMoves.

If the program is successful, McSpadden said her office would be exploring the chance of replicating it in other neighborhoods.

“This is hopefully a new tool in The City’s fast toolkit for addressing unsheltered homelessness,” Funk said. “Even though DignityMoves only focuses on building these temporary, interim-type projects, it is one piece of a very complex set of solutions.”

sjohnson@sfexaminer.com

A view of inside one of the tiny homes. Families sponsored each of the units to provide books, artwork and other amenities. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

A view of inside one of the tiny homes. Families sponsored each of the units to provide books, artwork and other amenities. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

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