Proposal: ‘Micro-Cottages’ to House the Homeless

San Jose may explore the idea of building “micro-housing”—tiny, 150-square-foot cottages—to house the homeless.

City Council members and mayoral contenders Sam Liccardo and Rose Herrera submitted a joint memo to this week’s Rules and Open Government Committee that asks the city to study the feasibility of constructing “micro-pods.” The units, which would run about $5,000 a piece, could go on under-used public land or in empty warehouses as a transitional housing option for homeless people.

“In a city of very scarce public resources, and a challenge as daunting as homelessness, we must continue to press to be more resourceful, more creative, and more innovative with our public dollars,” the memo states. “Micro-housing may serve as a critical option for doing so.”

If approved by the Rules Committee this week, the proposal would direct the city to examine housing codes, look for funding sources, assess zoning and permitting issues and address the challenges of managing “micro-villages.”

The concept of small-scale housing is nothing new, Liccardo notes. A city in Wisconsin has enlisted help from high schools and vocational academies to build $3,000-a-piece micro-cottages. A February New York Times article profiled residents of a micro-village in Olympia, Wash., where they share a kitchen and showers and practice self-governance similar to a homeowners association.

Tiny homes might make sense for a city as pricey as San Jose, where the housing market has driven up cost to the point that a person needs to make more than $30 an hour to afford a modest apartment. Even subsidized “affordable” housing can be far too expensive for the chronically homeless.

Though the number of homeless people declined nationally, it jumped in Santa Clara County, making the region home to one of the largest populations of unsheltered residents in the U.S. As of the latest point-in-time census, more than 7,600 homeless people live in Silicon Valley.

"We know that the long-term solution is more affordable housing, along with essential supportive services," City Manager Ed Shikada, Santa Clara County Executive Jeff Smith and Santa Clara Valley Water District Director Beau Goldie write in a Mercury News op-ed out last week. "With the high cost of housing in the Silicon Valley, the supply of housing to meet this need simply does not exist today, and it will take active leadership, strong will and more resources to create it for tomorrow."

Ray Bramson, the city’s homeless outreach coordinator, says micro-homes could definitely become a viable option.

“Micro-housing is definitely an interesting concept,” he tells San Jose Inside. “We’re certainly excited to explore it. It’s a fascinating possibility and hasn’t really been done in an urban area like this.”

Of course, there’s a lot to study. He has to think about zoning requirements, funding, density, infrastructure and locating the development near public transit and social services, among other things.

“What’s good is that there’s already a lot of good research out there,” he says. “We could borrow from that and use that with research from our housing department to find out how it would be feasible here. We’re grateful for the opportunity to look into this.”

San Jose has adopted several approaches to reduce the local homeless population. It launched a plan this spring to allow homeless people with housing vouchers to stay in under-used hotels and motels. And through a coordinated effort with nonprofits and the county, the city has helped find shelter for 670 chronically homeless residents in the past two years.

“The momentum that is being felt towards addressing homelessness and housing needs has pushed us forward, however, we still need more tools in our toolbox,” Liccardo notes.

Jennifer Loving, head of housing nonprofit Destination: Home, agrees that micro-homes are one part of a multi-pronged solution.

"I think that Sam's point is that we need to look at a bunch of different housing options," she says.

More from the San Jose Rules and Open Government Committee agenda for April 30, 2014:

  • Councilwoman Herrera says thanks, but no thanks to the county’s proposal to help the San Jose Police Department cope with understaffing by contracting out sheriff’s deputies. Before extending an offer to assist, how about enforcing the law at Valley Transportation Authority sites, Herrera suggests in this Rules memo. An agreement between the county and the city requires sheriff’s deputies to police VTA sites until 11pm, after which time San Jose police take over. She says the VTA stops are magnets for prostitution, drug deals and vandalism and that the county should get a handle on its own jurisdiction before extending a hand to the city. “While I appreciate the county’s offer, I believe that the first step the county should take is to secure its own property, especially the VTA sites,” she says.
  • David Wall writes in about a near-death experience, when he collapsed from dangerously low blood sugar in his home on Easter Sunday. “I could not move my limbs nor could I speak, yet I had mental clarity,” he recounts. “I thought I was having a stroke. My wife, aroused at the seismic event of my fall (due to my tonnage), came to my aid. I still could not move my limbs or speak.” He proceeds to profusely thank the paramedics and firefighters who rushed to his aid. “This Easter Sunday, God sent San Jose Fire Department Engine Company 1C to ‘resurrect’ me from becoming ‘dead’ —a variation of the salvation saga from a sinner’s point of view.”
  • An ex-smoker says the city should re-think its ban on electronic cigarettes. “While I support bans on sales to minors, I oppose banning e-cigarette use where smoking is prohibited,” writes Andrew Makuch. “Switching to e-cigarettes has changed my life for the better. Smoking bans are ostensibly enacted to protect the public from the harm of secondhand smoke, but e-cigarettes have not been found to pose a risk to bystanders.”

WHAT: Rules and Open Government Committee meets
WHEN: 2pm Wednesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Our brilliant leaders are on the right track but they need to examine the true cause of homelessness. It’s not a housing shortage problem, it’s a money shortage problem. To solve the problem the city should dump truckloads of cash in areas where the homeless congregate. This will not only solve the homelessness problem but will also solve the hunger problem and allow those homeless and hungry who also suffer from substance abuse issues to have the means to enroll themselves in treatment programs.

    • >
      This will not only solve the homelessness problem but will also solve the hunger problem and allow those homeless and hungry who also suffer from substance abuse issues to have the means to enroll themselves in treatment programs.

      This will only create a concentration of overfed, obese, drunken foragers living at public expense in subsidized hotels in a balmy Mediterranean climate.

  2. > Proposal: ‘Micro-Cottages’ to House the Homeless

    A monumentally stupid idea.

    “Homelessness” is not a real estate problem. It’s a cultural “issue”.

    The “homeless” are merely living the forager lifestyles that ALL humans lived 20,000 years ago, before the invention of agriculture and herding.

    The MAJORITY of humans TODAY still live forager life styles.

    “Immediate-return” cultures are the norm for humans. “Delayed-return” cultures are “advanced civilization”.

    • Yes, it really is just a coincidence that the areas with the largest homeless populations just happen to be the same areas that have the highest cost of housing in relation to wages.

      • Kind of… The better coincidence is that the places that tend to cost more have nicer weather. When you CHOOSE to live outside, it’s kind of easier to beg for money where people have more of it and the sun shines most of the year. There are tens of millions of dollars already spent on homelessness in the Bay Area- hundreds of beds available at just about any time. Even more when it gets hotter or colder than usual (relative to our mild climate).

      • > it really is just a coincidence that the areas with the largest homeless populations just happen to be the same areas that have the highest cost of housing in relation to wages.

        Successful behavior is repeated. The foragers forage in the bay area because there is a large concentration of hosts producing the surplus wealth that they live off of.

        If the “largest homeless populations” weren’t living well in the bay area, they would forage somewhere else. It’s what foragers do.

        Nothing to feel guilty about. It’s just nature.

      • > Yeah, I’m sure they love the primitivist lifestyle they’ve all clearly chosen for themselves

        What they have clearly chosen is a lifestyle of predation, living off of the industriousness and deferred consumption (savings) of other human beings who are not a part of their “homeless” tribe.

        And you’re justifying they’re predation.

        Fortunately for the homeless tribalists, they have YOU to provide for them. They’re not very good at providing for their future needs, but they DO like to have their meals on time. We’re looking to you to adopt and house them. Don’t skimp. Money is no object. Spend as much of your own money as you need to.

        • So essentially you’re saying the government has no role in helping those with mental illness or physical disabilities. Keep in many homeless are vets.

          • > So essentially you’re saying …

            I’m essentially saying what I said. Accept it.

            I’m NOT “essentially saying” what you “essentially” said I “essentially” said.

            Don’t put words in peoples’ mouths.

    • Oh…and SJFP will be busy, as well, being that the homeless tends to accumulate tons of garbage and debris, which attracts rats, roaches and fires. Just take a look at their camp sites and creeks.

  3. Whoa, Sam is on a role. SJI are you backing this guy since you seem to run a blog every other day in his name. Maybe we should pay for a pool and a Starbucks as well for these homeless. As always Sam will say anything to get elected. And just where is this money coming from to create more section 8 housing? Something is going on with the Sam and Rose bonding, maybe SJI should look into it as well. When two losers combine it is not good. Look out Dave they do not want you to break up the buddy system.

  4. So where will they be built and who will pay for the land? Oh, working people, of course. Another modified Robin Hood scheme–take from the working middle class and give to the chronic beggars.

  5. Lickardo is the “tool” in the tool box . all this is going to do is bring more Homeless to San Jose

  6. To conclude that an increase in supply is all that is needed to satisfy an unmet demand is the mark of government decision-making, for only in government is a decision-maker afforded the opportunity to ignore the role that price plays in the supply/demand equation. In the case of housing the homeless, the proposed attempt to satisfy demand is doomed to fail as the price (free/discount) will fail to provide the equilibrium necessary to control demand. In short, even with a huge up-front investment and a good running start, the closer the program gets to success the more its price will generate new demand.

    A government program that lacks an inexhaustible supply of funds is destined to put a limit on its giveaways, thus even the most ardent house-the-homeless program director will reach the point where he/she must reluctantly say, “no.” I suggest that reluctant “no” be expressed now, before embarking on a further waste of tax money chasing a problem that can be best served by charitable organizations that extract a behavioral price for their help.

    Good intentions notwithstanding, given the realities of human nature, free is an invitation to disaster. You would think government’s experience in creating the welfare-bastard machine would’ve been lesson enough. Take a look around; our culture(?) is producing burnouts faster than the micro-cottage industry could ever build them.

    Our city leaders seem hell-bent on turning San Jose into the homeless capital of the South Bay (notice how the homeless figures used to justify a city solution are from the county and Silicon Valley?). I would wonder of our leaders reasoning if I wasn’t already informed of their stupidity.

  7. I have no problem with this experiment if and only IF the potential “residents” of this micro-whatever meet every single one of the following four conditions:

    1) They paid (at some point in their life) into the SSI.

    2) They paid (at some point in their life) California state income tax.

    3) They paid (at some point in their life) property tax in Santa Clara county.

    4) They sign a contract in which they agree to perform community work/services in exchange for the housing benefits.

    Everyone else:

  8. Anything is worth a try at this point.

    I walked Downtown with my dogs on this beautiful evening. Homeless folks everywhere. First and Santa Clara. Half a dozen campers on the front steps of St. Josephs Cathedral. One person on the steps of the Art Museum. More folks just wandering. I previously posted about East Santa Clara Street. Somehow, at least by downtown resident observation, the homeless population continues to increase.

    • > … the homeless population continues to increase

      First Law of Human Behavior: “Successful behavior is repeated”.

      Whatever the urban foragers (aka “homeless”) are doing, it’s working for them.

      To diminish the population of urban foragers, do something to make their behavior “unsuccessful”.

  9. YYY: If you were walking DT that late in the evening, your dog better be a pit bull or a rottweiler, or you should carry a weapon that you can use effectively. The homeless are mostly harmless, but those folks who Cordell & Jayadev wish to coddle are not.

  10. Perfect location for the first cottages: the empty lot across from City Hall, on Santa Clara between 4th and 5th Streets. Since it’s admitted that there might be issues in locating the cottages in some neighborhoods, and the candidates recommend siting the cottages near transit and social services and possibly on publicly-owned land…why not across from City Hall?

  11. If this is another housing project type scheme it is destined for failure. This issue has come up on this blog before and I commented more or less the same as I will now. The problem with housing in the bay area is there is a market that is not being served. That market is for the individuals that make under $50K per year. Blame is probably best served to the good ole boy politicians and developers as well, but to what extent I can’t say. Housing units like these need to become assets, and the only regulation that needs to be put into place is to prevent people with high income and assets from buying them up to turn a profit.

    It would need to be a clear channel to asset and wealth building for homeless and low income people.

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