Can These Tiny Flat-Pack Houses Help Shelter The Homeless?

As part of a plan to deal with the city’s least fortunate, Oakland is turning to the tiny house movement.


Renting an apartment in Oakland, California, now costs roughly 30% more than it did two years ago. As the steeply rising cost of housing forces more people to live on the street, some city officials hope to soon build a tiny-house village as part of a solution.


“On any given night during the year, there are about 1,400 homeless people who need shelter in Oakland,” says city council member Abel Guillen. “We’re taking steps to expand city shelter facilities, but we need to be creative in pursuing a wide package of strategies to get the housing we need online as soon as possible.”

While other cities, including Seattle, Austin, and Madison, Wisconsin, have also experimented with tiny-house villages for the homeless, Oakland is testing a new design that can easily be mass produced. Students at Laney College are working on the first prototypes now.

“The whole structure will be designed in 3D modeling software, and then as much as possible, the structure will be created on a CNC machine,” says Danny Beesley, who leads the school’s FabLab, where the homes will be made. Unlike a typical tiny house with a standard two-by-four frame, the whole home will use a flat-pack design with pieces of plywood that can quickly be assembled.

The design is inspired by other flat-pack homes like Wikihouse, an open-source building system, but has the extra engineering challenge of fitting on the tiny footprint of a trailer. Each home will be around 125 square feet.

After the two prototypes are ready early next year, Guillen hopes to install dozens of them. First, the city will have to adjust some zoning laws to accommodate them.

“We want community support for whatever shape tiny houses and tiny-house villages might take in Oakland, so we don’t want to move too fast,” says Guillen. “But other cities have figured out the practical planning and zoning elements involved, and the public has embraced them.”


It’s one small piece of a larger strategy to help reduce homelessness in Oakland. The city plans to acquire around 17,000 new affordable housing units over the next eight years. Guillen also wants to connect residents of the potential village with social services.

“My idea about a tiny-house village would hopefully be integrated with the city’s homeless support services and our efforts to transition to permanent housing,” he says. “Innovative approaches like tiny houses must also be aligned with efforts to secure sustained and substantial funding to create affordable housing and fight homelessness.”

Laney College is currently designing two versions of the tiny house. One is a simple single sleeping room that they hope may be possible to produce for about $15,000. The other, with a kitchenette, bathroom, and sleeping loft, may cost $20,000.

When the prototypes are ready, the designers will deliver a USB with the digital files to the City of Oakland. It’s something that the designers hope Oakland may decide to share with other cities that are looking for a quicker, easier way to build tiny houses.

“We can put all of the intellectual property into a USB,” says Beesley. “That USB can be taken to anybody who has a CNC machine, and roughly 24 to 48 hours, cut out all of the parts for an entire structure.”

The city expects that the first prototypes will be complete by January 2017.


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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."