Tiny solutions for the big problem of homelessness in NJ

More than 8,000 people—including veterans, families, children and those suffering from mental health issues and addiction—are homeless in New Jersey. There’s also a stark racial incongruity in the numbers; though black people comprise 12.7% of the state’s population, they make up nearly half of NJ’s homeless population.

Homelessness is a humanitarian issue without easy solutions. Given the legal, bureaucratic and social complexities involved in finding good options, change is slow. But perhaps we’ve been looking at homelessness at too macro a level; maybe the answer is tiny.

Pilot programs for housing homeless and low-income individuals in NJ towns have been launched recently, students at local universities are designing workable tiny home plans, and the state legislature is considering a bill that would create a tiny home pilot project.

Tiny homes are domiciles, sometimes built from repurposed materials like shipping containers, that are eminently more affordable than other housing. Often no more than the size of a New York City studio apartment (and available at a fraction of the price), tiny homes come equipped with sleeping quarters, kitchens and bathroom areas, and are most efficient when combined with other tiny homes in a village setting, where they can plug into energy and water systems.

A pilot project in Newark, Hope Village, launched last spring and features homes with shipping containers converted into living quarters. The seven containers on site housed 24 individuals experiencing homelessness last year. The village was the result of collaboration between the city and numerous organizations.

“Many of our residents without addresses have been traumatized by the system that was created to serve them,” said Mayor Ras Baraka in a statement announcing the village. “Housing is the key, but we must first re-establish trust with those who have been scarred. Newark Hope Village will provide a welcoming atmosphere, where our most vulnerable have an opportunity to re-engage in services in a safe and therapeutic shelter.”

Providing stable shelter for those experiencing homelessness has myriad benefits; not only does it ensure their safety, but it’s also proven to improve mental and physical health. Too, residents with the ability to work have an address to list on applications for employment.

Newark is now planning to build a second village with 50 containers for 25 individuals. They’re building on the success of the first project. Of the 27 people who were ultimately included in that first village, “16 are now scheduled to move into permanent housing,” said Sakinah Hoyte, Newark’s homelessness czar, in a statement. “Additionally, eight have found jobs, five engaged in our offered mental health services and three enrolled in intensive, outpatient drug programs. This is the desired effect of offering people a window of stability through safe, comfortable temporary housing.”

Adding to the efforts is the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where 15 students in the architectural program designed and built a template 8-by-12-foot tiny home, with the specific aim of helping solve Newark’s homelessness crisis. 

Hoyte and city officials engaged with NJIT to encourage the creation of the prototype, possibly for future use in one of Newark’s tiny home villages.

Prototypes and local programs could tie into larger efforts by the state to increase its stock of affordable housing. With a dearth of affordable options—a problem that’s only gotten worse in the last year of soaring housing prices—tiny homes, if they can be sited, provide a more affordable option.

But that’s the issue—where to site them. For every community like Newark that takes steps to integrate tiny homes into neighborhoods, there are many more that don’t want any part of it. But a bill stuck in the state legislature’s committee hearing process would offer incentives to municipalities that start tiny home pilot programs.

Senate bill 1787, would enact a three-year program that offers grants (partly paid by the federal government) to builders who create the tiny homes, and allow municipalities two credits toward their fair housing requirements for low-income folks.

“The significant affordable housing shortage in New Jersey demands we search for innovative solutions,” says Senator Brian Stack (D-Hudson), a sponsor of the bill. “Tiny homes could be the solution we have been looking for for a long time. Fortunately, other cities, such as Washington D.C., have tried and succeeded, giving us a roadmap to follow their lead.”

The bill would require pilot programs to be sited two apiece in the Northern, Central and Southern regions of the state. An annual report would be provided to the state on the successes, failures and costs of the program.

The last action on the bill was a referral to a state Senate subcommittee almost a year ago, though, so momentum needs to be restarted. Maybe that work in Newark, if it continues to be successful, will get it moving, again.