Public Comment

Eating anything they feed you

Carol Denney
Friday June 16, 2017 - 11:20:00 AM
Carol Denney

I have a rueful saying about musicians; "musicians will eat anything you feed them." The point, after a lifetime of gigs that either pay nothing or less than minimum wage considering expenses and practice time, is to acknowledge that we're in it because we can't help ourselves. Artists with a calling, a much kinder word than obsession, couldn't stop creating if you paid them.

After reading the almost perpetual promotion of "tiny houses" in Street Spirit in the past year I have begun to feel like I'm sharing pages with members of a cult. There appears to be no recognition that "tiny houses" violate habitability requirements, cost more, and reduce green standards. I've found there's almost no interest from those who promote them in organizing for rent control, vacancy and mitigation fees for landlords and developers, or rehabbing older buildings for cooperative low-cost housing, or other more practical responses to the lack of low-income housing.  

Our habitability standards are not at fault for our housing crisis, which accelerated when the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act passed in 1995 allowing landlords to raise rents to market rate when a unit was vacated, a change which also had the effect of incentivizing owner-move-ins and evictions. In fact, the burden you create for people if you force them to live without water, heat, electricity, and cooking facilities is huge. The hide-and-go-seek game played in most towns with restroom availability, for instance, in order to avoid attracting poor people in need of washing out a few things is documented in Berkeley's Downtown Berkeley Association meeting minutes and policy recommendations; when the new BART Plaza is unveiled a public restroom will be strangely missing thanks to their lobbying - with our money. BART's own restrooms remain firmly locked still using the tired post 9-11 security hazard excuse. 

"Tiny houses" don't have bathrooms, or kitchens, or heat, or trash receptacles unless you go for the full decked-out-like-a-house treatment which rockets the price up so high their promoters turn red-faced, since the whole miniaturization fad rests on overlapping myths of seeming cheap, or green, or habitable. Trying to cook and bathe in a glorified tent without ventilation near combustible materials is not just hard, it's dangerous, as several local fires in tent cities recently underscore. 

Landlords have habitability requirements imposed on them by the city and state so that people don't die of mold, or hypothermia, or a conflagration like the Ghost Ship fire while paying rent for the privilege. And Berkeley had lots of cheap housing in the early 1970's. That's part of the reason People's Park exists; there was so much cheap housing and office space that the University of California regents simply found UC Berkeley's argument that they really need to build housing or offices or sports courts there unconvincing, and wouldn't vote them any money to build anything, resulting in a user-developed park. 

But the "tiny houses" band plays on. The usual accompanying theme is that they are better than nothing, and I used to agree. But now I am not so sure. "Tiny house" promotion has displaced rational approaches to our housing crisis. There's nothing good about that. Poor people are being short-changed in the promotion of what is technically and legally uninhabitable under the law, and there's nothing good about that. Landlords and property owners charge anything they want, get rich, and my colleagues want to ask for less instead of more. 

A couple of my friends attended the earliest meetings of Youth Spirit Artworks' tiny house promotion, and described what they considered the phenomenon of "groupthink" at work, where the desire for conformity and consensus in a group results in what Wikipedia describes as "an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences." 

Maybe. But the most recent pro-"tiny houses" article makes it clear that "musicians will eat anything you feed them" is at least a competing guiding principle. The writer, Lydia Gans, points out correctly that when you have nothing at all, anything looks good. And I do agree that in a pouring rain offering someone who is homeless an umbrella is a good thing. But offering someone an umbrella instead of housing is not a good thing. And charging rent for that umbrella, in my book, is an outrage. 

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to have one's sense of compassion hijacked by the flavor-of-the-month, landlord-driven effort to promote "tiny houses" as an answer to the housing crisis. But there's nothing pretty about trying to live in a miniature train set where you accidentally knock over the town hall every time you reach for your shoes. Real human needs, like your shoes, can certainly be miniaturized. But good luck getting those shoes on.