MODular Solutions to Homelessness

Faced with a federal challenge, S.F. officials hope to install 250 prefabricated homes in a SoMa parking lot.

A modular housing development in France. (Courtesy Image)

Open the door to one of Panoramic’s tiny trailers on wheels, and you’ll be met with a modern kitchen, complete with a hot plate and fridge. Three paces in is the living and sleeping room, with a single bed that can be converted to a sofa. On the left, a door leads into a bathroom with a toilet and a standing shower, squeezed into the same place in a style commonly spotted in Japan. But this 160-square-foot “MicroPAD” is not the latest in the increasingly chic trend of tiny living: It’s a prototype of a new solution for San Francisco’s homeless population.

Last week, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development announced plans to turn a parking lot on Seventh and Mission streets into a site for 250 units of housing for the homeless. The federal government sold the land to the city for $1, with the tricky caveat that the lot would have to be developed into housing for the homeless in three years.

That’s a big challenge. In San Francisco, residential developments that take four years from start to finish are considered speedy. But waiting in the wings for just this sort of opportunity is a slew of modular housing developers and advocates for the homeless, who have pitched the idea of prefabricated housing to City Hall for years.

Amy Farah Weiss, who ran for mayor in 2016, founded and leads the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, a nonprofit that organizes encampment residents, neighbors, and volunteers to improve quality-of-life issues. She was closely involved with a camp made of small handmade modular homes called Box City on Seventh Street, advocating for toilet facilities, fire-safety efforts, trash pickup, and on-site services. But in September, one of the homes caught fire. The next day, the Department of Public Works dismantled the remaining 10. The city’s Navigation Centers were full, and couldn’t take in the displaced, so they were left on the streets. Farah Weiss was devastated.

“Do you want city officials to put an end to unsanctioned encampments?” she wrote in an op-ed for the Examiner shortly after the event. “Start advocating for organized places for people to belong on public and private land with reasonable agreements during our shelter/housing shortage crisis. It’s the moral, cost-effective, and strategic way forward.”

Now, it appears, the MOHCD plans to do more or less just that. Preparations are being made to create a city-sanctioned modular housing facility in place of the parking lot, in order to meet the deadline imposed by the feds. The Chronicle reports that modular homes cost 20 percent less than traditional developments, and will be 30 to 40 percent faster to build. If all goes well, the city estimates it could construct the housing in less than a year.

The verdict is still out on who to hire for such a project — Panoramic’s tiny homes are impressive but expensive, costing $1,000 a month to lease. Meanwhile Factory Co., a modular building manufacturer who also hopes to enter the homes for the unhoused game, just opened a factory across the bay in Vallejo, making them an easy choice for advocates of boosting the local economy.

And the trend is picking up speed: A 131-unit modular development for unhoused veterans may be built on Treasure Island, and Mission Bay could see another 120 units of affordable modular housing as well.

But Farah Weiss points out that simply building these sorts of homes is not enough.

“If you put 250 people in a space then there should be a plan for successful community integration,” she tells SF Weekly. “We need to create spaces that will prepare people to live in this kind of this situation — where they have monthly rent, lease conditions, community expectations. And part of this should be, ‘How do we create reasonable housing agreements for people in encampments, who don’t make it into housing?’ ”

The 250 units are definitely a move in the right direction, but with 7,500 San Franciscans currently experiencing homelessness, chances are they’ll get filled up quickly. And as 2018 beckons, it’s going to take many more converted parking lots to reach the mayor’s goal of cutting the city’s homeless population in half by 2020.

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