The number of homeless people in San Luis Obispo County increased this year. A recent report from the county’s social services department revealed the number rose by more than 30 percent in 2019, compared to two years ago. A group of people are hoping to help lower the numbers, by trying to create a village of tiny homes to house a portion of the county’s homeless, but there are still hurdles to overcome.
It’s not news that housing can be expensive in San Luis Obispo County, but for some, it can be pricey just looking for a place to live.
“I already spend so much on application fees,” Celia Morales said, counting off the amounts she's had to pay in fees just to submit a rental application. “$30 dollars, $30 dollars, $25 dollars, $25 dollars. I mean, it just adds up. Gas to drive to Paso [Robles] and back. It’s just so much money."
Celia Morales is homeless. She lives out of a van with her husband and their dog. Morales said they keep looking for housing, but haven’t had any luck. Their income is limited and many places require prospective tenants to earn three times the monthly rent. So at night they park across the street from the 40 Prado Homeless Services Center. Morales sleeps and showers there. Her husband, Larey Lewis, said he doesn’t like the facility, so he sleeps in the van.
“I feel trapped in there,” Lewis said. “I feel like I don’t belong there. I belong in a home, our own home.”
Hope’s Village of SLO is a group trying to help people like Morales and Lewis find a home. The local nonprofit gives RVs to veterans looking for housing. And now they are looking to create a tiny home village for the homeless.
Becky Jorgeson runs the organization.
“This is one of the solutions to reduce homelessnesss,” Jorgeson said. “Especially in San Luis Obispo. [People] are building tiny home villages all across the county. This is not a novel concept.
She’s correct. There are tiny home communities in Washington State, San Diego, Austin and New York . One was planned for Santa Barbara but then the funding was cut. Jorgeson’s said her plan for 50 homes for San Luis Obispo’s chronically homeless could be affordable.
“Every person will build their own tiny home with the help of the community and volunteers,” Joregson said. “We have engineers, contractors and all kinds of people who are willing to come out and help us, once we find our land."
It’s the land aspect that Jorgeson said is stalling her plan. Tiny homes are legal now in the city of San Luis Obispo. But Jorgeson said she hasn’t had much luck finding a location to create that community in a city that’s rapidly developing. So she turned to the county.
“The [planning and building] department and the county are very receptive to [Hope’s Village],” Rob Fitzroy said. “They think it’s a great project.”
Rob Fitzroy is deputy director of the San Luis Obispo County Department of Planning and Building, and said Hope’s Village looks a great on paper, but in application, it’s tougher to accomplish.
“[The project] is being slowed based on [the fact that] the existing regulatory framework hasn’t caught up to tiny homes,” Fitzroy said. “In Hope’s Village case, it was proposed on land designated for agriculture—land that is generally quite protected and limited to things that are specific to agricultural-related activities.”
Hope’s Village will need land that is zoned for housing. It would be possible to apply for a land use change, it takes some time, but it’s doable. However, the county does not have a tiny homes policy yet, meaning they aren't legal in the unincorporated areas of the county.
The board of supervisors has asked planning and building to create that policy. But there isn’t a timeline for when it will be done. Fitzroy said that the department has its hands full implementing San Luis Obispo County’s new affordable housing policy, aimed at drumming up resources to help house low-income families and workers.
“From a workload perspective, we’re prioritizing some of our work on our funding options to build more affordable housing,” Fitzroy said. “Tiny homes [are] still moving forward, but it’s unclear when it will go to a hearing and before our decision-makers. Meaning, until that happens, or Hope’s Village finds cheap, habitable land, a tiny home community for the homeless in the county may likely remain just an idea."