Elvis Summers crowdfunded $100,000 to build dozens of tiny homes. City officials looking to pass a $2 billion housing plan tried to shut him down.
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Each night, tens of thousands of people sleep in tent cities crowding the palm-lined boulevards of Los Angeles, far more than any other city in the nation. The homeless population in the entertainment capital of the world has hit new record highs in each of the past few years.
But a 39-year-old struggling musician from South LA thought he had a creative fix. Elvis Summers, who went through stretches of homelessness himself in his 20s, raised over $100,000 through crowdfunding campaigns last spring. With the help of professional contractors and others in the community who sign up to volunteer through his nonprofit, Starting Human, he has built dozens of solar-powered, tiny houses to shelter the homeless since.
Summers says that the houses are meant to be a temporary solution that, unlike a tent, provides the secure foundation residents need to improve their lives. “The tiny houses provide immediate shelter,” he explains. “People can lock their stuff up and know that when they come back from their drug treatment program or court or finding a job all day, their stuff is where they left it.”
Each house features a solar power system, a steel-reinforced door, a camping toilet, a smoke detector, and even window alarms. The tiny structures cost Summers roughly $1,200 apiece to build.
LA city officials, however, had a different plan to address the crisis. A decade after the city’s first 10-year plan to end homelessness withered in 2006, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced in February a $1.87 billion proposal to get all LA residents off the streets, once and for all. He and the City Council aim to build 10,000 units of permanent housing with supportive services over the next decade. In the interim, they are shifting funds away from temporary and emergency shelters.
Councilmember Curren Price, who represents the district where Summers’s tiny houses were located, does not believe they are beneficial either to the community or to the homeless people housed in them. “I don’t really want to call them houses. They’re really just boxes,” says Price. “They’re not safe, and they impose real hazards for neighbors in the community.”
Most of Summers’s tiny houses are on private land that has been donated to the project. A handful had replaced the tents that have proliferated on freeway overpasses in the city. Summers put them there until he could secure a private lot to create a tiny house village similar to those that already exist in Portland, Seattle, Austin, and elsewhere. “My whole issue and cause is that something needs to be done right now,” Summers emphasizes.
But the houses, nestled among dour tent shantytowns, became brightly colored targets early this year for frustrated residents who want the homeless out of their backyards. Councilmember Price was bombarded by complaints from angry constituents.
In February, the City Council responded by amending a sweeps ordinance to allow the tiny houses to be seized without prior notice. On the morning of the ninth, just as the mayor and council gathered at City Hall to announce their new plan to end homelessness, police and garbage trucks descended on the tiny homes, towing three of them to a Bureau of Sanitation lot for disposal. Summers managed to move eight of the threatened houses into storage before they were confiscated, but their residents were left back on the sidewalk.
If the city won’t devote any resources to supporting novel solutions, Summers urges officials at least to make it easier for private organizations and individuals like him to pave the way forward. The city owns thousands of vacant lots, many of which have been abandoned for decades, that could provide sites for tiny house villages or other innovative housing concepts that can have an immediate impact.
“Everything that they have been doing doesn’t work. It’s just years of circles and bureaucratic holds and wait times,” says Summers. “10, 20, 30, 40 years—where’s all the housing?”
Produced by Justin Monticello. Shot by Alex Manning and Zach Weissmueller. Additional footage courtesy of Elvis Summers. Music by Silent Partner, Riot, Kevin MacLeod, Audionautix, Battle of Wood, Topher Mohr and Alex Elena, The 126ers, and Elettroliti.