Tiny Homes Offer a Solution to the Rising Number of Unhoused Seniors

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, small prefab houses could be a lifeline for people without many options.
Text by

According to a recent Streetlight News story, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that in 2023, one-quarter of unsheltered people across the country were over the age of 55. And the number of unhoused seniors in several cities is expected to nearly triple by 2030 compared to 2017 levels. Tim Swanson, an architect and founder of Inherent Homes, a modular housing manufacturer in Chicago, has been building factory-made, single-family homes for vacant lots. He sees affordable homeownership as part of elder care. 

"A lot of the work we did with our conventional housing was making certain that it is accessible and multigenerational, because we saw that it is a symbiotic relationship between somebody on a fixed income—like Social Security—paired with a young family, trying to make the whole nut work," he says.  

Last November, Swanson rolled out a new product: a tiny house. Unlike the larger single-family homes, the micro unit is one room, equipped with heating and cooling. Swanson had designed the house as a possible solution to Chicago’s unhoused population (those living on the street or in a shelter), which, according to a WTTW report, has tripled over the past year. "Maybe this current crisis that the city is facing can loosen up or unlock alternative housing typologies," he says. Tiny homes, as he and many have come to believe, can safely house and serve the unhoused elderly. 

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, unlike younger individuals who often experience homelessness due to issues like substance abuse or mental health challenges, those aged 50 and up who find themselves without housing for the first time have typically "experienced a financial or health crisis, lost a loved one or otherwise experienced a relationship breakdown with the income-earner, and/or experienced barriers to continued ability to work." Intersectional vulnerabilities put lower-income seniors at particular risk for homelessness, says Michael Herman, CEO of Chicago House. His organization provides subsidized housing for individuals living with HIV—many of whom are growing older.

"The good news is all of the successes in the medications, treatments, and care have led to an aging population. So of those living with HIV across the nation, it is estimated that over fifty percent of them currently are over the age of fifty," he says. "That number is going to be rising in the coming years. So it's very good news, but we have not really prepared for that as a system." 

Healthcare costs as well as discrimination in supportive housing facilities can exacerbate risks of becoming unhoused, Herman explains. Chicago House operates more than 350 housing units, 50 units in organization-owned developments, and 400 units of scattered-site housing. They are preparing to open a new 13-unit multifamily development on Chicago's South Side, but the organization requires more homes that are ADA accessible. HIV, Herman says, hastens aging and associated disabilities and comorbidities. He has been paying close attention to tiny homes—their modularity and speed of construction—as a possible way to address the need.

"We all know affordable housing is never affordable—it costs a lot of money to build and produce," he says. "How do we try to replicate buildings in an easier way so we're not starting from scratch each time?"

In the Seattle and Puget Sound area, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) operates 18 tiny house "villages," providing temporary shelter for diverse residents, including senior citizens. According to Jon Grant, chief strategy officer at LIHI, the homes are built by volunteers on an "assembly line" who complete an average of three houses per week.

"What we find is that for seniors…they really want security, privacy, and services," he says. "For many folks who have been chronically homeless, they don't feel safe at a congregate shelter model."

An Inherent Home under construction.

An Inherent Home under construction.

Many LIHI tiny homes are ADA-compliant, says Grant, and include electricity and insulated shelter, while food, sanitation, and social services are offered communally. It’s a model for temporary housing relief, Grant explains, that began in 2015 with the organization’s first village in Seattle. "It was so successful because there is such a high utilization. Sometimes shelters will have empty beds because of a fear of not feeling safe in a congregate shelter. But ninety-nine percent of the time, if a homeless person is offered a tiny house, they'll say yes," he says. The project helped convince the city that tiny homes are both viable and, importantly, vastly different from housing encampments. 

 "If you create a tiny house village, you’re creating order, structure, stability, security, and services for the folks that need it. If you have a neighborhood that has had an encampment for years, a better way to resolve it is to have a fully staffed tiny house village," Grant says. Village residents, he continues, often move on to housing in one of LIHI’s 3,400 permanent housing units. Public support, even from so-called NIMBYs, has grown, he says.

Swanson has run into anxieties about tiny house villages in Chicago; After rolling out his 80-square-foot model tiny home, he started meeting with city officials about getting a small village of eight units up and running. The city, he says, is "uncomfortable with the idea of a temporary shelter," so he revamped the home design, increasing the square footage to 300 square feet by adding a kitchenette and bathroom. (He calls it the Mighty Home.) Working with the city’s department of housing, he hopes that such a village will become a model for permanent housing. Citing Austin’s Community First tiny home village, he hopes that these homes can be affordably rented or even cooperatively owned by those on a fixed-income budget, such as seniors living on social security. He will put this new prototype on display at the Tiny Homes Summit—a gathering of housing advocates hoping to make tiny houses legal in the city—this week and hopes to have the first permanent tiny home village up and running later this year.

Ultimately, Gates, Swanson, and Herman all note that tiny homes are only part of broader solutions. They emphasize the need to build more affordable units to support aging seniors nationwide. "We need to densify neighborhoods. It’s just a different way to provide a variety of choice," says Swanson. "From a dignity perspective, it is meeting people where they want to be—in a unit that is maintainable and cost-effective for them. Across the board, the ability to lock a door or leave your stuff behind and go to a doctor’s appointment—that is hugely enabling for somebody to live a life that they have more say in." 

Related reading: 

Villages for Unhoused People Are Popping Up in More Cities. What’s It Like to Live in Them? 

Top Image: Courtesy Inherent l3c and Chicago Tiny Homes Summit


Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.