Tiny-homes are often thought of as a solution for the homeless; as a low-cost way of quickly providing shelter to people who would otherwise be on the street, next to a creek or sleeping in a car. That’s a great idea and something that should be done, but why not consider tiny homes for people in all living conditions, regardless of income or age or ability?
Whether 3D-printed or traditional wood construction, tiny homes have the advantage over mid-rise apartments in that they do not obstruct existing views. Further, if there are enough units, then it is possible to add high-quality, common features (e.g. community gardens, play areas, meeting rooms, etc.) that benefit the larger community. When mixed with adjacent commercial development, it is possible to share common parking lots (e.g. load balancing the parking lot demand), increasing utilization of a large public space, while minimizing the land area dedicated to parking.
A Better Environment
A tiny home results in a lower environmental impact, compared to traditional single-family homes. For instance, PassivDom’s CEO claims that it only requires 860 Watts to heat their 400 square foot domicile, even with an outside temperature of -20 degrees C. Because of the efficiency, the combination of integrated batteries and solar panels means this highly efficient dwelling is self-powered, eliminating a grid connection.
The inherent density of a tiny home community makes it easier to share fixed costs associated with public transit stops, micro transit or car-sharing options than lower density single family units, giving alternatives to car-ownership (which, averages $8,849 per year, according to AAA). The community itself would be car-free and focus on providing a good walking and personal mobility experience. In turn, this benefits the surrounding single-family neighborhood, by making services feasible that wouldn’t otherwise be.
As an example, the spreadsheet below demonstrates the financial viability of a tiny-home community of between 360 to 480 households placed on 6-acres of Campbell Union High School District District Office land, which is now slated for 40 to 42 traditional single-family homes with between 20 to 24 ADUs.
The above spreadsheet assumes a Tiny Home community instead of traditional single-family homes, which would result in a recurring revenue stream of approximately $1.7+ million to CUHSD, and would be incremental to CUHSD’s estimate of $1 to $1.5M from commercial developments on the rest of the site (the remaining 6-acres on this 12-acre parcel). Granted, CUHSD would still need space for their offices, but their offices could be potentially integrated above the commercial developments or could be spread out among its other properties.
The unsubsidized rent/house payment in the above scenario is $1,153 and that assumes that approximately only 1/4 of the land is occupied by housing (this is with a 150 square foot microhouse, which is priced at about $65k installed, although $90k was used in the spreadsheet). Using the PassivDom figure of $127,000, reducing the number of units to 60 per acre, the unsubsidized monthly rent would be $1,463.08 (which would also yield a gross revenue of $1.7+M for CUHSD).
Bottom Line – High-Quality Housing in Small Spaces Worth a Closer Look
The bottom-line is that a tiny-home community offers the potential for low-cost, high-quality housing; particularly, if the housing is placed on underutilized public lands. The exploration of Tiny Home communities shouldn’t be limited to large land masses, such as the above example, and should include lots that would traditionally be zoned for single family. Examples of how micro tiny house communities might help seniors stay in their neighborhoods and create alternatives to monster housing are provided in this response to one of the questions sparked by the WNAC-produced, Teachers Village & More Forum.
The idea of tiny home communities may seem radical in a built-environment centered around the automobile. But, maybe it is time to go back to the future and look at how we can integrate tiny homes into the fabric of our suburban-oriented, city.
[Update Added 12/20/18: This author sent in multiple letters of qualified support to the city of San Jose for this project. Here is the preamble from the October 27th letter:
“As follow-up to my September 22nd, 2018 email regarding GP18-004, the proposed General Plan Amendment to change Land Use Designation for CUHSD District office maintenance yard, I am changing my recommendation and believe that the city should approve a zoning change to allow for the redevelopment of CUHSD’s property for the reasons and with the caveats listed below.
After a conversation with and a presentation from Board Trustee Stacy Brown at the Del Mar PTSA meeting, I am going to place my trust in the board that they made the right decision, based on what has been discussed in open and closed session and the information and assumptions they were given by their consultant. With that said, I am still not satisfied by the lack and/or the accessibility of said information and the process for how we got to this point. I also trust that CUHSD will find a way to distribute its buses from its existing bus yard, so as not to unduly burden any one school.
As stated by CUHSD on its website, it is early in the process, so if the city has suggestions that change the underlying assumptions, I trust that the CUHSD will make changes to provide maximum benefit to all parties. This also represents just 12-acres of CUHSD’s approximately 244-acres of property and I trust that, given what is learned from this process, CUHSD and the City of San Jose will find ways work together to look at opportunities for those other parcels.”
$1.5 M in unrestricted annual revenue is the promise of the CUHSD proposal to convert its existing approximate 12-acre district office site to a mix of approximately 6-acres of senior-care, daycare and self-storage facility and 6-acres of single-family homes. The 6-acres devoted to single-family homes would effectively be sold to a developer (Robson Homes) through an exchange of property, while the rest of the property would be retained by the district with recurring rental income from long-term ground leases from the aforementioned businesses. The
District’s new office would be relocated to a refurbished building located at Campbell and Winchester on land to be purchased by Robson Homes and included in the previously referenced exchange.
In principle, this idea of monetizing CUHSD’s assets is a good one and something that should be done to help provide a stable source of income, particularly as CUHSD deals with challenges associated with pension funding, teacher retention and the potential for declining enrollment.
The question, and the reason for this article, is whether the plan that CUHSD is proposing is optimal. That is, could a different plan provide a greater revenue stream, community benefits and/or reduced environmental impact?
As much as I support the idea of what they are trying to do and I don’t want to delay potential revenue, I cannot support the proposed project at this time, as what has been presented to public is lacking in data and does not address the questions asked of the board in my June 29th, 2018 letter to the CUHSD Board and Administration.
Some of the pertinent questions asked in that letter, as well as additional questions include [comments in brackets are there to add context]:
Is zoning for single-family dwellings the optimum zoning for this property, from a revenue, environmental and greater good perspective?
Did CUHSD study all their properties for revenue potential, particularly as they relate to the Envision San José 2040 General Plan, and, if so, how did they compare and what were the positives and negatives for each property? What outreach was made to the cities to determine how potential CUHSD actions could impact their land-use decisions [e.g. Urban Village plans]?
Note, the presentation at this link (provided by the project consultant, Terra Realty Advisors in a July 27th, 2018 email) provides a summary of the expected value of four of CUHSD’s six properties (values aren’t provided for Branham and Leigh). It appears that the value of a portion of the land at those four sites was considered in the context of single family homes and, from the presentation, does not appear to take into account future Urban Village plans.
My independent analysis, which was done in April, 2018 in preparation for the Teachers Village & More Forum is a bit different as it shows the total acreage for each property, along with its location relative to planned Urban Villages.
How was affordable housing factored into the above study, particularly with regards to potential other programs, such as Santa Clara County’s Measure A Bond funding, that could potentially leverage the impact of CUHSD’s efforts?
Where will the buses, currently housed at the maintenance yard, be stored? Is there credence to the rumor that Del Mar High School is being considered for bus storage? [In a 7/27/18 meeting, the Project Consultant indicated that the buses would be distributed to all the school sites.]
$1.5M revenue referenced in this 06/20/18 email, as well as verbal comments made at the 9/20/18 CUHSD board meeting by a Boardmember.
Detail of the revenue as well as proposed uses for the property and proposed partners were given in a presentation at the 7/19/18 open board meeting. My notes from watching that meeting, along with subsequent notes from a conversation and email exchanges with the Project Consultant, are here.
CUHSD’s only public meeting devoted to this topic was held on May 29th, 2018, the same night of the WNAC’s Teacher Village & More Forum at Del Mar High School. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find minutes to that meeting.
There was a community meeting organized by the city on August 2nd for this project (GP18-004). Unfortunately, I couldn’t make that meeting [added 9/22/18 and could not find the minutes]. Here is the agenda.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend tonight’s meeting, so please accept this email as my input to the public record. If there is an answer to my question about utilization below, please include that in the public record.
After reviewing the Transit Conditions Report and Potential Improvements Report, I found a number of good gems including,” Along the entire 5.7 mile long study corridor, the average northbound AM and PM peak period travel speeds are 10.9 MPH and 10.0 MPH respectively, while the average southbound AM and PM peak period travel speeds are 10.4 MPH and 9.1 MPH respectively.”
What I couldn’t find anywhere is the utilization of those buses. For example, how many people are typically on the buses at various times?
Also, the report suggests that bus stops are, on average, 2,500 feet apart.
Given that there are rapid changes in mobility due to sharing, electrification and autonomy, VTA should be considering those elements as part of the long-term solution for Bascom Avenue.
For instance, with the addition of smaller autonomous shuttles, such as is being demonstrated currently in Las Vegas and will be in San Jose later this year, the need for stops every 2,500 feet would no longer be necessary, as shuttles could handle the last-mile. This could allow the distance between stops to be extended to a mile or two, greatly reducing the number of stops while increasing the average speed.
As evidence as to why I believe that autonomous shuttles and other forms of alternative transit (e.g. dockless bikes, scooters, etc.) need to be part of the plan for Bascom, here is an interview/article I just published with a representative of transit operator Keolis
[Note: The VTA responded on 5/11/18 with the following response. The attached draft report they sent is encouraging in terms of how they are looking at technology]
Here are the responses from the project lead of the Bascom Complete Streets Study.
After reviewing the Transit Conditions Report and Potential Improvements Report, I found a number of good gems including,” Along the entire 5.7 mile long study corridor, the average northbound AM and PM peak period travel speeds are 10.9 MPH and 10.0 MPH respectively, while the average southbound AM and PM peak period travel speeds are 10.4 MPH and 9.1 MPH respectively. What I couldn’t find anywhere is the utilization of those buses. For example, how many people are typically on the buses at various times?
Average weekday ridership for route 61 is 1,562 and average weekday ridership for route 62 is 1,495.
Ken’s Response – Hmmm, how many riders per bus on average?
Also, the report suggests that bus stops are, on average, 2,500 feet apart. Given that there are rapid changes in mobility due to sharing, electrification and autonomy, VTA should be considering those elements as part of the long-term solution for Bascom Avenue. For instance, with the addition of smaller autonomous shuttles, such as is being demonstrated currently in Las Vegas and will be in San Jose later this year, the need for stops every 2,500 feet would no longer be necessary, as shuttles could handle the last-mile. This could allow the distance between stops to be extended to a mile or two, greatly reducing the number of stops while increasing the average speed. As evidence as to why I believe that autonomous shuttles and other forms of alternative transit (e.g. dockless bikes, scooters, etc.) need to be part of the plan for Bascom, here is an interview/article I just published with a representative of transit operator Keolis
I recommend you read the VTA’s staff recommended policy for automated driving systems. This policy recommendation is going to VTA committees this month (May 2018). Internally, VTA transportation planning staff have been talking about these new technologies for a while.
I like the idea of innovative ways for first-last mile connection to transit as an implementation strategy for this plan.
Note that, in general, improving transit service and transit amenities is not just for congestion relief, it also addresses equity issues regarding access to transportation for seniors, people who can’t drive, people who don’t use technology, etc.
VTA Community Outreach
With land at a premium in Santa Clara County, we need to better utilize existing public land. It should be possible to produce housing that is more affordable on public land than in locations where the land has to be acquired from a private entity. When that land intersects with areas that could potentially have good transit options, such as an expressway, it is even better.
An example of a strip of underutilized land that should be further explored for development are the air-rights above San Tomas Creek, between Williams and Hamilton. The air-rights are presumably owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District which has been investigating ways their properties can be utilized to help ameliorate the county’s affordability and homeless problems, .
By adding housing and associated open space in the form of trails, plazas and parklets, the exposed concrete channel would be covered, making the entire strip much more attractive than at present.
Funding for such a project could come from multiple sources, including monies from measures passed for open spaces, homelessness and, perhaps, even AB32, the cap-and-trade carbon tax program.
This approach. where a concrete platform covers public land, in this case a creek, is described by Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests in this interview (note, the images of the modular micro-houses are courtesy of Panoramic Interests). He suggests that using a modular technique, high-quality housing could be built relatively fast and at lower-cost than traditional stick-built housing.
Note, on April 26th, 2017, I sent the following message in an email to the board of the Campbell Union High School District with the idea of “capping” parking lots above schools to provide onsite housing for teachers and staff. This would reduce VMT, while providing eyes and ears at schools 24-hours per day. This kind of continual use would allow the schools to be opened to the community, instead of hidden behind metal fences as they are now.
April 26th, 2017 Message to Campbell Union High School District Board
I would like the district to investigate the idea of using its underutilized land for affordable housing for teachers and staff.
An example of a developer that can build relatively low-cost housing above an existing car parking lot (e.g. could be in the front or back of Del Mar) is seen in this video interview:
Lastly, I am the Vice President of the Winchester Neighborhood Action Coalition (WNAC). Our goal is to use innovation to improve the quality of life in the area bounded by Hamilton, San Tomas, Hedding/Pruneridge and 17/I-880. We would love to be able to discuss these types of things directly with the district.
[Overview: What follows is a long-term proposal – think a build out of a 100 years – to use existing rights-of-way to improve mobility and the quality of life in Santa Clara County. Just like the way we live today isn’t the same as it was 50 or 100 years ago, how we live in the ensuing decades will change. This county needs a mobility infrastructure that can adapt to economic and environmental changes, while improving use of existing and new land. Implementing what is proposed will take political leadership with a long-term outlook. So, let’s use our existing rights-of-ways to create mobility threads that will stitch together Santa Clara County into a united federation of livable and walkable communities.]
This post will look at the idea of how Silicon Valley could take San Diego’s idea improve it through the creation of a Bus Rapid Transit network and associated mixed-use transit centers in Santa Clara County’s freeway and expressway corridors.
The MTS, the agency which runs the public transit system in San Diego County, explains on their website that they evaluated building a rail system along the I-15 corridor in the early 1990s, but, in the end, a bus rapid transit was their choice as it provided the same benefits, while allowing other types of vehicles:
“Rapid has many of the same features as a Trolley line: high frequency service, limited stations, high-capacity vehicles, upgraded stations, and Park & Ride lots at several stations.”
A key element of their transit plan are the transit stations that are strategically located at intersections where there are connections to last-mile transit. These stations include a generous amount of parking, allowing people who are beyond the last-mile to ditch their car and get the benefit of shared express transit. They also improved the bus experience through design features, such as “comfortable seating and larger windows improve ride quality, while features such as multiple doors, low-floor designs for easier boarding,”
Another key element to moving more people is the inclusion of a 2.2. mile long, 12-foot wide, two-way bike lane on a portion of I-15. This $14 million, well lighted route is physically separate from the freeway traffic and provides riders with a safer biking alternative than traversing street traffic. This $14 million project has an expected completion date towards the end of 2017.
Silicon Valley Could Do It Better
Santa Clara County should look at a similar network of Bus Feeder routes using existing freeway and expressway rights-of-way. Elements of this approach were touched upon in an earlier article, A Transition Step(s) to an Autonomous Transport Future. With the advantage of starting later, as compared to San Diego, Silicon Valley has the opportunity to bring several innovations that will create an even more efficient way of transporting people.
The fundamental difference with San Diego’s effort is the creation of mixed-use transit centers that would include, as possible, high-density affordable and market-rate housing, commercial and retail spaces. Like San Diego, park and ride would be included, as well as easy transfer to last-mile solutions, like shuttles, bike-share and ride-share. Of course, by building housing at freeway interchanges, it could actually reduce vehicle miles traveled as more people would be at locations that are within 1/2 mile of their jobs.
A key part of the financing for this sort of effort would have to come from public-private partnerships, similar to what Hong Kong’s transit authority has done to develop high density near transit stations. Providing incentives to developers to build on these platforms (e.g., express permitting for pre-approved construction techniques, reduced/no parking requirements, etc.) would be necessary to expedite build-outs. These wouldn’t be subsidies as much as creating a cookie-cutter process.
Added 9/22/16 – The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey provides another example of a public agency using its air-rights and rights-of-way to encourage development. Relevant to this article, they just released the results of a design competition for a new bus terminal that is estimated to cost between $3.7 to $15.3 billion. All the proposals envision mixed-use and some combination of open space (one featuring a 9.8 acre park) to help offset costs.
By building relatively high-density clusters, the need to build high-density into suburban neighborhoods wouldn’t be as necessary; creating a buffer between traditional single family homes and multi-story housing. At the same time, the suburban neighborhoods would have additional transit options, thanks to the relative close proximity of high-speed express lanes and transit centers on existing exchanges.
As an exercise, one stretch of I-280, from Highway 85 to I-680 was examined to look at the possibility of creating platforms over the existing freeway. This isn’t necessarily the most job-rich area of Santa Clara County, but given that the VTA is studying this corridor, it seemed appropriate.
Ten major intersections were identified as possible urban center/transit areas, which translates to about a station on average every 1.2 miles over this 12 mile route. Some other important statistics. The route stops at I-85, although it is expected that express buses might continue through the largely residential, rural and wealthy hills to the job-rich area in the Page Mill/Cal Trans area of Palo Alto.
Collectively, about 123 acres of land is recovered via platforms. At $1-$5 M/acre, this is an asset worth north of $120 to $600M.
Assuming car-free, modular micro-housing, as described in this video, with a density of 640 units per acre (160 units in 12 story buildings on 9,000 square feet), with approximately 1/4 open space, then this corridor could house approximately 19,000 units (realistically, this number would be much less, as commercial/retail/park & ride would be included in these developments).
It is assumed that higher portions of the respective platforms would be towards commercial properties, while buildings would be lower towards existing residential areas.
It is assumed that bike lanes would be part of the project, allowing protected, active routes between the urban/transit centers. These bike routes potentially could have ingress/egress to residential neighborhoods as well.
Some other ways Silicon Valley could make this distinctive include:
Incentives should be provided for electrification and/or carbon-free emissions (e.g. the aforementioned private operator might pay less, if they use electric buses). With the recent passage of SB32, these sort of things will be necessary to secure state funding.
Require the use of Vehicle to Vehicle and Vehicle to Infrastructure technology to use the express lanes. This offers the potential for platooning, such as being proposed by Pelaton, which could provide a further 5 to 10% reduction in fuel requirements. It also allows for greater throughput at a given speed compared to regular driving.
Develop and encourage low-cost, low-polluting, last-mile solutions – whether this ,means better pedestrian access, shared bikes and low-speed autonomous shuttles (e.g. such as ones that are tested in places like Singapore and Perth).
Given a scope that is similar to what San Diego built with its 20-mile stretch, it isn’t unreasonable to think that a 12-mile stretch could be built for approximately $1.4 B. It is assumed that the extra costs associated with building developments above the larger platforms envisioned in this approach, would be borne by private developers building commercial, retail and residential spaces.
The question of how air-rights would be distributed and valued is one for further exploration. For instance, perhaps it would be a model similar to the Homestead Act, whereby an entity would be given a certain time to develop after being given air rights. That development might include the requirement to build a platform that could be used for the transit center. Or, the air rights might be auctioned off in some manner.
With autonomy, the prospect of driverless pods could become reality. This Silicon Valley start-up, Next Future Transportation, is developing a software defined transportation network consisting of self-driving, electric, wheeled pods that form virtual trains to increase throughput. Unlike trains on wheels, these pods are independent of each other and dynamically connect to and disconnect from each other while in motion. This type of solution fits in perfectly with the approach described herein.]
At 1/3 the projected cost of a 4.2 mile extension of BART and with much less disruption to existing businesses and residences, VTA should examine an approach that enables high-speed vehicle transit on the existing freeway and expressways corridors. This holistic path would represent a significant investment and would take decades to implement, but it would build on the existing rights-of-way and traffic-use/land-use patterns as well as provide a path to incorporate evolving technology, such as autonomy.. Ultimately, this should prove to be lower risk and lower-cost than as compared to alternatives that require new, expensive rights-of-way.
Visions of Life in the Year 2040 Along the Winchester Boulevard corridor between Hamilton and Hedding