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QUOTATION: People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote - a very different thing. - Walter H. Judd

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2004-07-03 - 1:01 p.m.

Tiny Houses May Be the Answer to a Big Problem

by Joan Callaway

An article in this morning’s Sacramento Bee, “Tiny houses seen as answer for homeless,” reminded me of a visit with my friends, Guillermo and Margarita Ballesteros, in Mexico back in 1973. I had taken my family for a vacation with them at their homes in Acapulco, Mexico City, and Lake Tequisquetango. We felt more than a little guilty as we luxuriated in their penthouse home atop a 12-story condominium in the center of the land facing Acapulco Bay right on the beach in extreme contrast to the many poor people who lived in make-shift housing on the hillside not far away.

As he left us at Lake Tequisquetango the following Sunday, Guillermo, an engineer and contractor said, “This is my only trouble – I have to leave you and go back to work.” He supervised 35,000 employees and had under construction at that time a road in Baja, a tunnel, three hotels and a convention center, and in just fifteen days he was starting another hotel and 10,000 little houses for the government.

Later when I visited in Mexico City, Guillermo took me to the site where these "little houses" -small concrete block 8’x8’ rooms with a bath and concrete floors - were being built for $2,000. The units, smaller than the 10x10 ones being suggested for S.F. homeless, shared common walls and were for government employees - a simple solution for a complex problem.

Jim Reid, a building contractor in S. F. and someone who seems able to think outside the box, believes he’s come up with an idea to solve San Francisco’s homeless problem. He wants to build hundreds of 100 square foot homes in neighborhoods around San Francisco. The government, however, in a more narrow view mandates a minimum of 220 square feet of usable floor space for an “efficiency” unit.

I remember being appalled when I saw the units in Mexico – smaller than the smallest bedroom in our home. And sometimes families were living in one of these small units. But then when I saw people living on the hillside in Acapulco in cardboard huts and abandoned refrigerator cases with no bathroom facilities, these seemed like a big improvement.

The small 100-square foot cottages Reid suggests would come complete with innovative built-in loft bed over a table and chair, a small shelf for TV at end of bed, a small bathroom, and even a washer-dryer combination. All for as little as $6,000 if the materials and construction labor are donated. These would be an improvement over the ones I saw in Mexico City and certainly more adequate than sleeping in a car or in an unfurled sleeping bag in a doorway with a grocery cart full of belongings nearby.

I can hear the NIMBY arguments now, however, even if the legislature and Boards of Supervisors should approve such a non-complying plan. “Not in my back yard!”

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