Fires Raise Questions About ‘Tiny Homes’ As L.A. Homeless Settlement Looms

The Pallet Shelter homes are in Los Angeles and elsewhere, but fires in Oakland and Banning have destroyed structures and displaced people.
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The city of Los Angeles’ tentative settlement in a high-profile federal lawsuit over homelessness leaves the door open for a controversial type of shelter that’s been raising fire concerns.

Last month a fire in Oakland followed a similar blaze in Banning on Dec. 27, 2020, that destroyed the city’s inaugural tiny home village, made entirely of Pallet Shelter structures a.k.a. tiny homes. Now the latest fire to burn through a grouping of tiny homes occurred again in Oakland on March 21. Three 64-square-foot shelters made by the Washington state-based Pallet Shelter were destroyed, along with everything in them. One resident told The Mercury News she barely made it out as the “walls were melting.” The Oakland Fire Department said 20 firefighters helped prevent the blaze from spreading to the 12 other structures.

Oakland Fire Department’s Chief of Staff Michael Hunt told Curbed that fire crews have repeatedly seen blocked pathways between the shelters, and that his department is continuing to have to closely examine the safety issues there.

Meanwhile, Lauren Andrade, a fire captain with the Orange County Fire Authority, said she’s concerned about the small size of the shelters, because if they’re “packed to the top, that will put out a lot of [flammable energy] and spread quicker.”

Los Angeles has several tiny homes villages made of Pallet Shelter homes, and tiny homes have been discussed during the two years of hearings with U.S. District Judge David O. Carter in the L.A. Alliance lawsuit over homelessness. But safety regulations depend on the jurisdiction.

During the early hearings in 2020, a tiny home was set up in the hallway outside the meeting room. Carter has also inspected tiny homes made by the company Safe Huts, which are made of less flammable material.

Nothing about the structures has ever been formalized in a court order or settlement, and the city’s preliminary settlement announcement on April 1 said the city “may choose, at its sole discretion, any housing or shelter solution, including but not limited to tiny homes; shared housing; purchased or master leased apartments, hotels/motels, or other buildings; congregate shelters; permanent supportive housing; rental assistance/rapid rehousing; family reunification; sprung structures or tents; safe parking; safe sleeping/camping; interim housing, including A Bridge Home beds; etc.”

“The interventions may be government- or privately-funded as long as each offer is adequate for the individual,” according to a term sheet from the city and L.A. Alliance.

Carol Sobel, a civil rights lawyer who represents a homeless advocacy group as an intervenor in the L.A. Alliance lawsuit, said the problems with the shelters include their short life spans, estimated to be about three years.

“The fires are particularly concerning, both because of the risk of wildfires and the risk of smoke inhalation from an electrical fire in such a small space,” Sobel said in an email to Los Angeles Magazine. “Every winter, there are multiple stories about major residential fires caused by space heaters and resulting smoke inhalation.”

Fire destroyed 20 Pallet Shelter tiny homes in Banning in December 2020. (Cal Fire)

 

Pallet Shelter has since changed the material inside the shelters, but founder Amy King told Invisible People last year that the switch has nothing to do with flammability.

“It’s more durable and stands up better with sun exposure,” King said, according to Invisible People. “It has nothing to do with flammability and everything to do with the panel itself being equally weighted on both sides.”

Sobel said she’s most concerned that proposals such as tiny homes “have a way of becoming viewed as a permanent solution.”

“If people are not transitioning out because there is no actual housing, the temporary aspect of these facilities becomes permanent,” Sobel said.