In American communities where housing values are rapidly out-pacing wage growth, even people with good, stable jobs are finding it almost impossible to find a roof to put over their heads. And despite the deep problems that come along with homelessness, some cities use their codes to force people out of safe housing for often dubious reasons. An Idaho woman’s story shows how these policies are both cruel and counterproductive.
Even before the pandemic, Boise and other Idaho communities were starting to attract new residents, many of them fleeing increasingly expensive California. But with urban schools and workplaces closing, the state experienced a rapid surge of home buyers. Housing prices increased 118 percent between the first quarter of 2017 and 2022. That is more than double the national increase of 50 percent over the same time period.
Chasidy Decker grew up around Boise but left for a while in 2019 to help her mother following her grandfather’s death. She always hoped to move back to the Boise area, but, when she was finally ready in late 2021 to go home, her income would not support traditional home ownership. But, like many pandemic-era Americans, she had already looked into purchasing a home she could move. What she had found was a “tiny home on wheels.” It has the benefits and convenience of an RV, but its design is more like a home rather than a vehicle.
For $600 a month plus utilities, Chasidy was able to rent space next to Robert Calacal’s home in Meridian. The very next day after she moved in, a code enforcer told her that living in her home violated city law. She could park her home at Robert’s house, but not live in it.
But Chasidy was confused. Homes up and down the street had RVs and similar structures parked in driveways and lawns, some of them with people living in them. Some homes even had old shipping containers permanently in the yard. The code enforcer made comments about Robert and Chasidy being new to town (Robert moved from California and Chasidy still had a Nevada plate on her car.) He said that residents who had lived in the city for many years were allowed to ignore the code.
Concerned that she had been ordered out of her home in just 10 days, Chasidy spoke with the Idaho Statesman about her situation. A story ran in early June, prompting the city to let her stay in her home until August.
But while the city paused its efforts to evict her, the code enforcer was angry about the way he had been portrayed in the story. Less than a week later, he issued citations to Chasidy and Robert for trivial parking violations. Again, he ignored identical violations at neighboring homes. The citations each threatened criminal charges with up to $1,000 daily fines and possible jail time.
At the beginning of August, Chasidy moved out. Since she can’t afford an apartment (Boise’s average monthly rent is north of $1,700), and there are no open spots at the few RV parks where she could legally park her home, she is homeless. Fortunately, she is not living on the streets, but she doesn’t have a permanent living situation.
Chasidy’s home is perfectly safe and Robert’s house is set up to provide the tiny home with electric, water, and sewer. And again, the code allows Chasidy to park her tiny home at the house, which seems to undermine any sort of argument over the aesthetics of tiny homes on wheels. Codes also cannot be enforced differently against people without good reason and certainly not because someone recently moved into a community. For these reasons and more, Chasidy and Robert announced that they were suing Meridian with the help of the Institute for Justice.
Unfortunately, Meridian is not the only place in America that is willing to make residents homeless in service to a strict code. Several Sierra Vista, Arizona residents are fighting their town after being told that they could no longer live in RVs in a mobile home community. In the summer of 2020, the city ordered them to move their RVs within 30 days or face eviction.
Again, there was no allegation that the homes were unsafe and the residents had been living in them for years. One RV, Amanda Root’s home, can’t be moved. The Institute for Justice’s lawsuit convinced the city to hold off on its eviction order, but Amanda and her neighbors are living in limbo. Arizona courts dismissed their suit saying they cannot bring their case until they get another eviction order. The case is being appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.
We all know that homelessness is devastating to individuals and harms the quality of life in communities, but some cities seem to think that people should only be allowed to live in what they deem as idyllic housing, as opposed to other options that are not as glitzy, but that are perfectly fine and safe. Tiny homes are a safe, affordable alternative for many Americans. For Idaho cities busting at the seams, and other fast-growing American towns, tiny homes should be seen as a good alternative for those who might otherwise be consigned to tent cities, living on sidewalks, sleeping beneath bridges or in public parks.