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Meet the LA man who has built dozens of tiny houses for homeless residents

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Elvis Summers explains why micro homes have a part to play in ending the city’s housing crisis


South LA resident Elvis Summers only got started building tiny homes in 2015, but his work has received a tremendous amount of attention since then. Last year, his colorful little dwellings—built for members of the city’s growing homeless population—began popping up on sidewalks and freeway overpasses around the city.

A successful crowdfunding campaign, helped by a feature in People, brought in nearly $100,000 to finance the homes. In February, however, citing health and safety concerns, city officials began confiscating the houses. Eventually, after a run of bad press, the city gave the houses back to Summers.

Since the city tightened its unattended property ordinance, however, Summers has been forced to find private property on which to keep the homes. In spite of this complication, he’s continued with his project, and has begun constructing mobile shower units as well. We checked in with him to see how his work is coming along.

How many houses have you built so far?

I was stopped at 38 for a while, but now I’m at 41 or 42.

Do you customize them at all, depending on who you’re building for?

I could customize them pretty easily, but right now I pretty much do them all the same. I do let everyone pick the color that they want. We’ve been toying with some different veteran houses [specific to] whichever branch they were in.

What’s the general layout?

They’re roughly six feet wide by eight feet long and about seven feet tall inside. There’s two windows on each side. Every house has a steel reinforced door, American flag and address, smoke detectors, alarms on the windows, solar panel on the roof—which powers two lightbulbs and has a port to charge a cellphone—brand new carpet, and I provide everyone with a compost toilet.

Where did the American flag [idea] come from?

I put the American flags on there not really for American pride but for more like what it should stand for.

What would that be?

Well, I mean, just the name "United" for one. We’re so not a united country ... and some of the core things the country was founded on: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In February the city seized some of the houses, but later returned them. Can you explain what happened?

Basically they illegally confiscated a few of them. They didn’t follow any due process, and legally they couldn’t even touch them, let alone take them. The day that they did [take them] ... I even explained to them, "look, you can’t legally take these houses. If you need them moved, we’re here, we’ll move them right out. But they just shrugged it off and said, "nope" ...

... [later] with us kind of pummeling them in the media and getting attorneys together ... they gave ‘em back. But the sad part is that when they returned them finally, they returned all three damaged and they stole all the solar kits out of all three of them.

They took the solar kits?

Yeah. Everything. The solar panels, the power box, the light. They just took all of it.

What’s the plan now? Have you found a place to store the houses?

Well I have places to store them. I’m working on getting part of the land to build the tiny house communities I intended from the start. Since the city changed its [unattended property] ordinance, barring me from putting them on public land, I can only go with private land.

Are you finding lots on your own?

Yeah. I have a few [where] stuff is in the works. Just crossing t’s and dotting i’s, making sure the property owners are comfortable with how it will work. Just last week I [found] an investor who is actually going to buy a large piece of property for us.

I never meant the houses to be on the street in the first place. But no matter how hard I tried to get others to help, nobody wanted to, so I just started replacing the tents with the houses. But they’re meant to be on pieces of land in a community.

You can’t just give someone a little house and say, "hey, good luck with your life." There has to be so much more. It’s just the first step to getting people a good night’s rest. Their belongings can be safe, and then you add services and outreach and counseling—whatever it is that people need.

What role do you think tiny houses have to play in the city’s housing crisis?

I think it’s absolutely essential. The tiny houses aren’t meant to be a permanent solution. There are so many steps in dealing with the housing crisis and the first one is shelter.

Even if right now the city said "we’re gonna build enough housing for everybody" and they jumped on it tomorrow, it would still take a decade to build all that. As human beings, we shouldn’t let other human beings live and die in the gutter until that happens. People need a safe place to be. And the tiny houses can be the first step.

While everything else is getting figured out, we can get people off the streets immediately into their own safe place where they can be protected and get a good night’s rest.

It’s a starting point for stability.

Exactly. Everyone’s story is different. Everyone has different needs. But it’s just basics. Food, water, and shelter are not optional things for human survival.

And [a tiny house] is just a tiny room—a small shelter—but it serves a purpose. And if you start with that, you’re on the right track.