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Housing and Homelessness

Amid Protests, A Plan To Build A 'Tiny Home' Community in Arcadia Stalls

People opposed to a tiny home community for the homeless in Arcadia protest outside the home of a city council member
A group demonstrating against a proposal to build small emergency homeless shelters draws counterprotesters Saturday
(Josie Huang/LAist)
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On a gray Saturday morning, the voices carried over a quiet Arcadia neighborhood of landscaped, million-dollar homes at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains.

“Save Arcadia!” a couple dozen protesters shouted at the ranch-style house of council member April Verlato. “No tiny homes!”

A protest outside the home of a city official was once unheard of in decorous Arcadia. But that was before some residents learned of a proposal to build a community of “tiny homes” that resemble sheds to serve as temporary housing for homeless people.

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Opponents, who say tiny homes will only increase the city’s growing unhoused population, have swiftly organized over Facebook and WeChat, the messaging app used by many of the city’s Chinese-speaking residents in this Asian-majority city.

Besides rallying outside council members’ homes over the past month, opponents of tiny homes have called and e-mailed them. During the last council meeting, dozens flooded the phone lines during public comment — far outnumbering voices in support of the plan.

And it’s gotten personal. Some tiny home opponents have accused Verlato, the plan’s most vocal proponent on the five-member council, of covertly working with local high schoolers to create a show of support for the project. (Verlato said she had messaged advice to a member of the group which had organized independently to support tiny homes.)

With no sign of the backlash fading, City Council is expected to press pause on the proposal when it meets Tuesday.

As banner-holding protesters faced her lawn from across the street Saturday, Verlato said there is not enough support among her colleagues to advance the proposal at this time. Her hope now is that the council will instead create a citizens committee to study the tiny home proposal and look at alternatives to stemming homelessness.

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“It was clear that council members were feeling threatened and intimidated and pressured from a group that was having the protests at council members’ homes,” Verlato said.

Mayor Pro Tem Paul Cheng characterized the protests differently, saying it was “very exciting” to see both those for and against the project “care about things that affect their city.” Cheng, who had brought the motion to explore tiny homes in February, said tabling the plan would give the council and the community more time to get educated on homelessness.

“What is the harm of slowing down a project that allows our residents to become competent to address our fear and uncertainty and doubt?” Cheng said.

What council members can agree on is that the city needs to do something about rising homelessness in the city. The annual homelessness tally has jumped from 15 in 2018 to 106 in 2020. The sharp increase coincided with police taking over the count from volunteers.

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In large cities, tiny home villages are gaining currency as a short-term solution to moving people off the streets and into case management and the pipeline for permanent housing.

Los Angeles last week saw its third community open in Reseda over the objections of residents who protested multiple times in front of city council member Bob Blumenfield’s house, and on one occasion set a shack outside.

The Reseda community includes 52 dwellings. The proposal in Arcadia would be smaller, with 15 or so units to be sited on a dusty access road to the Santa Anita Wash, where encampments are located.

But opponents such as David Denis maintain a tiny home community is a bad fit for Arcadia, which has about 58,000 residents spread over 11 square miles.

"The key thing is not to have it here and not to draw more homeless to Arcadia,” Denis said Saturday while protesting on a leafy street outside the home of council member Tom Beck, who was out of town. “Have it somewhere in an industrial area away from Arcadia. All these Arcadia residents will support that.”

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Supporters of the tiny home proposal maintain that unhoused people are already in Arcadia because many are from the San Gabriel Valley, while others have come because of access to the city’s hospital and the Metro Gold Line.

Online, some supporters of the tiny homes have portrayed opponents as heartless. Council member Paul Cheng believes proponents are dipping into racial stereotypes by accusing protesters, who are predominantly of Asian descent, of an I got mine, you get yours mentality, and pointing out that some of them drive luxury cars.

Cheng said that the protesters aren’t against helping the homeless. He gave the example of an Asian American business owner who recently hired a man who had been living in a local park. The job is in a factory packing boxes for $15.50 an hour.

“The person that gave him a job is not in support of tiny homes,” Cheng said. “The entire community wants to get together to help the homeless. They just need to do it in ways that they feel comfortable with.”

But Mike Veerman is a resident who said building tiny homes is a way that Arcadia can quickly step up and do its part to combat homelessness in L.A. County.

Veerman, a computer programmer, counter-protested outside Verlato’s house, and engaged in one-on-one conversations with protesters such as Leslie Wang, who shared the experience of a man screaming and cursing at her young son as they walked through the park.

“I grabbed [my son] and we walked the other way, “ Wang said. “That scares people.”

Wang, a pharmacist, said she has helped unhoused people through her church’s food drives. Veerman listened sympathetically but argued that unhoused people should also be treated as neighbors.
He pointed out that Arcadia has undergone massive demographic change in recent decades, transforming from an overwhelmingly white city to more than 60% Asian.

“Look at Arcadia, how it's changed,” said Veerman, who is Dutch-Indonesian and married to a Korean American. “If we said that people who are different are not allowed, Arcadia would not look like it's looking like today. Right? So changes are occurring everywhere. You need to keep embracing it.”
Wang nodded her head in agreement.

“It’s getting worse," she said, "so we have to do something."