Developer hopes to build tiny prefab homes for the homeless, in Berkeley and beyond

The interior of a unit designed to house a homeless person called a MicroPAD, as seen from the front door, with a bench and hanging space, kitchen on the right and bathroom on the left. Photo: Panoramic Interests

Patrick Kennedy, the owner of the development company Panoramic Interests, thinks he has a partial solution to the Bay Area’s chronic homelessness problem and invites Berkeley to take a look at that solution in the form of a prototype currently installed next to City Hall.

The prefabricated MicroPAD — a fully furnished, 20′ by 8′ foot steel box, reminiscent of a shipping container — is designed to house one person, or possibly a couple. Stack many of them on top of each other, and they become a building of small housing units.

The MicroPAD prototype — PAD stands for prefab affordable dwelling — arrived on Tuesday and, even before it had been removed from the trailer on which had been brought over from San Francisco, it was already generating interest from passers-by, with some climbing up to peek through the unit’s window.

Kennedy is hoping to build these micro-housing buildings in Berkeley and Oakland, with an overall goal of providing housing for 5,000 Bay Area homeless people in the next five years. He has also been talking to city officials about the concept in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“Homelessness has reached a boiling point, and it’s going to get worse,” he said last week at his San Francisco office. This is a way of creating fast and effective permanent housing for people without homes, he said. “And many people are just one paycheck away from being homeless.”

The micro units designed for homeless people are built in China as a pair of fully furnished modular units with corridor space in the middle. Rendering: Panoramic Interests

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the idea of small, stackable housing units at its Jan. 24 meeting as Councilmembers Ben Bartlett and Linda Maio have an item on the agenda about micro-units. The item recommends that the city identify public land where such housing could be erected, obtain zoning and permitting approval for a 4-story, 100-unit building, identify a housing nonprofit to manage and operate the property, and establish criteria to determine who would be eligible to live there.

Bartlett said the item was inspired by Kennedy’s model, but not written for him.

“I ran across micro-units about a year ago and I was really excited,” he said. “Having people on the street is a huge concern for me and my constituents. The waiting time for housing for many of the homeless is over a decade and the funding sources for supportive housing is drying up. This could be a way to build housing rapidly and cheaply — it looks like a silver bullet.”

Kennedy estimates it would cost Panoramic between $20-$25 million to build a 4-story, 100-unit micro-housing unit, depending on factors like access, traffic control and infrastructure. His proposal would see the city giving him the air rights to a public property, he would finance the development, and he would charge $1,000 per unit per month. A housing nonprofit would oversee the day-to-day management of the building, while Panoramic would handle structural maintenance.

Kennedy is actively looking for sites in the East Bay on which to build the micro housing. He says the former Berkeley High tennis courts, now a parking lot, would be an ideal spot for a micro-unit building. It could house teaching assistants and janitors, as well as those who have no homes, he said. He has not had any official talks with BUSD yet about the idea. Another possible location is the Berkeley Way parking lot downtown. One of the features of Panoramic’s designs is that parking can be incorporated by placing the units on a bridge-like concrete platform so that parking is preserved at the street level. At the Berkeley High tennis court site, for example, Kennedy said he could put 80% of the existing parking back, with a 7-story, 300-400 housing unit building above it. Large-footprint parking lots in the centers of cities are an inefficient use of urban space, Kennedy argues.

He also said the rear of the main Berkeley Post Office at 2000 Alston Way — a contentious site due to stiff local resistance to its proposed sale — would be ideal. Kennedy would foresee keeping the historic front of the building, and using the warehouse space in back for housing. However, even the nondescript back of the post office has been registered as a National Historic Landmark, which may make that move difficult, if not impossible.

View of the bed, desk and shelving and bathroom in a MicroPAD. Photo: Panoramic Interests

Kennedy, a veteran developer who has built apartment buildings in Berkeley, currently has two ongoing projects in the city, both of which are built using his small-unit CitySpaces model designed for high-density sites (MicroPADs are an offshoot of CitySpaces). They are expected to be completed by spring 2019. The 4-story building at 2711 Shattuck Ave. will be all studios, while the Nexus Building at 2539 Telegraph will be a combination of studios and 2- and 4-bedroom apartments.

The Panoramic high-rise on Mission Street in San Francisco where Panoramic Interests has its offices was built using the CitySpaces design. The building’s units are leased by both the California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for student accommodation. California College of the Arts also leases another recently built Panoramic micro-unit building at 38 Harriet St. in San Francisco. According to Kennedy, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music saw a roughly 40% increase in enrollment from accepted students in 2016, the first year after it started providing student housing in the Panoramic. “Other factors certainly affected this as well — changes in curriculum, new faculty, etc. — but housing, I was told, was a big factor,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s proposal to build micro-units for the homeless in San Francisco hit a stumbling block, however. The fact the units are made overseas, in China, and not by U.S. unionized labor, was a deal breaker, and the city said there were already too many demands being made on scarce public property.

Kennedy said there are no American companies making the fully kitted-out modular units like the ones he is proposing for the Bay Area, which meet or exceed all local seismic building requirements. The company he works with in China also makes shipping containers. But he said 66% of the project costs are related to the on-site buildout and he is committed to using union labor for that in Berkeley. He has joined forces with Berkeley architect David Trachtenberg to design the buildings locally.

The prototype MicroPAD on a trailer soon after arriving outside Berkeley City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 17. The unit will be open to the public through Jan. 24. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley’s new mayor, Jesse Arreguín, has made homelessness one of his top priorities since taking office, although historically he has been more circumspect about approving new developments in the city than his predecessor, Tom Bates. Arreguín had not responded to a request for comment by press time.

Kennedy said he is aware his proposals will be met with scrutiny, and perhaps resistance, in Berkeley, but he believes there is an urgency to address the ongoing housing crisis. He also advocates that the housing be considered and funded at the county, rather than city level.

“Paying for housing city by city is problematic,” he said. “Why should Berkeley fund it all? Homeless people are not citizens of any city. It would make sense for the county, or even the state to fund it, to spread the burden, use some creative financing.”

One member of the homeless community has already expressed skepticism about the modular housing. Mike Zint, the founder of First They Came for the Homeless, said one of his friends said he had seen the MicroPAD and it did not look very well built.

Zint and others are advocates of building ‘tiny homes,’ essentially one-room homes on wheels. Mike Lee, another homeless advocate, said he thinks the tiny homes can be built for $10,000 each. Young people at Youth Spirit Artworks have been working designing these homes, according to Sally Hindman, its executive director.  She has put out a call to the community asking for vacant space onto which to place the houses.

The MicroPAD development would allow more people to be housed in a smaller area than tiny homes.

If the MicroPAD idea moves forward, Bartlett said he could foresee a homeless tenant paying a third of the $1,000 rent, with foundations or charities paying a third, and the city paying the final third — “we would provide the back stop,” he said.

Panoramic Interests’ MicroPAD, designed to house a homeless person, is currently open to the public through Jan. 24 at the corner of Allston Way and Milvia Street, opposite Berkeley High School. Read more about the MicroPADs. Read the item agenda relating to micro housing coming to Berkeley City Council on Jan. 24.