Lessons for affordable housing from the modern dome tent

How did the invention of the modern dome tent change the story of homelessness in LA? And are they a form of "home" for their occupants?

A modern dome tent covered with a tarp in Venice. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

While Los Angeles officials work to build more permanent homeless housing, and shelter beds continue to fill, many are still sleeping in tents, pitched along empty sidewalks, under freeway overpasses and on the beach.

The modern dome tent, which uses the geodesic dome structure popularized by Buckminster Fuller, enabled the spread of tent-living in the city.

According to historian Wade Graham, present day housing advocates could learn from tent living. “There’s a supply chain, you can get one anywhere in any homeless encampment; you can get a two person, a four person, an eight person, they have rooms in some of them and vestibules and foyers and storage.”

Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome inspired The North Face’s “Oval inTENTion” in 1975, the precursor to the modern dome tent.

The mobile structure designed originally for extreme environments, like a base camp on Mt. Everest, is a “lightweight, unbelievably strong, mobile, flexible, cheap, mass-producible” form of shelter.

According to Graham plans for permanent housing suffer from zoning codes requiring “pretty excessive amounts of space for an individual” and “building codes that require a really heavy duty, rigid, expensive way to build.”

However, Phil Ansell, head of LA County’s Homeless Initiative, says that they are working to get tent-dwellers into permanent housing while also seeking innovative housing solutions.

The Housing Innovation Challenge is a $4.5 million grant program that invites designers, developers and property owners to offer ideas for permanent housing “that can be developed more cheaply and more quickly than is conventionally the case.”

Workers with the LA Department of Sanitation confiscate a homeless person’s belongings on the Venice Boardwalk. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

But what is tent-living like?

DnA visited an encampment early in the morning, where police drive through at 6 a.m. to wake people up and tell them to pack up their tents. It’s against the law to have a tent on the sidewalk between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Women in particular say that a tent ensures their safety.

“A tent means that, number one, you’re not sleeping on the concrete. Number two, nobody can see whether it’s a man or a woman. So you have that extra added security against rape. Because rape is really, really threatening thing when you’re a woman, you’re homeless and you’re sleeping on the sidewalk,” said Mary Nolan, who goes by the name “Grandma.”

Venice homeless activist David Busch says he doesn’t understand the complaints of Venice homeowners regarding the homeless. “It’s their presence and their driving up the cost of all the housing here that is making it even more expensive to deal with the unhoused in this community,” he said. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

Some homeless people may prefer to stay in their own tents rather than in one of these shelters, said David Busch, one of the best-known homeless activists in Venice.

“Typically in a lot of shelter programs you might share a cubicle with four or so folks whereas really with a tent you got your own little space, even if it’s just a piece of darkened cloth. You’re outside. You got this sense of space around that tent that people kind of instinctively respect. And it’s your own little space. It’s a great refuge,” Busch said.

Homeless activist David Busch and his tent on Third Avenue in Venice. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

Busch sleeps in a squat, nylon two-person tent. It’s white and fluorescent-yellow and is covered with a purple rainfly. Inside there’s a sleeping bag, an Indian blanket, a white LED light, a folding chair, and a white 5-gallon bucket with a tight-fitting lid he calls “my deluxe bathroom.”

As gentrification has increased in Venice residents are paying premium prices to live near the beach, butting right up against very poor people who are living in tents or sleeping on the sidewalk.

But Busch says he doesn’t understand the concerns or frustrations of the homeowners in Venice who call the police to complain about the homeless.

“I think they’re very hard to understand, especially in the last decade. The real estate here in Venice for rentals is actually, per square foot, now more expensive than Beverly Hills. It’s their presence and their driving up the cost of all the housing here that is making it even more expensive to deal with the unhoused in this community.

“It’s driving up the cost of the programs that most people would consider to be the better alternative, the supportive housing, the transitional housing, and squeezed out fewer and fewer landlords that would make room for a Section 8 voucher applicant,” Busch said.

Clifford Moore with his mobile camper on the Venice Boardwalk. Photo by Avishay Artsy.

The sanitation sweeps and early-morning wake-up calls from the police have led two enterprising young homeless people to create a rather innovative workaround. Clifford Moore and Billy Young have built bike trailers with campers on the back.

Using plywood and corrugated plastic, they built homes on wheels. “Micro-living,” as Moore puts it. They park their bike trailers in handball courts, library parking lots, side streets and bike paths.

Moore says each of these mobile campers only costs about $200 in materials, built just using a drill and some hand tools and constructed in a Home Depot parking lot. On the outside they’ve attached tarps to keep the light out.

“Honestly I don’t consider myself homeless. I consider myself residentless. Just because, I’ve got a home. It just doesn’t stay in one spot,” Moore said.