An Overview of Low Income Housing in Tucson


There is a spectrum of low income housing in Tucson:

  1. Homeless, sleeping in the park, need to move when prompted
  2. Homeless, sleeping in the river in a makeshift camp, also may need to move
  3. Primavera Men’s Shelter, 90 bunk beds in one room, three month limit
  4. Section 8 rental housing, waiting list is closed for “four to five years”
  5. 202 senior rental housing, available for over age 62, pay 33% of income.
  6. Tax credit apartments, rental rate based on income.
  7. Other programs, including an SRO program through Primavera, and some rapid rehousing funds that were initially part of the federal stimulus program.

The first two categories have some inherent problems, including safety, sanitation and weather exposure.  The Primavera Men’s Shelter is a great facility, but also has some drawbacks.  The clients must leave the area between 7 AM and 4 PM, forced to find another place to stay during the day.  Also, there is no privacy in the sleeping area.  Section 8 and 202 are well tested programs, but they depend on federal dollars.  Given the state of federal budget constraints, it cannot be expanded to house everyone in Tucson who needs housing, and in fact, it may face cuts in the coming years.  I spoke with a housing employee at the City of Tucson, and I was told that the Section 8 waiting list was closed, and will probably stay closed for the next four to five years.  Tax credit apartments are also under some financial constraints, and they are actually targeted to a somewhat higher income client.

The fact remains that there are estimated to be 5,000 to 10,000 homeless in Tucson at any given time.  Some folks stay here for a short time, or spend the winter in Tucson, but many live here year around and have lived for years without a regular housing unit.  Some folks live in their cars, perhaps parking in friends’ yards, others couch surf from house to house, others live in makeshift camps in the desert or the arroyos, and some try to live in parks.  Our homeless neighbors include young and old, men and women, veterans, disabled.  The common element for most is simply the lack of enough monthly income to secure housing.

There are many costs to the current situation, both to the individual and to the Tucson community. The individual must spend an inordinate amount of time to perform basic human functions.  One must pay more for food, because of the lack of access to a cooking facility.  The lack of sanitation can mean social isolation and is a real impediment to finding a job.  The costs to our community include higher police costs and stress on public institutions like the libraries.  It is almost a crime to be homeless in Tucson.  Sleeping in public areas can bring on arrest.  Makeshift camps are routinely broken up, even in isolated areas.  Some neighborhoods, including downtown Armory Park, feel like they bear a heavy burden because some of the attractions like soup kitchens, main library, and blood bank are located in or near downtown.

Possible alternatives

  1. Safe, secure parking lots for folks with cars.  Bathrooms and showers.
  2. Inexpensive trailer park, suitable for campers, travel trailers, small single wide trailers.  With or without hookups, communal facilities, including bathrooms, kitchen, community meeting room.
  3. Converted motel, so a one room with perhaps microwave, small refrigerator, common utilities.
  4. Cohousing unit, common house and single room occupancy.
  5. Existing house with roommates.

The current housing environment in Tucson in terms of cost:

A room for rent as low as $300 per month.

A trailer/mobile home site for as low as $300 per month.

Low cost studio apartments as low as $350 per month.

One bedroom apartment as low as $400 per month.

Two bedroom apartment as low as $500 per month.

While these seem to be low cost, in fact, all these options are out of reach of someone making under $1000 per month.  They also usually require first and last month and a security deposit, so perhaps $1000 in savings just to move in.

Utilities are expensive, with service charges on each meter.  A minimum of $15 per month for gas, $15 for electricity, $40 for city bills (water, sewer, trash), for a total of $70 per month total.  So, there is a real economy of scale with shared utilities.

The Mayor of Tucson, Jonathan Rothschild, announced on March 16th at a forum at the Tucson Festival of Books, that we have come close to housing all of the homeless veterans here.  Other populations could be selected for assistance, including women, teenagers, and the disabled.

There are several non profits working in the field, including Primavera and Habitat for Humanity.

 Low Cost Housing Alternatives

 Parking lots with amenities

This is a very low cost solution.  The idea is to have an enclosed parking area to accommodate perhaps 20 to 50 cars, trucks, or small campers.  The area would be fenced, with a secured gate that could close at around 10 PM.  This allows people to sleep in their vehicles in a safe environment, with access to a bathroom at a minimum.  There could be showers, cooking area, shaded areas, even a small community room.  This site could perhaps also accommodate tents or outside camping arrangements.  In that case, a small area, say 10 by 10, could be enclosed, with a locking gate.  This would allow for safety and storage.

Cars have some advantages, they can be locked, trunks have room for storage.  Pickup trucks with camper shells have more room for sleeping.  Both cars and trucks can be purchased from salvage yards, also people can donate vehicles to a non profit and receive a tax deduction.

The disadvantage is climate control.  Cars heat up in the summer, even in the shade, as they do not have much insulation.  Also, they are not very comfortable as long term housing.

There could be a nominal fee for this alternative, say $1 per night.  Or perhaps a minimal community service request.

Inexpensive trailer park

This is also a fairly inexpensive solution, especially with no hookups and a common house with bathrooms, kitchen, meeting space.  Thus, there is only one utility bill and minimal infrastructure costs.  Alternatively, with proper hookups, electricity and water could be metered per unit, trash and sewer could be one overall cost, and gas could be individual propane.

Travel trailers, camper trucks and RVs can often be bought for as little as $1,000.  A trailer park can be created without much cost.  A common house could be constructed for about $20,000.  Possible overall size could be 25 to 75 units.

There could be a nominal fee for this alternative, say $2 per night without hookups, $3 per night with hookups.  Again, community service could be performed in lieu of payment.

Converted motel

The idea here is to have a room, bathroom, and perhaps minor eating facilities, with perhaps electric appliances such as a microwave, a hot plate, and a small refrigerator.  Motel rooms are usually a good size.  Plus, the utilities are shared, so there is not the individual charge for service.  Most motel rooms have a window heat/ac unit.  The units could be sub metered for electric use.  The question is whether older motels are available for conversion, and the upfront cost to purchase.

The goal would be to have a unit available for perhaps $100 per month, or perhaps 10 hours per month of community service.

Cohousing unit

Cohousing is based on individual units with a shared common house.  The idea is to live in a loose communal situation.  Cohousing could be especially advantageous for low income folks, with the idea of sharing of resources.  This could take several forms.  One simple idea would be to combine an existing house and add separate rooms (see one room unit below), perhaps 5 to 10 rooms in the back yard.  Thus, everyone would have their own space, and share the facilities in the front house.  There might be some sharing of meals and other amenities.

Another idea would be to build a new cohousing unit, again with individual rooms, and a common house with bathroom, kitchen, and living room.  There is a consensus that 25 to 35 units is a good number in middle class cohousing projects.

Perhaps this unit could rent for $50 per month, or 5 hours per month community service.

Existing house with roommates

The advantage to this is that there are lots of houses for rent in Tucson.  This alternative mainly requires some kind of way to match roommates.  But this might be a good solution for tackling different target populations, for example, women, disabled, youth.  One idea would be to have a manager in place, to handle the running of the household.

The payment for this arrangement would depend on the house value, number of roommates, and whether there were additional one room units in the yard.  But again, the goal is to provide housing for $100 per month or less, or 10 hours per month community service or less.

One room unit

There may be a use for a one room, self contained unit, built to handle Tucson’s climate.  This is a unit that is portable, so light weight, very tight, very well insulated.

There is some advantage to a room that is based on a four foot measurement.  Many of the most common building materials are based on four and eight foot lengths.  For example, two by fours come in either 8 foot lengths, or 92 inches, allowing for a base and top plate of two by fours, for a total wall assembly of eight feet high.  Dry wall comes in four by eight foot panels, and a 5/8 sheet of drywall provides a one hour fire rating.  Rigid insulation also comes in 4 by 8, as does plywood and sheathing.

So, one possible room size would be an 8 by 8.  I think this is a little too small, so I am proposing an 8 by 12 configuration.  This allows room for a double bed, a large shelving unit, a desk and a chair.

Tucson has a minor heat load in the winter, but a tightly insulated unit, especially when joined together with other units, would not need any external heating.  While cooling is the issue in Tucson, the idea would be to separate the roof from the structure physically, using a metal pro panel roof system that shades the top of the unit, perhaps with a foot or two of separation.  The roof would be installed so that there is no sun warming of the unit from April 15 through October 15.  The sun would warm the unit during the other six months.

This unit would contain one window, 2 feet by 2 feet and one door, 32 inches by 80 inches.  The framing would be 24 inch on center.  The exterior skin could be T-111 or similar.  The interior skin could be one inch rigid insulation.  The insulation could be batt or cellulose loose fill.  The floor could be plywood.  The roof ceiling insulation package could be four to six inches of batt or cellulose.

A material list for an 8 by 12 foot room would be:

Four corner posts for independent roof, steel poles, steel channel, or similar

7 sheets, 2 by 10 metal roofing, pro panel or corrugated

6 sheets 4 by 8 plywood, floor and roof

10 sheets 4 by 8 T-111, exterior wall sheathing

24 2 by 4 by 92 inch wall framing

40 linear feet of 2 by 4 bottom plate (pressure treated)

40 linear feet 2 by 4 top plate

10 sheets 4 by 8 one inch (minimum) rigid polystyrene for interior wall sheathing

2 sheets 4 by 8 5/8 inch drywall, one hour fire code,

18 pieces of R-13 batt insulation, two feet wide, eight feet long

Or cellulose loose fill between all 18 wall cavities

Ceiling insulation to achieve about an R-30, either batt or cellulose

One 2 by 2 double pane vinyl window

One 2 by 6 exterior door, metal clad or similar, with three hinges and lockset

40 linear feet of concrete blocks


I have done a cost estimate on this particular room, and labor and materials are approximately $3,000.  This is paying retail cost at the Home Depot.  There could be some cost savings on a production basis, given the economies of scale.  This does not include the cost to set the unit and infrastructure costs, including site work and utilities.  That cost would vary based on actual sites.

The unit could be set on a slab, with bolts or rebar.  But that makes it less portable, so alternative would be to set on blocks or similar.  A possibility would be to frame the bottom to allow for forklift capability, so floor joists running perpendicular to floor instead of lying flat.  There might be some type of floor insulation.

This is a basic unit with no plumbing, no electricity, and no heating or air conditioning.  Besides using the door and window for fresh air exchange, and for heating and cooling control, there could be small vents or small PVC pipes used for air infiltration (bottom) and air release (top) built into the wall and ceiling sections.

The key to climate performance is very tight insulation.  The walls would be R-20, with the cavity insulation and rigid wrap.  The ceiling should be engineered for about R-30.  The unit could be self regulated with the air exhanges to compensate for outside temperatures.

This proposed self contained unit has some distinct advantages over the current options of sleeping in the park, sleeping in the river or sleeping in the Primavera Men’s shelter.  It provides a secure place to live and sleep, with a door that can be locked.  It also provides room for a bed, storage, desk and chair.  But it only works in combination with some kind of common house facility providing bathroom, kitchen and other communal amenities.  But this unit could easily be part of four of the five alternatives: parking lot, trailer park, cohousing, and house with roommates.

This unit could also have more amenities if desired, including electricity, plumbing and perhaps HVAC.  The electrical installation could be as simple as one 110-volt outlet, and  one light fixture.  Also, there could be one small sink added, using half inch PEX for a cold water line, and two inch ABS wastewater pipe for the sewer connection.  With a more robust electrical package or a natural gas or propane connection, there could be a small backup heating unit and a small evaporative cooler or room AC unit.

The units should be built so as to be easily joined together if desired, probably  situated lengthwise east to west.  That is the optimum configuration for passive heating and cooling.  The units would in most cases not be physically joined, but neatly stacked next to each other.  Thus there would always be at least one short wall protecting each unit, with 5/8 inch thich drywall, providing the required one hour fire protection.  There would also be some advantage to an interior courtyard arrangement, having windows on the exterior and doors opening into the courtyard.

On a typical city lot, measuring 50 feet by 100 feet, there could potentially be 16 of these housing units and three units of bathroom, kitchen and living room, so 19 units total, for a total of 1824 square feet of building envelope.  This would require 40 feet by 72 feet, or a total of 2880 square feet.  This allows for side setbacks of 5 feet, and front and rear setbacks of 14 feet.  This would be rather higher density than the typical neighborhood, but would be well suited for industrial areas, commercial areas, and perhaps open spaces near freeways, etc.

A Possible Way Forward

There are now over 2 million Syrian refugees living in the poor country of Jordan, and yet the world community is providing these refugees with shelter.  Here in Tucson, however, we have been unable to solve the problem of providing low cost shelter to our own people.

We have a lot of power when we work together to solve a problem.  Tucson has a long and proud tradition of working on this issue.  Nancy Bissell and Gordon Packard merit our heartfelt thanks for their pioneering efforts as founders of the Primavera Foundation.  There is currently a working group led by Michele Ream which is studying similar efforts in other communities, including Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon.  Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star recently moderated a forum to discuss this issue, with panelists from a variety of local groups.  Perhaps we are now at a tipping point in Tucson.

This article has laid out five different low cost solutions.  Some may not be feasible.  But I suggest that we come up with a variety of approaches, build pilot sites and find out what works and what doesn’t work.

In the city, there are six council districts.  I suggest that a pilot site be developed in each of the six districts.  The city already owns vast amounts of land, including left over tracts from road projects, city parks, and vacant lots.  The city has a new department, the Office of Integrated Planning, that could take the lead.  The city staffers in this office are creative problem solvers.  The city could reach out to the UA Department of Architecture and the outstanding dean, Jan Cervelli, to come up with workable designs.  Other groups, including the Rio Nuevo Board, led by Fletcher McCusker, and the Downtown Tucson Partnership, led by Michael Keith, could help provide the political will to move forward.  Tucson is also home to foundations and wealthy philanthropists.  What an admirable legacy, to be part of the movement that eradicated homelessness in Tucson.

Photo by James Willamor (from Wikipedia and Flickr)



3 thoughts on “An Overview of Low Income Housing in Tucson”

  1. An additional bit of relevant information that a working group member sent us during the editorial process:

    Tucson zoning laws allow commercial campgrounds to occupy one quarter of the acreage of a trailer park. There can be as many as one quarter as many campsites as there are trailer pads. That is the only legal camping allowed in Tucson’s zoning laws.

  2. Has any progress been made on any of the options for housing homeless in Tucson, proposed by Mr. Hannan. I have a personal interest as I have a sister (67 yrs old) who has been essentially homeless for 25 years. She is currently in Colorado shuttling between burger places for shelter and bathroom facilities. I would like to move her to Tucson because there is some family there. I thought we might pool resources to fund her for one of these low cost options….has any progress been made?

  3. Colin, We’ll ask Mr. Hannan about this as he would certainly know more than I do, my impression though is that no real progress has been made. There is some interesting talk, and some real progress has been made toward housing veterans, but that’s about it. That is only my impression though.


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