Tiny houses for the homeless

 By RP Siegel

Sometimes, creativity is a matter of finding two problems that can be combined to solve one another. Usually it takes a tiny spark of an idea to see the connection. That’s essentially what happened for Reverend Faith Fowler, the Pastor of Cass Community United Methodist Church of Detroit…

In Detroit, the two problems were an excess of vacant lots, much of which were former sites of homes that had been condemned and demolished, and widespread homelessness. Reverend Fowler is also the Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a nonprofit agency which responds to poverty with programs for food, health care, housing and employment. She had been “looking for a way to provide clean, safe and affordable housing,” when she “stumbled upon the Tiny House concept.” That was the spark. She began asking, “if it was possible to use the smaller houses to create a home ownership program for formerly homeless and other low-income individuals.”

These tiny homes, some of which are less than 300 square feet in size, are very cleverly designed, providing all the essential elements into a compact space that is secure, cozy and affordable. Many tiny house designs feature elements that combine multiple functions and can be easily stowed away when not needed. Nine year-old Haley Ford may have been the first to build these for the homeless, though hers were a bit more primitive.

Cass Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit (Andrew Jameson, Wikimedia)

Since CCSS owned some vacant property, two blocks north of their campus, they thought, “why not build some tiny houses there?”
Thus, the Detroit Tiny Homes project was born. The 25 tiny houses being built there, cost as little as $40,000 each. The Cass program has a number of benefits beyond simply putting roofs over heads. Renters, who can become owners after seven years, are required to pay no more than one-third of their monthly income. They are also required to attend classes covering subjects ranging from financial literacy to home ownership skills.

As Fowler told HLN, “It’s good for everybody. It’s good for the environment, since tiny homes have a small carbon footprint, it’s good for the renters to become homeowners because of the asset aspect. It’s good for the neighborhood because more lots will be populated. It’s good for the city because they will become taxpayers. It’s good for the larger community, especially the homeless to see that somebody that used to be homeless is now a stakeholder in our neighborhood.”
“Applicants have to have an income but it can be as little as $10,000 annually. The income can come from an entitlement program or work. They ‘rent’ the property for seven years based on the square footage of their homes. Someone living in a 250 square foot home pays $250 a month, 300 square feet $300, all the way up to 400 square feet which is the largest home we will build,” said Fowler.

Tiny home in Brookland, Washington (Ted Eytan, Flickr)

In addition to the classes, tenants must also agree to join the homeowners’ association. Home ownership has traditionally been considered a path out of poverty, but recent trends in both housing prices and loan practices have cast doubts on that premise, in and of itself, as illustrated by the 2008 housing market collapse. More recent research has found that stable housing, regardless of whether it rented or owned, is the more important factor for escaping poverty. That means giving people their own space that is safe and secure.

Support for the $1.5 million project was provided by the Ford Fund, RNR Foundation, as well as a crowdfunding campaign. The Ford Fund’s President, Jim Vella, told the Detroit Free Press, “What it does is provide affordable housing for people who can’t afford something else on their own. So, as the city looks at what it has to do to make neighborhoods viable again, this isn’t the option for every neighborhood, but it could work.” The first residents are expected to move into their homes in early June 2017.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.