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One small step for homes

 

During a housing and regeneration study tour to Detroit and Chicago in February, organised by the CIH South East England Branch, Tamsin Stirling visited a tiny house project.

The tiny house project in Detroit is not by any means the first of its kind. Tiny houses are, by definition, tiny – generally around 250 to 400 square feet – and can be static, built on foundations, or built in a way which enables the homes to be easily moved, such as on wheels.

The tiny house movement is most well developed in the US, with many of the projects for rent aimed at young professionals, downsizers or as holiday homes. Increasingly though they are being developed for people who have been homeless, particularly in cities that have adopted a Housing First approach to tackling homelessness[1]. Some tiny houses were built in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina[2].

In Detroit, Cass Community Social Services[3], a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing food, housing, health services and job programmes, is developing a project of 25 tiny houses on a rent to own model for people who have been homeless and people on low incomes. Cass is fund-raising the $1.5million cost of the project, either in money, including a substantial donation from Ford, or donations of materials and time.

One thing Detroit is not short of is land on which to build. Depopulation of the city on a huge scale, combined with some policies which seem curious to put it mildly, such as that on tax foreclosure – don’t pay your property tax for three years and your home is repossessed by the city authority – have resulted in around 90,000 vacant ‘lots’ across the city. Cass purchased the land for the 25 tiny homes for just $15,000.

Executive director of Cass, Reverend Faith Fowler, spoke passionately about the need for people who are homeless, or living on low incomes, to have an asset. She sees this as a crucial part of tackling poverty.

So the project will involve people paying around $300 a month ‘rent’ to Cass, which will cover bills such as property tax. They will also pay electricity costs. After three years of renting, the residents will be offered a land contract through which they can rent to own their homes within four years.

The rationale for the seven-year process is to support residents to be able to reliably pay bills so that they won’t fall foul of policies like tax foreclosure. Much of that support will come through the variety of services that Cass offers on its ‘campus’; tiny house residents will be able to walk to all of the service outlets, whether for employment, health, well-being or classes.

Once they own the tiny home, Cass will not place any requirements on residents for what they do with the asset – live in it, sell it, give it to a family member – it will be theirs to decide.

Another aspect of the project important to Rev Fowler is that the homes are all bespoke – all 25 will have a different design. While this adds to costs, she sees this as an important part of treating people as individuals and with dignity.

The first tiny home is complete and is open to visitors and six more are currently being built. The number of people applying has been large. To date, the response from the wider community to the project has been really positive, at least in part because it is the first construction in that neighbourhood for decades and could be the start of repopulating the area.

Like all the affordable housing projects we saw during the study visit, the Cass tiny houses project involves a partnership that could be variously described as impressive or fiendishly complex. Highly focused and skilled leadership from Rev Fowler was clearly evident, alongside a willingness to try something new. Experimentation was another common theme across a number of projects we saw in the city.

The construction of tiny homes can tackle a number of pressing housing issues such as affordability, sustainability and speed of construction. The concept presents a challenge to what is seen as being an adequate home. The Cass tiny houses are high quality and self-contained, with good facilities, but, well, tiny.

The Cass model also challenges current tenure models and notions of who should be able to access home ownership and how. And the project puts the construction of tiny homes in a central position in the neighbourhood, not peripheral. It will be interesting to see how the project develops over the coming years and whether the model is replicated, within Detroit, or elsewhere.

Tamsin Stirling can be contacted at [email protected] and on Twitter @TamsinStirling1

[1] www.curbed.com/maps/tiny-houses-for-the-homeless

[2] katrinacottagehousing.org/

[3] casscommunity.org/

 


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