August 17, 2016 News » Cover Story

Low-cost tiny homes could help alleviate the housing shortage 


click to enlarge Electra Johnson doesn't need election results to start getting her feet wet. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Electra Johnson doesn't need election results to start getting her feet wet.

For Chante Perry, homelessness happened in a flurry. First she ran out of work as a nurse's aide when the woman she cared for passed away. She and her husband couldn't afford rent anymore. That's when their relationship reached a breaking point — he was violent and abusive, so she left. Now, he's serving nine years in prison and she still can't find a place to live.

To be away from his toxicity is a relief, to be sure, but now Perry spends every day trying to put a roof over their 2-year-old son Jason's head at night.

The house hunt has taken its toll; she's exhausted and discouraged. "Last time I was at [the El Paso County Department of Human Services office], the lady told me there's just nothing there for me," Perry says, "so I should just use what money I have left to go buy blankets."

She's become scrappy — picking up one-off vouchers to stay at motels, crashing with friends she partially trusts, and sometimes sleeping on the streets. Local shelters won't let them in, Perry says, because her husband's behavioral record is attached to the whole family. She and Jason used up their maximum stay at TESSA, a local resource agency for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, so she has been pursuing various transitional housing referrals since then. Perry is praying one of them works out, but they're all backlogged. And although getting into rapid rehousing would lend much-needed stability — she could get some sleep, go back to work and, crucially, keep Jason safe — she really needs the keys to her own life.

But finding a permanent place isn't a particularly promising prospect, given recent market trends. Apartment rent prices reached new heights for the fifth quarter in a row in Colorado Springs, averaging $991.15 a month from April through June according to a report from the Apartment Association of Southern Colorado and Colorado Division of Housing. The median price that single family homes sold for in June bulged to $262,000 — the highest on record for this market, according to the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.

All that is good news if you're invested, but not-so-good news if you're hunting.

To Perry, who just wants four walls, a roof and a lock on the door for herself and Jason, it's nothing but abstraction. For now, food stamps, the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) food program and state-sponsored day care all help her get by, but she just got cut off from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

"I missed my appointment because I had no way of getting [to the TANF office] without a car or money for the bus," she tells the Indy about calling frantically to reschedule. "And instead of helping me reschedule, they punished me."

Perry is sanctioned from the program for the next three months, meaning she'll miss out on $1,600. So that's just one more setback pushing stability further out of reach.

Her situation is one that Electra Johnson, Democratic candidate for county commissioner in District 3, empathizes with. As a mother herself who lost her own mother to suicide when she was a child, Johnson takes a fierce stance on housing as a civic obligation. "There were adults in my life then who stood up for me and that's what made me OK," she tells the Indy. "But as a society, we're not supporting people then bitching when they end up in the system. We need to start taking better care of each other."

Johnson, running to join a board no Democrat has sat on since the '70s, praised El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, a Republican, for championing domestic causes like the Not One More Child campaign that promotes healthily informed and equipped parenting. "I told her, that's a legacy I want to continue and further," she said. "And the affordable housing piece has reached a head. It needs to be dealt with."

An urban architect and planner by trade, Johnson counts off a rapid-fire list of public policy proposals: Seek grants outside HUD to directly fund affordable housing development; create a comprehensive plan to improve public infrastructure; enact new zone overlay districts to encourage denser development; establish an urban growth boundary with teeth. "The old ideas aren't working," she said. "We need some out-of-the-box thinking."

But because the issue is so pressing and her skillset is so fitting, Johnson isn't holding out for elected office to start taking action. "Whether I win or not, I'm going to start finding solutions now," she said, seemingly surprised that that's surprising.

click to enlarge VSS/Ensemble Ventures wants its concept to enable village initiatives nationwide. - VETERANS SUPPORT SOLUTIONS, L3C
  • Veterans Support Solutions, L3c
  • VSS/Ensemble Ventures wants its concept to enable village initiatives nationwide.

This summer, the tireless candidate joined a budding project to develop communal micro-housing that could provide immediate shelter for families like Perry's. A leader of the project, Andi Van Gogh with People's Access to Homes (PATH), took Johnson on a tour of a potential site she had her eye on. As they wove through the crush of overgrown flora and scattered detritus covering the abandoned lot, Johnson sketched a mock-up of the village while Van Gogh waxed philosophical about her organization's vision for addressing the housing crisis.

"It comes down to Maslow's hierarchy of needs," Van Gogh said, referring to a tiered theory of human development in which our most basic, physiological needs — food and shelter — are prerequisite to any further personal, social or spiritual advancement.

"People change miraculously once they've got four stable walls around them," Van Gogh said. "You get more of their story, find out what their skill base is and what kind of job that suits. Then they can start generating income and regaining control of their life."

The paradigm shift that's self-evident to her is just starting to take hold in the realm of homelessness services; it's a shift from the housing-ready approach (get sober, get a job and get it together before getting into stable housing) to the housing-first approach (put a roof over someone's head first, then figure everything else out from there).

Pikes Peak Continuum of Care, which coordinates public agencies and service providers in the region, has begun to embrace the housing-first approach more in the past few years, though housing units have been slow to come on line.

Springs Rescue Mission's expansion, which will add new beds to a total of 150 for chronically homeless adults, is slated for completion Nov. 1. The most recent Point in Time count puts that group at just under 300, but Van Gogh reckons it's actually nearly triple that in size. Even with the conservative estimate, 150 beds will still leave people on the streets.

She knows from leading outreach on the front lines just how desperate the situation is.

"There's just no availability," she said of her experience trying to get people into rapid rehousing. "That's why we need a coordinated entry point; a place where people can come, be safe and we'll start connecting to services from there."

PATH wants to provide that entry point. Van Gogh and a steering committee of about 10 have a vision that includes a structured community offering a range of housing options — from emergency to transitional to permanent — available to residents as they progress through the stages of recovery toward independence. So someone could just show up for a safe place to set up camp, start working their way into a cheap tiny home, pay some nominal amount in rent, earn more "sweat equity" by contributing to village operations, then find their way into a more permanent, modular housing unit where they'd perhaps be positioned to land a job. There'd be shared bathroom, kitchen and storage facilities, Van Gogh explained as those features began to manifest in Johnson's masterful albeit rough sketch of Yellow Brick, PATH's tentative name for the village. There'd be a community-run vegetable garden, maybe a bike repair shop and other types of micro-industries to support it all. That also quickly found life on the page.

"As long as it's safe, sanitary and supportive, I'm open to it," said Van Gogh. "We have to start somewhere."

click to enlarge Without land and investors, Johnson's Yellow Brick schematic will remain a fantasy. - ELECTRA JOHNSON
  • Electra Johnson
  • Without land and investors, Johnson's Yellow Brick schematic will remain a fantasy.

Yellow Brick, should it come to fruition, would hardly be the first of its kind. Self-sustaining villages for the homeless have been established and operate successfully in cities around the country. Some, like the decade-old Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, began as a protest of that city's camping ban. Others, like Community First! in Austin, Texas, were born from faith-based organizations. Others still, like Heroes Homes Colorado in Park County, serve a particular population (in that case, veterans, first responders and other struggling public servants).

To business consultant Mike Schmidt, there's enough evidence the concept works and that this region is overdue for its own version. So his start-up development company, Ensemble Ventures, teamed with local nonprofit/for-profit hybrid Veterans Support Solutions last year to start putting together a plan to develop tiny home cluster communities that use innovative fuel cells to power the modular units at low cost to their occupants.

The existing market "is a dead-end game," Schmidt said. "The time has come for housing to get hacked."

That Silicon Valley edge pervades Schmidt's style: He talks a mile a minute; is eager to partner with PATH "because they're doers, not talkers"; and thinks the absence of housing development experience on his resumé is more an asset than a liability. What is on his resumé is decades in digital technology and telecommunications, doing everything from design and development to sales and marketing to management and consulting. Schmidt's Ensemble Ventures is the primary sponsor of the Colorado Springs Entrepreneurs Group that "helps ramp up new concepts and bring them to market. That's what we do." And that's exactly what Schmidt intends to do with micro-housing.

click to enlarge Thousands of attendees ogled the sleek but small homes at the 2016 Jamboree. - ANDI VAN GOGH
  • Andi Van Gogh
  • Thousands of attendees ogled the sleek but small homes at the 2016 Jamboree.

VSS/Ensemble Ventures and PATH shared a booth in early August at the Tiny Home Jamboree in the Springs to see what it felt like to pitch their visions side-by-side. They meshed well, but didn't draw as much attention at the well-attended event as the tiny model homes that appealed to a mix of movement diehards and curious newcomers.

"There's still all these high-end designs," Schmidt said, referencing some of the sleek, modern homes that populated the Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium grounds that weekend. "When you start deconstructing an industry that's been established you've got to look at parameters — speeds and feeds, supply and demand — all the way up the chain. We want to majorly shift how these things are designed and built to really solve low-cost housing."

A major shift in design, of course, is exactly where the whole concept of a tiny home village starts to run into trouble. As is, the building and zoning codes don't allow for single-family detached dwellings you might call "tiny." There's a way around minimum square footage requirements if you build the home on wheels, call it an RV and register it with the state through the DMV. But then you run up against another pesky roadblock: You can't live out of an RV parked on a residential lot as a permanent residence.

The next move would be to find land zoned for RV occupation, which is exactly what a trio of developers seem poised to do in the city's Skyway neighborhood just west of Ivywild.

There, local couple Karen and Michael Turley and local auto dealer Barry Helton (also a former NFL punter for the San Francisco 49ers) own vacant land where they've reportedly proposed parking around 30 high-end tiny homes to rent out for $150 to $250 a night.

The developers didn't respond to a request for comment, but neighbor Leigh Westin relayed that information from a community meeting at Smiling Toad Brewery on Aug. 8. "A spirited group of approximately 55 concerned Skyway residents" attended, she wrote in an email to the Indy, "prepared for a night of heavy conversation, yet many concluded the evening slightly relaxed and with clearer insight."

Her own skepticism of the unusual structures yielded when she got the chance to poke around one the Turleys had parked outside the Toad. "It is really cool!" Westin wrote, adding her concerns about unsavory visitors flowing in and out of the rentals were assuaged when she learned the developers intend to attract a "higher-end, pet-free, and more-considerate clientele."

City Senior Planner Daniel Sexton has been working with the developers of this project, but won't comment on the specifics. "We don't have a formal application in front of us yet, so ultimately what it amounts to we don't really know," he said, offering that the land in question is zoned as a C-5 intermediate business district where campgrounds are a permitted use. This is the first real proposal of its type, according to Sexton, so at this point, city policy toward tiny homes is "on a case-by-case basis."

The city planning department is poised to broach the subject, but not imminently.

Land Use Review Manager Meggan Herington is point person on the city's "code scrub" committee that takes recommendations from last year's infill committee to guide tinkering in the municipal zoning code.

"Tiny homes are definitely on our list of topics to research, but we haven't done anything with it yet," she tells the Indy, adding "there's a long list of scrubs we want to tackle" and "honestly, we just haven't had many people coming to us with interest or requests."

Right now, the committee is discussing parking, building setbacks and Accessory Dwelling Units. The latter is one possible window into the realm of tiny homes. ADUs are more colloquially known as carriage houses, in-law quarters or granny flats. They could, according to the city's 2015 Infill and Redevelopment Action Plan, "provide an opportunity for reinvestment, use of existing capacity and housing options, without significantly altering their character" while meeting "the unique housing needs of demographic group[s] including seniors and millennials." Herington can't say for sure what exactly the code scrub committee will do with ADUs, but options on the table include permitting them by right in more zone districts or loosening size or density provisions.

One way to fling open the door to tiny homes would be to do what Walsenburg did. In 2014, the city council there passed an ordinance that eliminated minimum square footage requirements tied to single family dwellings on residential lots so a developer could build a tiny home community on an abandoned football field behind the town library. The developer, Sprout Tiny Homes, is breaking ground this summer on 33 new units in the 260- to 760-square-foot range — half for sale, half for lease — intended to house workers arriving for the projected addition of 400 jobs to the town of around 3,000 people over the next few years. Sprout is now cooking up something similar in Salida.

Meanwhile, projects geared to the homeless are moving along in other cities around the state. Perhaps the closest to fruition is in Denver, where, despite their origins in civil disobedience, Denver Homeless Out Loud (DHOL), the activist collective behind the effort, has had "very supportive and productive" meetings with the city planning department. Staff helped move their plan through the pipeline by adopting an updated international building code provision this spring to allow for 70-square-foot habitable rooms and pulling up the existing-but-underused "congregate living facility" definition to classify the separation of communal bathroom, kitchen and storage facilities from personal living spaces.

DHOL organizer Terese Howard told the Indy, "We're getting to the point soon where we'll go talk to all the closest neighbors, do the petition thing, hold community forums, have clean-up days and do all the fundraising." Navigating the more than year-long process has been frustrating, she said, though the experience bred invaluable creativity that DHOL has been able to share with counterparts in Boulder and Colorado Springs.

click to enlarge A home built by someone without one in Portland. - CHERYL VIA FLICKR
  • Cheryl via Flickr
  • A home built by someone without one in Portland.

But, despite those modestly encouraging signs from around the state, this city isn't exactly embracing the movement with open arms.

Springs Community Development Manager Aimee Cox says she has "seen no viable proposal for a homeless campground," adding that as someone who lives in a 940-square-foot home with kids and a dog, she just doesn't see how tiny homes could evolve beyond a fad. "It could be a niche thing but I don't see it adding a significant number of units." That is to say, she believes "it is not the solution to the affordable housing crisis."

As for the temperature among neighborhood associations, CONO executive director Dave Munger says that informally, he's been hearing mixed opinions. "We haven't taken any official position because it really isn't on people's radar yet. It'll probably get there once there start to be public hearings," he tells the Indy. And then it'll go down like any new development project does. "Folks around that proposed community will have the opportunity to say, "Hey, I like that' or 'Hey, I'm worried about traffic, unsightliness, property values — whatever it is.'"

It's no surprise then that tiny homes' most ardent proponents worry that this city's signature slow-on-the-uptake style will hold back the local movement.

"The problem is that in the past we've been so top-down, command-and-control in this community that many of the civic and community organizations tend to take a parochial approach to all these disputes," said Mike Schmidt. "It's conservative vs. liberal, blah blah blah, all that political mishmash. But I don't want to talk politics; I'm talking about business."

That's why VSS/Ensemble Ventures will be in attendance when PATH hosts the first annual Housing Solutions Summit at UCCS on Sept. 12 to bring together developers, builders, investors, public officials, nonprofits and anyone else with skin in the game to find, as the name would suggest, housing solutions.

"It's time to get all the right people around the table, slap a plan down, and start hashing it out," Schmidt said. "We just need to do a pilot project. Four or five units — a test run to see if this thing works. Let's stay wide open to collaboration and compromise, but if we can't get local backers to do it here in the Springs area, we're ready to pick up and go do it in Walsenburg or California now."

On second thought, Schmidt quipped, "Let's do it here — it'll be fun."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of the Housing Solutions Summit at UCCS.

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