Tiny homes: A big Idea for housing Chicago youth

By Martha Bayne

About 11,000 Chicagoans between the ages of 18 and 21 experienced homelessness in the 2014-2015 school year, according the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

This precarious state of existence can disrupt education, trigger medical problems and make it more likely these young people will experience homelessness as adults.

Yet Chicago has only an estimated 375 shelter beds for young people.

Tracy Baim, a community leader and editor of the Windy City Timeshas an idea to help close the gap. Tiny homes – which have become a popular lifestyle choice and even a subculture for people with plenty of money and housing options – could be the key to providing homeless youth the shelter and autonomy they need at a crucial and vulnerable time in their lives.

At the two-day Tiny Home Summit at the University of Illinois at Chicago last week, Baim and other advocates explored the idea.

tiny homes model tiny house at uic
A model tiny home at the Tiny Homes summit at UIC. Photo by Martha Bayne.

“Tiny homes can be one of several options for housing for youth, veterans, seniors and other populations,” says Baim, pointing out the no-frills residences of less than 400 square feet are inexpensive and quick to build. They can also be clustered in “villages” of six to 12 houses to help address the growing affordable housing crisis in a city where, in some neighborhoods, 75 percent of residents are spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent.

And, Baim adds, tiny homes provide crucial things that homeless shelters or other crisis housing options do not: “privacy, autonomy, and dignity.”

Homeless young people are often stigmatized in ways that veterans, for example, are not: they may be seen as drug addicts or troublemakers, they might be pregnant, they may be gay or gender nonconforming. Chicago’s SHED Studio works with young Chicagoans to creatively address questions of homelessness and affordable housing. Speaking at the summit, people who had participated in a recent series of SHED workshops emphasized the importance of autonomy and choice. They noted that shelters have curfews, and “sometimes we want to stay out late!” as one participant said.

That may sound trivial, but, added another participant, “People don’t understand that being homeless is a psychological thing.”

Housing isn’t just about sheltering a body from the elements, in other words. It’s about being able to have space to be an individual; it’s about being able to have a friend over, to cook, to make music, to have sex.

At the same time, said another, it’s important to foster a sense of community.

“People don’t know that there can be homeless people who have jobs or who are going to school, just cause they fell into bad circumstances…We don’t want to feel like outcasts isolated within the community, we want to be part of the community.”

Tiny home communities recently established across the country vary greatly in their demographics and specifics, but all aim for this balance of autonomy and community.

In Austin, Texas, the Mobile Loaves & Fishes Community First! Village is a 27-acre planned community of tiny homes, canvas cottages and RVs tucked behind an outdoor cinema run by the city’s famed Alamo Drafthouse group.

The Metamorphosis Project in Memphis, Tn., provides transitional housing for LGBTQ youth in homes built from shipping containers. Dallas’s Cottages at Hickory Crossing feature 15 gabled, proto-Victorian “Katrina Cottages” developed after Hurricane Katrina, each one costing $60,000 to build. In Seattle, the Low Income Housing Institute is using tiny homes costing $6,000 each as a crisis solution to homelessness.

“We’re just slammin’ these things together and getting people in them,” said director Melinda Nichols.

“We know that this solution will not fit all needs,” says Baim, when asked whether the relative freedom of a tiny home community is appropriate for homeless teenagers coping with challenges on multiple fronts. “But there are very high-functioning youth living on the streets trying to go to school full-time, work full-time, even raise kids of their own. Their primary need is housing.”

There are no tiny home villages in Chicago — yet. Two are in the planning stages, but have significant hurdles to clear before they can become reality. Chicago’s zoning code, which requires standalone housing to be at least 500 square feet and prohibits multiple detached dwellings on a single lot, presents a particular challenge. Panelist and zoning attorney Danielle Meltzer drew applause when she remarked that she had gone through the city code and flagged every clause that was incompatible with tiny home construction. “I ran through an entire pack of Post-Its,” she said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a guiding sentiment of the conference seemed to be “act first, sort out the details later,” and advocates like Kavita Sharma and Adrianna McKinley are forging ahead.

Their proposed Bootstrap Villages envisions transitional housing for homeless Chicagoans in the form of 20 tiny homes around a community center in Bronzeville. And architect Jeff Bone, of Landon Bone Baker, is developing a tiny home community in conjunction with St. Paul United Church of Christ in North Kenwood/Oakland. That project, which also includes a community building with shared laundry facilities and a large kitchen, offers three different tiny home designs, to address one of the other striking themes of the conference: the desire for choice and individuality.

These homes could be for anyone, says Bone: “Empty nesters downsizing, college students, people interested in simplicity, sustainability and creative urban infill.”

The project is not designed explicitly to serve a homeless population, but rather someone on disability, or making minimum wage. When pressed on this, Bone reiterated a point made earlier with brutal frankness by Meltzer.

Rather than planning a pilot project to serve the chronically homeless – the “neediest of the needy,” for whom homelessness is a stigma and who require a significant commitment of social services –“put your eggs in the first basket into something that is cute and hip and millennial and Logan Square-esque,” she said. Such a pilot, Bone added later, can be used to experiment, to work out the zoning and building code issues, and (hopefully) model success for more complicated projects down the road.

The Tiny Homes Competition held in conjunction with the summit solicited proposals for tiny homes to suit a particular site in Bronzeville. A $30,000 prototype of the winning design, by young Chicago architects Lon Stousland, Terry Howell and Marty Sandberg, was on display outside the UIC student center, next to the Jane Addams Hull House Museum. At just 330 square feet, with a separate bathroom and a storage loft, the dwelling was deceptively spacious and airy, eliciting “oohs” from the conference-goers crowding in for a look.

“It went from a sketch very quickly to the building you see here,” said Stousland. “This is all a lot closer to reality than you think. We are really excited to make more of this happen in the city.”

“I like how it really is just a smaller-scale version of a larger traditional Chicago brick or wood home,” said Baim. “It is a beautiful design, with high ceilings to provide lots of light, and a porch to provide a sense of community.

Upon entering the model home, she noted, “So many people said, ‘I could live here.’ That was music to our ears.”

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