Building hope: The Tiny Houses of HOPE project gets underway in Kalamazoo

This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's series on solutions to affordable housing and housing the unhoused. It is made possible by a coalition of funders including Kalamazoo County, the city of Kalamazoo, the ENNA Foundation, and the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.

KALAMAZOO, MI – So where do you go after you’ve done your time and you’re released from prison, jail, or a community-based halfway program?
You’ve found a job and you’re making decent money. But you’re still living in the spare room at a friend’s house, or in a space provided by a church organization, or moving from the couch of one family member to the couch of another.
“We know that there’s a homelessness issue,” says Gwendolyn Hooker, founder and chief executive officer of HOPE Thru Navigation.
If you think it’s tough for most people to find affordable housing in an already tight housing market, try to find it when you have a criminal record, or when you have a history with substance or alcohol use, she says.
Kalamazoo Assistant City Manager Rebekah Kik, left, shares a moment with HOPE Thru Navigation leader Gwendolyn Hooker, at the April 4, 2024, for groundbreaking of the Tiny Houses of Hope.“And so when you go through all of the people who are looking for apartment units, they’re (landlords are) not going to pick the person that’s coming out of prison first,” she says. “They’re always going to be at the bottom of the list. And that’s just statistically a fact.”
So she’s hoping a cluster of small rental homes that her organization has been striving to build since 2018 will be an answer to a big need for people who struggle to find a place of their own.
HOPE Thru Navigation broke ground on three “tiny” houses on Thursday, April 4, 2024, on a plot of land off the southeast corner of North Street and Westnedge Avenue in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood. The organization will build on a swath of vacant land purchased from the City of Kalamazoo.
A tiny house is considered one with 450 square feet or less of internal space. They are typically designed to be well-insulated and energy-efficient. The Tiny Houses of HOPE, designed by Abonmarche Byce of Kalamazoo, are to be built by Adam Garland Construction and are intended to be the first of several homes that will be leased to able-bodied, working individuals who are living without dependents. They will be one-story, semi-furnished dwellings with high-end finishes. Two will have loft areas. One will have barrier-free access.
Construction is set to begin on Monday, April 8, and be completed by the end of June. Each will be about 410 square feet. With appliances included they will rent for about $410 per month. The cost of utilities, which is not included in the rent, is expected to push the monthly housing cost to about $450. 

Gwendolyn Hooker, founder and CEO of HOPE Thru Navigation, says “tiny” houses may be the most efficient way to bring affordable housing to Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood.Hooker says the development of the houses was delayed by the advent of COVID-19 and a dramatic rise in construction costs over the last few years. A ground-breaking for the project was originally scheduled for March of 2020.

Each house was originally expected to be built at a cost of $47,000 (compared to about $75,000 for a local house with more than twice the internal square footage). And the total cost to build six tiny houses along with an adjacent 800-square-foot services building was expected to be about $350,000. The post-COVID cost of the project, if it had gone ahead as conceived with six tiny houses, soared to more than $1 million, Hooker says.
The per-house construction cost of the three tiny houses (in the scaled-back project) is now about $112,000, she says. And the total cost of building only those three houses and the necessary infrastructure is about $425,000.
Construction of the adjacent 800-square-foot building to provide services to help tenants continue with their recovery from substances and facilitate their transition into the community is now planned to be part of a second phase of the development.
Hooker says she started the Tiny Houses of HOPE project in 2018 to help her organization’s target population. HOPE Thru Navigation is an advocacy organization to help people return to productive lives after a criminal conviction or after they have recovered from substance use disorder. HOPE stands for Helping Other People Exceed. Hooker says she realized she had a lot of clients who could not leave the halfway housing that was provided by the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program because they could not find suitable alternative living accommodations.
KPEP is a community-based alternative to incarceration for adults convicted of crimes. It operates residential and non-residential programs to help people transition back into the community.
“There were so many people that were paying rent to KPEP and paying rent while others were sleeping on people’s couches,” Hooker says. “They were people who had really great jobs and were very reliable employees who showed up when they were supposed to. But people would not rent to them because they had a history of substance use disorder or because they had a criminal background.”
HOPE Thru Navigation has laid the groundwork for the first three of its Ironically, she says, “It’s not 100 percent foolproof. But more times than not, people that have a criminal background or people that have a problem finding housing, when they find housing, they value it. They treasure it. And they normally don’t move.”
Why tiny houses?
They are the most affordable, efficient, and time-effective way to make an impact, Hooker says.
“These houses can be built in a weekend,” she says, although the infrastructure work for the local project will require more time. “They can be designed in various ways. But they’re affordable because they are way cheaper than building a bunch of units.”
Hooker says the tiny house concept was considered as she searched to find a way to provide affordable housing for her clients. She and a 10-person steering committee for the project were inspired by a 24-house community of tiny houses being built by Detroit-based Cass Community Social Services to allow low-income individuals a means to own homes. The houses, which the committee visited in May of 2018 in the northwest part of the Motor City, were being occupied on a rent-then-own basis, part of a program with qualifiers to participate that is not open to simply anyone looking to rent. Cass Community Social Services is focused on serving the homeless, senior citizens, and young people who have aged out of the foster care system.
The HOPE Thru Navigation Hooker thanks that nonprofit organization, along with its leader Rev. Faith Fowler, for their assistance. Other partners in making the Kalamazoo project a reality include Franklin Public Affairs, JAG Services, the City of Kalamazoo, LISC, Kalamazoo County, HMG Navigation & Planning LLC., and individual donors.

Mattie Jordan-Woods, former Executive Director of the Northside Association for Community Development, says she hopes this is the beginning of using tiny houses in areas that are in need of affordable housing.

“The tiny house project is just another example of affordable housing that could be used in the neighborhoods,” Jordan-Woods says. “I hope that, instead of the housing organizations trying to put all of the tiny house projects on the North Side, that they put them in every neighborhood in the City of Kalamazoo.”

Tobi Hanna-Davies, a member of the Tiny Houses of HOPE Steering Committee, praised Hooker's work saying, “She is exactly the right person to make this project succeed and exceed.” She described the tiny houses as “a new, innovative type of low-cost housing that’s very badly needed in our community.”
Each of the The three homes in Kalamazoo’s Northside Neighborhood are expected to be the first of five to be located in part of the Northside Cultural Business District. Over the next three years, HOPE Thru Navigation also hopes to attract funding to build tiny house hubs in the Vine, East Side, and Edison neighborhoods. In each of those locations, five or six more tiny houses can be built. They are core neighborhoods that have the largest need to house people returning to their community with a history of incarceration or substance use disorder, according to HOPE Thru Navigation.
Hooker says that although people who are returning from prison and those with substance use disorders may be shunned by employers and landlords, they often become the best employees and the best tenants because they have a lot to lose and because it has usually taken them a lot to get a good opportunity.

“A person who finally gets a job that they like, and they’re making enough money to actually pay the bills, they stay there,” Hooker says. “They show up on time. They go above and beyond. It’s the same with housing. When a person finally gets a place that they can call their own, they’re going to value it. They’re going to treasure it. They’re going to pay their rent on time. And they’re going to make sure they keep that landlord’s place nice and neat and really just be grateful for the opportunity to have a home that they can call their own.”
Why should people be excited by the tiny house development?
Because anybody can duplicate the project and build affordable housing, Hooker says. “This is the cheapest way to go,” she says, “to get people in somewhere and off the street as fast as possible, with an affordable rate.”

More information about the houses is available by contacting HOPE Thru Navigation at 269-775-1221 or via its website

Partners in the development of the Tiny Houses of HOPE, have a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project on Thursday, April 4, 2024.
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.