Northside Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E. to help the homeless

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.

On the Northside, a new project to support re-entry for those formerly incarcerated and provide stability for those in recovery from substance use disorder is launching this spring: a half dozen tiny houses.

“Basically our mission is to provide individuals deterred in life by imprisonment, homelessness, and addiction a place to live and call their own,” says Gwendolyn Hooker, Executive Director for the Northside Recovery & Resource Center, which runs Helping Other People Exceed (H.O.P.E.) thru Navigation.

The Tiny House project, several months in the planning, is based on a model in Detroit implemented by United Methodist Reverend Faith Fowler, Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services and author of “Tiny Homes in a Big City.” 

“We looked at what are most notable contributors to relapse and recidivism,” says Hooker. “The two highest ones are housing and employment.” The two factors account for over 87 percent success rate in adults with a criminal background or substance use disorder or both. 

“In other words, if we provide housing and employment within the first 30 to 45 days of re-entry, the likelihood of repeat offenses (recidivism) and or relapse are lowered by 72 percent,” says Hooker, citing statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union's Smart Justice initiative.

“Once I identified the factors, I started looking at what was in existence.”

Hooker found there wasn’t much—and what did exist wasn’t enough. “No one can argue that affordable housing for this demographic isn’t needed,” she says emphatically. “There is not affordable housing for this demographic at all.”

The Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E. Pilot Project hopes to break ground on their first six houses and a leasing office and educational building in spring 2019, pending approval of the Northside Business Cultural District (NBCD) by the City Commission in November.

Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E. steering committee members were able to see many stages of Detroit's Tiny House Project.The NBCD, a neighborhood proposal grew out of the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 process and is part of the city's new master plan. It includes zoning changes that would accommodate smaller lots, as well as mixed-use zoning to support home businesses, and has already been approved by the zoning commission. 

“To have ownership, to have a key and to be able to say this is mine, and to have the opportunity to even purchase a house, if that’s what you want to do, means so much. It really is an equitable solution to what has happened across this country,” says Hooker, referring to redlining and segregation practices that have limited homeownership options for so many over the years. 

Why tiny houses and not an apartment building? 

“It’s the affordability issue,” says Hooker. “We want it to be small. We want it to be manageable. When you look at people who live in subsidized housing, you can see that the larger the numbers (living in one building), the more that can go wrong.”

The Tiny House, on the other hand, is self-contained and promotes self-sufficiency and pride in living in or owning a self-contained home.

“We wanted a realistic goal to meet without (the prospective homeowner) having to wait three, four years down the line.”

Make, model and price point: The appeal of the tiny house

Perhaps you’ve watched one of several tiny house shows, such as “Tiny House Nation” or HGTV’s “Tiny House, Big Living” and been enamored with the simplicity and self-sufficiency that a tiny house embodies. 

According to James Wallman, a journalist and trend forecaster who wrote Stuffocation, we are entering the age of valuing experience over materialism where people are more likely to attend a local concert, take an art class, or travel than buy big.

Since the advent of Kalamazoo’s first tiny house in 2016 on the Eastside, which is owned by Ben Brown, who is also on the Tiny Houses for H.O.P.E. committee, Kalamazoo has been considering changes to its zoning laws to accommodate the smaller dwellings, which are often less than 1,000 square feet, but typically around 400 square feet, the size of a standard studio apartment.

But what tiny houses lack in space, they make up for in state of the art design that incorporates multiple-use furniture, such as a trundle bed that might also serve as a desk, or in the case of Brown’s home, a moveable kitchen island and a furo, a Japanese heated sitting tub that fits in the shower. 

For the Northside Tiny House development, two models, not yet decided upon, will be available, one for the rentals and another for rent-to-own. Currently, the steering committee is considering the Katrina Cottage as it fits the character and architecture of housing on the Northside with a sizeable friendly front porch and high-gabled roof. Interestingly, this model was designed to withstand a hurricane, hence its name. 

The Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E. Steering Committee, with Detroit's Rev. Faith Fowler as a guide, visit her tiny house project in Detroit last March.And to ‘walk the talk,’ Hooker is also pleased to have carpenter Thomas Woodruff, who was formerly in prison and has a substance abuse history, serving as the chair of the construction committee and Anthony Carter, an 18 years clean recovering addict, as the project manager. 

The 400-square-foot houses are projected to cost $12,000 in labor and $12,000 in materials for a total cost of $24,000.

The rental price, Hooker says, is a model taken directly from Rev. Fowler. It takes into consideration the minimum wage earnings of a person who works 40 hours a week as a base. The price arrived at is $1 per square foot, or $400 a month plus utilities, which are very modest. 

This project wouldn’t be possible without those zoning changes proposed in the NBCD and the support of progressive people who are interested in out-of-the-box-subsidized housing solution, says Hooker.

Not just for living, but also for learning: H.O.P.E. will also pilot a training hub

While having a place to live in one part of the equation for success, having a way to pay for your housing is the other. So, in addition to the six houses, there will be a learning and training component housed in the leasing office. The training will have three educational tracks: cutting (barbering and tailoring), catering, and carpentry.

“People who live there have to be employed,” says Hooker. “They have to be able to pay the rents. But we’re also looking at different employment options whether they want to start their own business or whatever they want to get a job that pays more money.”

For this aspect of the pilot, Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E. Project will be partnering with Kalamazoo Valley Community College Culinary School and with Urban Alliance’s Momentum Program.

“People of color have the capacity to be whatever they want. We don’t tell them what they need,” says Hooker. “We ask them what is your plan? How can we help them achieve that plan?”

And that plan is not always going to be one that follows the status quo of the American dream--home ownership, a traditional nine to five job, and an automobile.

“Society has been lying to us and making us believe there was this is the one path to success,” says Hooker. “You don’t have to buy a house to be successful.”

But you do need a place to live.

Ways to help: Adopt a Tiny House (or a tiny porch or a tiny roof)

One house, thanks to generous donors, including George Franklin, who recently ran in the Democratic primary for the 6th district U.S. House of Representatives, is already paid for, and Tiny Houses of H.O.P.E. will be starting a capital campaign in January called Raising Hope for Tiny Houses.

“People are already reaching out to ask what they can do,” says Hooker, who is pleased by the interest and support. With an adoption, full or partial, new donors will be given official paperwork. 

“We want people to be invested in the long-term solution of the problem,” says Hooker.

In the wake of the recent rise in homelessness in Kalamazoo and the shortage of shelter and transitional housing, which includes an overall shrinking of affordable housing stock, most are aware the number of those homeless in the area is likely to rise. Six tiny houses might seem like a drop in the bucket, but without the first drops, a bucket never fills.

“Basically this is an approach to level the playing field where home ownership and tangible housing is an affordable option for everyone, whether you have a criminal background or a substance abuse history,” says Hooker. “It creates the idea that you are important, you’re worthy, and you deserve a place to live.”

If you want to adopt or help with the Tiny Houses of Hope, please contact the team here. Checks can be written out to the Northside Association for Community Development, which is the fiduciary. 
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.