Colorful little homes are springing up alongside an arid freeway bank in the Dexter-Linwood neighborhood, a few miles northwest of downtown Detroit. Although tourists sometimes think the buildings are playthings and knock on the doors, the site is actually intended to help solve desperate urban problems.
“Every single house is different on purpose,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, the executive director of Cass Community Social Services, a nonprofit group that is building the property’s two dozen homes of a few hundred square feet each. Low-income adults, including people formerly homeless or incarcerated, are moving into the compound, which is surrounded by long, sad stretches of Victorian ruins.
Cass’ eclectic oasis is meant as the antithesis of monolithic public housing. Its builders have scattered gingerbread ornaments on exteriors made of brick, stucco, shingles, clapboards and recycled barn boards. Breezes rustling through mature trees help drown out the freeway noise, and butterflies are descending on the residents’ new flower beds and vegetable patches.
Gladys Ferguson, who is in her 60s and has severe arthritis, rents Cass’ yellow gabled house for $350 a month. (Seven years of her accumulated rent will eventually finance her outright purchase of the property.) “It’s just a gorgeous little thing,” she said. When she first entered the house for a preview, shortly before she moved in a few years ago, she sneaked away for a nap in the tucked-away bedroom. “That was the most serene thing you’ve ever seen,” she said.
Charities nationwide are creating similar tiny-house clusters for people in need. The building type, best known in recent years for starring in reality TV shows like “Tiny House, Big Living,” is gaining gravitas. It can offer reassuring domestic coziness for residents, and its nonthreatening appearance also appeals to wealthier neighbors, who might have raised “not in my backyard” objections to nonprofits’ proposals for more institutional designs.
“It looks like their own house, but on a smaller scale,” said Andrew Heben, the project director at SquareOne Villages in Eugene, Oregon. At the nonprofit’s enclaves of minihomes, roofs are arched, gabled or slanted and facades come in earth tones or candy colors. The cuteness factor and the quick construction turnaround time have helped persuade volunteers to raise money and provide pro bono services. Dan Bryant, SquareOne’s executive director, said contractors had been known to stop by works in progress unprompted and ask, “What have you got left over to do?”
The Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, is providing hundreds of tiny houses and places for their residents to work, raise produce and access medical care. “It’s succeeded beyond any of our imaginations” since it opened in 2015, said Alan Graham, the organization’s founder. Residents prefer the “refuge and safety” of having their own four walls, however small the enclosure — many suffered trauma on the streets and ended up considered “the most despised outcasts,” Graham said. A handful of longtime tenants are now working with architects and builders to customize their own new homes.
“We’re treating them like they’re billionaires,” Graham said. One proposal, he added, resembles a Japanese pagoda: “It looks, on paper, cuter than all get-out.”
Dozens of gabled prefab homes from Champion Home Builders have been shipped to Eden Village in Springfield, Missouri, as havens for homeless people with chronic disabilities. The columned front porches and exteriors are painted in beiges, mint greens and brick reds, among other hues, and solar panels are being installed on the roofs. A donor has stitched new patchwork quilts for the residents’ beds. “We decided not to give them hand-me-downs, which they’ve had all their lives,” said David Brown, a founder of the project and its umbrella organization, the Gathering Tree.
Glossy stone columbaria have niches that residents can reserve for storing their cremated ashes someday, in hand-turned wooden urns. “This is a place of permanence” for people who have long felt unrooted and not expected anyone to commemorate their lives, said Nate Schlueter, the Gathering Tree’s chief operating officer.
Individualized and well-crafted small homes for the 99% have been around since at least the 19th century, when Henry David Thoreau described his ideal quarters as an “airy and unplastered cabin, fit to entertain a traveling god.”
Other proselytizers have included Gustav Stickley, who popularized oaky bungalows; Frank Lloyd Wright, who came up with relatively modest streamlined prefab homes; and Buckminster Fuller, who envisioned utopias studded with geodesic domes.
New Urbanist planners have recommended incorporating petite dwellings into subdivisions, to accommodate lower-income residents. But sometimes the results have turned out a little too desirable; in Seaside, Florida, for instance, adorableness can now set you back nearly $1 million. Vacationers spend about $300 a night to stay at Think Big! A Tiny House Resort, a 2-year-old attraction in South Cairo, New York. (Full disclosure: This reporter hugely enjoyed an incognito stay there this summer, in a snug driftwood-gray shoebox named Mocha alongside goat pastures and mossy waterfalls.)
Nonprofits can keep costs low for small homes, but some experts wonder whether the trend will spread widely enough to make a noticeable dent in the nation’s problem with homelessness.
About half a million Americans every night, after all, have nowhere safe to lay their heads. Matthew Gordon Lasner, an associate professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College in New York, said he could not quite envision diminutive dwelling compounds turning into “a scalable solution.” Yet the sites do raise awareness of a critical societal need — more engagingly, perhaps, than politicians’ affordable-housing manifestos — and they attract visitors including scholars. “I love poking around them,” Lasner said.