In Detroit, Tiny Homes Are More Than a Lifestyle Trend – POLITICO
Tiny houses are often mocked as millennial indulgences, a faddish protest against the clutter of modern life and our extravagant use of the earth’s resources. In a Detroit neighborhood still strewn with vacant lots, however, tiny homes are providing a financial lifeline, not just a trendy lifestyle.
The Rev. Faith Fowler, a feisty 60-year-old Methodist pastor, devised a radically new approach to solving a national domestic crisis that affects some half a million people.
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Since 2016, Cass Community Social Services, an anti-poverty nonprofit whose roots are in the local Methodist church, has built 13 homes in the heart of a city that has suffered a crippling loss of housing stock and a chronic level of homelessness. The houses look like a scaled down version of a middle-class suburban dream—Cape Cods, Victorians and angle-roofed moderns, none larger than 400 square feet, each on its own 30-by-100-foot lot. And eight of them are occupied by a person who at one point in their lives had been homeless.
Tiny homes have been used as emergency shelters or transitional housing in places like Seattle and Denver. Seattle runs 10 tiny house “villages,” which provide a range of social services along with a weather-tight and secure place to sleep. But Fowler’s project is different.
Her tiny homes (six more are under construction with six more planned), built to code on concrete foundations, are designed to be permanent living spaces not just transitional housing. At an estimated construction value of $45-$55,000, much of it built with donated dollars from corporations, foundations and a variety of Chrisian denominations, they provide an opportunity to build generational wealth for chronically poor people living paycheck to paycheck.
“It’s about economic mobility more than residential stability, which is the American dream and which for most of us is tied to home ownership,” says Fowler, whose program allows people who would never qualify for a mortgage “to own a home that I’m guessing will be worth $50,000 to $60,000 one day.”
For Fowler, her lightbulb moment occurred shortly after the death of her mother. “My Mom died and left me a house. ‘For God’s sake, I’m middle class, and this is what we do,’” she recalls realizing at that moment. “Poor people have never had that opportunity generationally. When you’re poor and your parent dies, you gather everyone you know together and try to raise enough money for a cremation, about $1,000—not a burial, because that’s $4-5,000.”
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Tracey Harris, a sociology professor at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, included the Cass model in her 2018 book, The Tiny House Movement: Challenging our Consumer Culture. “One of the really amazing things is that once you have that [homeowner equity], you can make decisions about your life that you wouldn’t have had an opportunity to do before that, to live in your house the rest of your life, to sell it, to put it in your will, to break that cycle of poverty.”
To make the concept work, Cass Community Social Services uses a rent-to-own formula that charges one dollar per square foot. At 250 to 400 square feet per home, that’s a rent payment that is actually affordable on the minimum $7,000 annual income allowed by the program.
Residents must pay their own utility bills, meet once a month with a financial coach, and take part in a community watch program. And then, if all goes according to plan, after seven years, the home and land on which it sits are deeded to the tenant, mortgage free.
“The ‘tiny’ part,” Fowler explains, “just makes it manageable financially. But it also makes sense for us because we’re big advocates for the planet and repopulating the neighborhood.”
It doesn’t hurt that the homes have that cute factor that makes them eye-candy for the magazine spreads. Fowler has exceeded her $1.5 million fundraising goal for the first 25 homes, written a how-to book on the program, Tiny Homes in a Big City, that has sold 4,000 copies and produced a video with more than 50 million views.
Robert Prince, 62, moved into a tiny home on December 1, 2018 after years of homelessness and most recently, living in an apartment complex run by Cass.
“Oh, man, when they gave me the keys, and everything was furnished, the bedroom, the dining room, I fell to my knees and cried,” he recalled in a telephone interview during a break at his job at Cass Green Industries, which makes sandals, mats and other products from recycled tires.
“In the apartment building, people were running through the hall and on top of your head. Now that I’m in my own home, it’s a peace of mind. You have your castle,” Prince said. “I see what they’re talking about now.”
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