Unhoused: Episode 5 – Tiny Homes

“It’s this little bit of a grand experiment, but it’s kind of exciting.” — Paul Melroy, Veterans Community Project.


Unhoused a 6-part podcast/radio series produced by the Boulder Weekly and KGNU. Read more about the series in the Boulder Weekly.

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The Veterans Community Project is working on creating a tiny home village in South West Longmont for veterans experiencing homelessness. If all goes according to plan, a two-acre tractor-raked swath of dirt will be a resting place for 26 new tiny homes and a community center. The 2-to-300 square-foot miniature dwellings will be transitional homes for veterans experiencing homelessness across Northern Colorado.

Navy veteran Paul Melroy with the Veterans Community Project says the community center will provide supportive and recreational services to housed and unhoused vets alike.

“We’re going to address the things that got you into the homeless situation to begin with, whether it’s mental health issues, physical health, job training, financial literacy.”

The tiny home village will be strictly transitional and residents won’t be charged rent or utilities. “It’s free to the vet who gets to stay there, but they have to be a willing participant in getting those services,” says Melroy.

The Veterans Community Project was founded five years ago by a group of combat veterans in Kansas City tired of watching vets fall through cracks in the city’s homelessness framework.

Veterans are disproportionately reflected in unhoused populations across the country. And Melroy explains that some social and housing services can exclude veterans due to discharge status. And for psychological reasons, some vets find it particularly difficult to go straight from living on the streets to living in an apartment — which is the singular strategic focus of the popular Housing First model to which many cities, including those in Boulder County subscribe.

Since opening the tiny village in Kansas City in 2018, the Veterans Community Project has helped dozens of vets exit homelessness, and served thousands more through the community center, with its robust wrap-around service system.

After the tiny home village received waves of national praise, the organization started looking to grow its concept elsewhere. Longmont was chosen as the first expansion site. And, despite months of delays due to COVID-19, they broke ground on the Longmont village this summer. According to Melroy, it’s one of a few indications that alternative housing models are finally gaining traction in local and national conversations about reducing homelessness and housing insecurity.

“The solutions are daunting. There’s no cookie-cutter solution to any of this. And you have to be willing to sort of attack things from a lot of different angles,” he says.

Cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Portland have been using micro-communities to help serve a variety of low-income and homeless individuals for years. In Denver, the Colorado Village Collaborative—the same organization that’s opening Denver’s inaugural Safe Outdoor Spaces—is in the process of expanding its Beloved Community Village, a collection of 19 transitional tiny homes in Denver, by adding a specialized women’s village.  But the concept has been slow to take root more locally. The Veterans Community Project village in Longmont will be the first of its kind in Boulder County.

Masyn Moyer, vice-chair of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board, is a long-time advocate for tiny homes. She lives in a converted school bus. “For those of us who don’t have a retirement plan, the smartest thing that we can do is reduce our expenses.”

Masyn Moyer, vice-chair of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board, has been a longtime advocate for tiny homes. On both a local and national scale, she’s been working to standardize and legalize for them for years. Tiny homes, she says, are uniquely poised to help not only veterans, but others who might not be ready or able to live alone in an apartment complex or a house—the elderly, the working class, the young couples starting out—the people trying to reduce personal carbon footprints, or simply trying to find affordable spaces to live in an increasingly unaffordable county. In her mind, tiny homes bring a lot to the table.

And as it pertains to homelessness, she explains tiny homes can kill two birds with one stone: simultaneously preventing homelessness by introducing more affordability into the housing market, and also providing help moving out of homelessness by supplying a cheap, transitional experience. She says the Veterans Community Project in Longmont may be a palatable way to demonstrate the viability of tiny home villages, especially to local elected officials who’ve long resisted the idea. Moyer herself has lived on and off in a tiny home for years, in her case a converted school bus.

“My goal was to shrink my footprint. I didn’t need a large house anymore. I didn’t want to have roommates, and I wanted to be able to move a little bit easier than what I was. I’m also coming up on being a senior. And I was one of the individuals who didn’t plan well young and again, based on my trauma was homeless for many years when I was young. So I don’t have a retirement plan.  And for those of us who don’t have a retirement plan, the smartest thing that we can do is reduce our expenses. We have to get rid of all debt and reduce our expenses, period. That’s how we’re going to survive.”

Tiny homes, with small geographic footprints and minimalist designs, can give people a sense of independence and privacy, and advocates like Moyer claim they’re a cost-effective way for vulnerable community members to gain some stability. At face value, tiny homes are much cheaper than apartment complexes. In Denver, the Colorado Village Collaborative models cost about $15,000 to build, and the ones in Longmont will come out to about $10,000.

Still, others contend that the high-density village designs will disrupt neighborhood traffic patterns and aren’t viable in parking-space-starved cities. Some also argue that transitional housing is a financial distraction from the ultimate homelessness solution: permanent housing.

Permanent housing via the Housing First strategy has been the exclusive focus of Homeless Solutions for Boulder County, or HSBC, the inter-governmental body organizing local homelessness reduction. While prioritizing affordable housing over more temporary service aids has led the agency to help nearly 500 people exit homelessness, officials acknowledge the program’s major limiting factor: Boulder County’s short and slow-growing supply of affordable housing. This summer, more than a dozen rental vouchers went unused due to difficulties in matching people with what was available in the housing supply.

So as folks wait for housing opportunities to open up, or wait to qualify for the Housing First programming, which requires participants to have lived in Boulder for at least six months, it’s grown increasingly difficult to cope with and survive life on the streets.

According to Tiny House Society, which tracks tiny home legislation in different states, these mini dwellings might be growing more popular on a conceptual level, but city codes and restrictive development regulations may lag behind due to cumbersome public policy processes. While the Veterans Community Project has experienced a relatively smooth and straightforward development process in Longmont, with city officials directly championing the project, that hasn’t been the case in nearby Boulder.  Some of this can be traced back to the Danish Plan, an influential ordinance limiting population growth in Boulder, named after a former council member who served in the 70s.

The idea of tiny homes as a housing-helper has been consistently dismissed in Boulder over the years, not just at the county policy level, but also as neighborhoods have pushed back with concerns about population density and land use. But, other cities like Denver and Portland and Nashville and many more, have found ways to incorporate tiny homes into the Housing First vision.

Decades ago ADUs (Alternative Dwelling Units,) which can come in the form of tiny homes, “carriage houses,” stand-alone backyard apartments, mother-in-law suites, converted trailers or school buses, used to be commonplace in Boulder. Take a walk down the historic Mapleton Avenue and you’ll see them interspersed in backyards. Current zoning and land use codes have evolved over time to intensely regulate the new construction of any ADUs.

In the 1970s  Boulder began a concentrated effort to “down-zone” neighborhoods and minimize the variety of housing development options. To preserve neighborhood character and suburban values, the stricter codes and zoning requirements eliminated opportunities for higher-density living, such as triplexes, small apartment complexes and/or ADUs. In exchange, developers prioritized single-family residences, which many community activists now cite as a major contributing factor to the City’s current lack of affordable housing.

Despite the popularity of new national TV shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House, Big Living, the work of convincing neighborhoods to welcome tiny homes—especially to provide housing for lower-income or unhoused people—has proved tough, and is a substantial, sometimes fatal, roadblock for tiny home village ventures across the country. When ideas promoting villages have surfaced, neighborhoods in many cities — Des Moines, Iowa; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tallahassee, Florida; and Denver, to name a few — have organized robust campaigns opposing tiny homes.

Des Moines, Iowa faces homelessness problems similar to Boulder, with fewer shelter beds than people in need of shelter. There, the homelessness advocacy organization, Joppa, has been lobbying for a transitional tiny home community for years. Even after securing independent funding and services partnerships, a 2017 proposal was dismissed due to neighborhood opposition. According to Joppa’s website, “The bottom line: land use is the only thing holding up this proven solution.”

In Boulder, there was a moment in 2016, after some members of City Council visited Portland to research homelessness responses, when some thought a deeper conversation might be on the horizon.

Councilmember Aaron Brockett recalls returning with a lot of ideas on how Boulder could adapt its homelessness solutions future to incorporate more temporary and transitional opportunities for the unhoused by way of tiny homes and/or sanctioned encampments.

“But when it came back to council to discuss the matter, I believe only Jen Burton and myself were interested in pursuing it further. So we didn’t have majority support for the tiny home village idea. And so we were never able to move forward on that.”

In 2018, another opportunity to consider tiny homes arose when the City of Boulder entertained proposals for use of the 22-acre Hogan Pancost property in east Boulder. Kurt Firnhaber, the city’s director of Housing and Human Services and also an HSBC board member, put forward the option of considering the property as a site for alternative and affordable housing ideas, including a tiny home village. It was briefly, but not seriously, entertained — no feasibility analysis was ever conducted, and the property was ultimately absorbed into open space.

In Denver, Beloved Community Village, though ultimately successful, had a tumultuous start, with intense community debate around where it would be located. It’s now situated on city property in the working-class Globeville neighborhood, but the project faced rounds of public scrutiny that nearly thwarted the process. After the first year of operation, however, an independent study found nearly 90% of Globeville neighbors reported no impact or a positive impact on their sense of community; nearly 80% reported no impact or a positive impact on their traffic, safety and noise. Also, crime rates didn’t increase near the village, despite concerns it would. The Colorado Village Collaborative’s new Women’s Village has been designed in partnership with the City and County of Denver, and will feature 14 new tiny homes plus other amenities on a previously vacant city block in the Cole neighborhood.

In Boulder in July, HSBC presented a homelessness strategy update to Boulder’s City Council, wherein tiny homes were acknowledged as a potentially helpful response to homelessness, but not an ideal one and not something HSBC will itself pursue.

The progress the tiny home and ADU movement has made in recent years has relied on extreme levels of collaboration between interested community members, public officials, nonprofits, national and local advocacy organizations. For the Veterans Community Project’s tiny home village in Longmont, it was no different. The project’s executive director, Paul Melroy, explains the village site is a donation from the community development company HMS Development. A couple years ago, Kevin Mulshine, a local company partner, visited the Veteran Community Project’s Kansas City village and was impressed enough to lobby for its extension in Longmont, offering to be its host. The tiny home village will only occupy a tiny corner of the property, right next to eight Habitat for Humanity homes, which will come with finance support for low-income families. On the rest of the acreage, HMS is planning a residential subdivision.

After Longmont’s village is up and running, the organization’s goal is to build eight more tiny home villages in the next two years in various cities across the country. St. Louis is the next on the list.

Unhoused is a 6-part radio series and podcast produced by the Boulder Weekly and KGNU. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, communities already struggling to provide services to the unhoused are seeking to end an enduring problem with new solutions: preventing evictions and exploring opportunities for safe lots, urban campgrounds and tiny homes in addition to the national Housing First strategy. Whether you live in Boulder or not, join host Emma Athena as she analyzes how COVID-19 has changed the conversation around homelessness solutions.

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