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Could tiny house ‘villages’ be one solution to homelessness in the Twin Cities?

To address the region’s homeless problem — and deal with Minnesota’s complex land-use rules — one Twin Cities nonprofit is working to establish a framework for building and running communities of tiny homes that would be located on land owned by churches. 

A tiny house prototype sits in the parking lot of Maplewood’s Woodland Hills Church.
A tiny house prototype sits in the parking lot of Maplewood’s Woodland Hills Church.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

One of the most frustrating aspects of being homeless in the Twin Cities, according to Anthony Porcello, is finding ways to occupy time during daytime hours. 

Before his go-to shelter opens for the night, the 53-year-old former Marine often rides light-rail trains to stay warm or walks around St. Paul with his luggage. But on some afternoons, he catches up with Gabrielle Clowdus, an architect and research fellow at the University of Minnesota who is studying housing and homelessness. The two met years ago at a now-closed St. Paul café, where Porcello had worked as a handyman and Clowdus wrote papers.

From Porcello, Clowdus said she learned about the day-to-day struggles of homelessness, knowledge she has used to research and develop a possible solution for creating stable housing options — and a sense of community — for people without permanent homes in Minnesota.

The limits of ‘housing first’

In the backdrop of Clowdus’ effort is a scramble by health professionals and politicians statewide to address the growing number of Minnesotans who are sleeping outside. According to a one-night statewide count of homeless people last year, the number of unsheltered residents in the state has more than doubled since 2015, with emergency shelters often at capacity and waitlists for subsidized housing vouchers more competitive now than ever. 

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According to housing-rights advocates in the Twin Cities, there’s another reason for the ballooning homeless population. Even amid a regionwide building boom, there’s simply not enough housing that’s affordable for low-income residents, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the cost of new construction is historically high for all types of housing.

Gabrielle Clowdus
Gabrielle Clowdus
Those factors informed Clowdus’ work when former Hennepin Healthcare CEO Jon Pryor asked her and her team at the University of Minnesota to study why so many homeless people used his hospital’s emergency room for shelter. 

“It’s just this revolving door, and there’s got to be a better way,” Clowdus said. “You can come into the ER and you’re not going to be turned away. But it’s just not the same for housing; if you need a home, you’re not going to necessarily get one.”

As part of her research, Clowdus studied how other health care systems across the country approached the same problem. Many hospitals, she learned, touted their partnerships with government agencies to build more low-income housing. They used a “housing first” approach to homelessness, a strategy that emphasizes getting homeless people into permanent homes as quickly as possible and then connecting them with social services, such as substance-abuse treatment, after they move in.

But Clowdus believed there must be other solutions to helping the growing homeless population. While research shows the housing-first model reduces costs for the public and increases housing stability for homeless people, she found a lack of data on whether the strategy increases people’s sense of social belonging which, according to Clowdus, is the true indicator of whether someone is able to break the cycle of sleeping outside.

“They said, ‘Hey, let’s just put people in housing first and see what happens,’” she said. “[But] they’re living next to neighbors who didn’t ask to live next to them, with backgrounds that they can’t understand or relate to it just continues to create this division of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

A new new kind of housing

Clowdus’ approach to housing centers on the theory that homelessness is most often the result of a profound loss of family and connection. Those with strong support networks, she says, will find ways to avoid sleeping on the streets or in vehicles because they have friends, relatives, co-workers, or others to help them. 

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With that in mind, Clowdus began exploring how she could bring a “community first” approach to housing, one that could create social networks in addition to providing shelter. 

Enter the tiny house movement. From the 240-home Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, to the 5-home OM Village in Madison, Wisconsin, settlements of tiny houses nationwide are increasingly being used to provide shelter for people who previously slept outside — with the added bonus of establishing built-in social circles among resident.

tiny house interior
Photo by John Swee/Dodge Creative Photography
An interior view of the tiny house prototype.
But Clowdus quickly realized Minnesota’s zoning building regulations would make bringing a tiny house project to the state difficult. Some cities prohibit homes that are less than 1,200-square feet, and all must follow state codes that require residential dwellings to have permanent foundations and plumbing, which can cost thousands of dollars for labor and materials. Those rules undermined Clowdus’ goal of building the tiny homes for just $20,000 to $35,000. “Minnesota is very, very buttoned up we have a lot of … land-use regulations,” she said.

But Clowdus found a loophole to all those rules. By constructing the tiny homes on trailers with wheels, the houses qualify under state law as RVs, or “recreational vehicles,” that provide temporary shelter. “The moment that we take something up off the ground, and we put it on wheels now, we’re no longer beholden to the building code,” she said.

Yet that presented another problem. Under state law, RVs are not legal for living in year-round, so Clowdus and other housing activists still need to lobby the Legislature for a change to state statute so that tiny houses on wheels can be recognized as a new category of housing. 

A mission-driven solution

Early on, Clowdus also knew she’d have to confront the question of how to introduce tiny houses into residential development, since neighbors in many other cities have opposed them. “Probably the number one barrier to affordable housing is that NIMBYism not in my backyard you know, ‘Not near my kids, not near my property values,’” she said. 

As Clowdus mulled that question, another woman, Anne Franz, was drifting away from her job as a project manager for Cargill and finding herself increasingly interested in a new, unique hobby: studying how churches statewide use their properties. Many own spaces that are underutilized, she said, or big rooms that are only occupied on Sundays, and so she started reaching out to church leaders to see if they’d be open to an Airbnb-style model of renting spaces to local nonprofits or community groups. 

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As part of that effort, she learned that under the federal laws governing church properties specifically, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — all churches are protected from “zoning and landmarking laws that substantially burden the religious exercise.” That means religious institutions can build or operate anything on their land that adheres to their faith-based missions. If housing the poor is a goal of the church, rolling out emergency cots in worship spaces is legal. 

Anne Franz
Anne Franz
So too is building tiny houses. 

In other words, said Clowdus, “If a religious institution can show that their mission is to care for the poor and the way they want to care for the poor is by creating community housing, then that neighborhood could rise up.” 

Looking for a first community

In 2018, St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker introduced Franz and Clowdus, and the two soon began forming a plan to establish a framework for building and running communities of tiny homes and then seek churches that would be open to putting them on their land.

In early 2019, the two women created a nonprofit, Settled, that allowed them to accept donations for the goal. From the start, they wanted to rely on private funding, avoiding the bureaucracy and competitive process of bidding for government grants. (That’s a key difference between Settled and another local nonprofit, Envision, that’s building tiny homes for the homeless with the financial help of federal and state aid for a project sponsored by HCMC.)

While seeking help to move forward with their project, Franz and Clowdus connected with parishioners of Maplewood’s Woodland Hills Church, which expressed interest in Settled’s model and agreed to fundraise donations for the nonprofit to build a prototype of a tiny home.

Over the course of 12 days, a handful of volunteers built the 100-square foot home which includes a twin bed, a hot plate, a mini fridge, a heater, a composting toilet and gravity-fed water basin on top of a $5,000 trailer, in the church’s parking lot. 

While the $20,000 home doesn’t have running water, it meets national standards for tiny houses regarding energy-use and insulation, which means it’s livable even in sub-zero temperatures, said Clowdus, who designed the home. 

She and Franz selected the building materials as well as the furniture and interior decoration to match the standards of middle-class living. They said they hope to give tenants a level of comfort they deserve for starting a new chapter, while also trying to make the homes fit in with the residential developments around them.

“We want people to say, ‘Hey, actually, my neighborhood is better because this [settlement] is here,’” she said.

A man named Alex, left, takes help from Todd Feske, who helps people sleeping outside in St. Paul with supplies and company. Most nights, Alex sleeps on a bench that overlooks the Mississippi River.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
A man named Alex, left, takes help from Todd Feske, who helps people sleeping outside in St. Paul with supplies and company. Most nights, Alex sleeps on a bench that overlooks the Mississippi River.
As envisioned by Franz and Clowdus, residents of such a settlement would pay $200 to $300 monthly in rent and play some sort of role in maintaining the village of 10 to 40 tiny homes. There would be a “common house” (not on wheels) that would include dining spaces, bathrooms, laundry and kitchens for tenants to share. 

With the prototype complete, the next step for Settled is finalizing a deal with a church in the Twin Cities metro. Working with land-use lawyers, Clowdus said they are in talks with an interested congregation and they could announce the location of the first community in 2020.

Anthony Porcello, for one, said he is eager to visit the prototype and learn how tiny houses could help people like him, those who don’t have homes and who have had bad luck with government-run programs in the past. “I’ve been through hell and back — twice,” he said. “When I came back, I ended up on the wrong side of heaven.”

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
As someone who’s lived on the streets for years in St. Paul, Anthony Porcello said he is eager to see the housing effort take off.