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

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 12/23/2019 - 11:47 am.

    This is completely absurd. What needs to happen is to change the zoning codes to permit the construction of single room occupancy buildings that are affordable, with shared bathroom facilities and kitchens located on mass transit routes. Cities and Counties need to face up to the problem and fix it. Not create more bandaids, like putting homes on wheels, so we can avoid making the difficult decisions to solve the problem properly.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 12/23/2019 - 04:44 pm.

      Again, people who are unsheltered are not one monolithic group. Some for various reasons, including not wanting to be around others for safety issues, won’t go to a large shelter/building. In the twin cities, most programs for subsidized, transitional and shelters(these are all different) tend to be aimed at families. There are various issues why people are homeless, yes some have chemical health and/or mental health issues, some struggle with life 101 and some have jobs that don’t pay well. The above proposal would help with some, not all, but its worth looking at. Simply putting housing near transit centers does not work for many and how much can government subsidize? These are legit questions.

      • Submitted by Phil Poeschl on 12/24/2019 - 01:19 pm.

        Wrong answer. We need to increase the size of the housing pool. Flop houses, with shared kitchens/baths are a great and low cost way to do that. More housing will lower the cost of ALL housing. And btw, if someone does not want to live “with other people” as you say….well too bad. It surely will beat out camping under a bridge.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/25/2019 - 07:29 am.

          Two things:

          1) Calling what you propose “flop houses” is not likely to lead to ANYONE wanting to voluntarily live there.

          2) For some people, camping out under a bridge IS preferable to living with other people, so if living with other people is their only choice, those people will continue to “camp out under a bridge”.

    • Submitted by tim harmsen on 12/28/2019 - 06:05 am.

      Yes, that is what rooming houses were for. We own several it provides low cost housing

      Not possible to get a lodging license, city trying to get rid of them why ?

  2. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 12/23/2019 - 12:09 pm.

    Sounds like it was a mistake to burn down Swede Hollow.

  3. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 12/23/2019 - 12:49 pm.

    Lots of questions, but no answers.

    Is the current number of homeless people high/average/low? What is the mix of individuals vs families? Which way are those numbers predicted to go–and why?

    Tiny houses are for individuals, not families. How long would an individual live in such a unit? Is there a limited time–or is it open-ended?

    If this is a long-term issue, then address it with permanent housing designed for individuals (and/or families). This is a govt function (whether you like it or not). Choosing to do nothing is a choice–but does nothing to resolve the problem.

    Transportation is also an issue, but that is being resolved over the next decade or two. Self-driving cars will level the transportation playing field in terms of housing (i.e. *where* you live and work will be less important [in terms of land value due to easy access to transportation] as good access to any point in the system is essentially the same). In other words, the value of lower-priced land/properties within the self-driving car network will all be able to be upgraded (torn down and rebuilt?) because living within the network is what adds value.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/23/2019 - 01:54 pm.

    Some math: Since little houses are independent it means each will need independent heating/cooing plumbing etc. Since the tax payer is footing the bill, No surprise it is a lot more expensive than doing many smaller foot prints that share common infrastructure, walls general heat plants, plumbing etc. etc. no different that the cities proposed plans of “higher density” inner city build. A larger complex will share walls which reduces heat loss to the environment as well Not saying we aren’t interested in new ideas. but perhaps some cost analysis comparing A:B:C etc. would be worthwhile to ease the tax payer burden and provide a more green friendly solution.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/24/2019 - 11:32 am.

      Give the article a skim. “The tax payer” is not footing the bill, private donors are. There is no plumbing. There is almost surely no cooling. I’m not sure why you suggest “many smaller footprints that share common infrastructure” would be cheaper, given that the tiny house prototype discussed in the article is already just 100 square feet, it is virtually impossible to get local approval to build a single-room-occupancy building anywhere, and even if you did you’d be spending well over $20,000 per unit because such a building would require the plumbing and other infrastructure these tiny homes lack.

      I don’t think tiny homes are any kind of a silver bullet, but they should absolutely be allowed and encouraged by regulators. If we as a state and city are going to continue to fail to meet our obligation to people experiencing homelessness due to indifference and a fear of burdening “the tax payer,” then the very least we can do is get out of the way of private groups and individuals who are trying to help in whatever imperfect way they can.

      • Submitted by Phil Poeschl on 12/24/2019 - 01:20 pm.

        It’s still much more efficient to build one building with one roof. These little homes are better than nothing but flop houses are the lowest cost answer.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 12/24/2019 - 06:20 pm.

          Thank you PP: The point was if its non-profit in many cases it is an experiment (more or less what the article says) that will sooner or later drift into the tax payer environment. If not, hey no problem, but last check the city of Minneapolis is in the process of coughing up ~$30M for homeless shelters, (little houses)? Not to mention the local indigenous folks are looking for additional funding as well. My apology if the focus was excessive dot connection to a big picture that left some wondering.

  5. Submitted by Ronald Ayers on 12/23/2019 - 01:56 pm.

    The cost could be cut in half if they were mass produced in a factory.

  6. Submitted by Ben Irwin on 12/23/2019 - 02:32 pm.

    A few questions:
    1 – where is the resident going to empty the composting toilet?
    2 – where is the resident going to get the water for the basin?
    3 – is wood flooring really the most practical?
    4 – where is the resident going to clean their clothes, bedding, etc.?
    5 – where is the resident going to bathe/shower?
    6 – who would be responsible for cleaning any common areas?
    7 – who would be responsible for ensuring the home is kept clean and not being damaged?

    • Submitted by Paul Yochim on 12/24/2019 - 07:50 am.

      Ben, you can guess who will maintain these facilities. Another municipal department. This is absolutely ridiculous, prohibitively expensive and does not address the root of the problem.

  7. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/23/2019 - 11:27 pm.

    Given all the logistical problems with tiny houses, it would make more sense for churches and other organizations interested in housing the homeless to buy existing apartment buildings, especially those that consist mostly or entirely of studios and one-bedrooms, especially recently built ones that are severely under-utilized due to price-gouging rent levels, and rent them out to homeless people.

    I think the types of populations would have to be separated, with “recovery” buildings for people with substance abuse problems and supervised buildings for people with mental illness, but many homeless people are clean and sober and in their right minds and would do just fine in a regular studio or one-bedroom apartment.

  8. Submitted by Diggitt McLaughlin on 12/23/2019 - 11:42 pm.

    Many SRO spaces have been created in the new Dorothy Day buildings in St Paul. It’s somewhat ingenuous to suggest that neither reporters, architects, city council members, nor homeless people know about these buildings, which are very near the Excel Center.

    I am left baffled by why, exactly, these SRO trailer homes are any kind of improvement on the Day apartments. Each one has to be insulated for Minnesota weather on all six sides, because the other side of the floor is also fully exposed to the air. Are we seriously considering having SROs that are not really plumbed? Has any homeless population anywhere demonstrated the livability of a 10x10x?10 room with only bottled water and a composting toilet and a what kind of shower or bath?

    The press and some empty-headed housing advocates get all gung-ho about cute little houses for the homeless. Unfortunately, that they are cute does not mean they are practical or in any way the best answer to the problem. It’s insulting that cities are throwing money at studies and pilot projects of silly ideas like this, which are just another way of avoiding being serious about building acceptable, usable housing.

  9. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/24/2019 - 02:08 pm.

    Humorless MINNPOST censors stopped my last attempt at this.

    Minnesota has a rich history of Tiny House pioneering: you will see numerous Tiny House villages popping up on our lakes in the next few weeks.

    Minneapolis has 22 lakes, all accessible to public transportation. All it will take is for the always thoughtful and caring City Council to lift the restriction on Ice Houses on city lakes.

    One solution among the many needed to solve the problem…

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/25/2019 - 11:24 am.

    This reminds of previous “proposals” deploying cardboard housing or tents. The idea that merely providing shelter to people without homes is some kind of response to the homeless crises ignores decades of experience.

    Finding ways to skirt zoning laws or changing those laws to allow flophouse construction is unlikely to resolve this crises. Tiny homes are an affluent fad, not a solution for economic refugees.

    Frankly I don’t know how anyone could “study” this crises and conclude that this is a solution of any kind. This is not a solution for families (how many people can live in these things?), and a significant percentage of mentally ill and chemically dependent people will bring their issues into these tiny homes and crash. Sure this may be a perfect solution for that one guy that had lunch with the architect, but he’s not a representative sample.

    Buildings that human beings live in are required to have foundations, plumbing, and utilities for a reason.

    As Ms. Sandness points out, we actually have tens of thousands of square feet of unoccupied space all over MPLS that could be converted into affordable housing or short term shelters and housing. There’s really no need to resort to the tiny house fad.

    The problem you have with this population is that “shelter” isn’t a comprehensive solution. Regardless how they became homeless, a majority of these people are wracked with a variety of troubles that require far more extensive intervention than a roof over their heads and a cot to sleep on. Even a tiny house may require more responsibility than many of these folks can cope with.

    What all of this means is that even if you find or build cheap housing and shelter, you will need to provide extensive security and support services that don’t come cheap. If you’re not careful you just provide a warm dry place to overdose or sell sex for cash.

    It just floors me that this crises has been ongoing now for decades and we’re still not having a realistic serious conversation about our economic refugee crises. Tiny houses on wheels? Seriously? You’re more likely to find affluent millennial’s who want to move into these things than homeless families.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/26/2019 - 09:30 am.

      I’m reminded of Mary Jo Copeland’s failed attempt at building an “orphanage” in Eagan.



      Yet, her plan would have been .01% of a total solution to a problem: every stray youth was not going to be rounded up and sent to her. A viable solution for a few.

      One size fits all thinking wins the day and she gives up.

      If a tiny house in a church parking lot or an ice house off the Bde Maka Sa main beach solves a problem for a few, more power to those that enable it.

      Too much “we need to solve the problem” and “we need to solve it my way” thinking in most of our problems today…

  11. Submitted by Allyson Hayward on 12/27/2019 - 02:09 pm.

    I won’t pretend to be an expert on homelessness but I have worked with people who are homeless and a constant theme is: They hate going to emergency shelters, frequently only going as a last resort.

    The medical team I work with discharged someone recently who prefers his vehicle to a shelter even in really cold weather. He’s afraid of theft and physical violence. A tiny house might work for him and those like him: Single people with mental health challenges, but not psychotic and no substance abuse.

    Tiny houses can be designed to work for some families, although perhaps not really large families. Again, they might be preferable to parents worrying about exposing their kids to violence in shelters (Not all shelters are violent, but some have those problems). Housing First advocates know that just housing someone doesn’t solve the upstream problems that caused the homelesssness, so case management is as essential for here as anywhere else.

    The really nice thing about tiny houses is that they are appealingly uninstitutional. If the potential resident is going to have to pay to stay in one (as they pay to stay in shelters now) I would bet most would prefer someplace that feels inviting and that they can call theirs for a significant length of time while they get on their feet.

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/27/2019 - 07:49 pm.

    More equitable income distribution might be a better place to begin. Seems like citizens closer to the margins are more likely to become homeless. Many end up in those positions due to decisions made for them by others. Dare say no one chooses it. Our safety net and it has never really what comes to mind when those words look you in the eye. As you drive through the cities closely look at the housing that exits. Ask yourself if the people living in any of the units fully created the circumstance that brought them to where they are living. I dare you.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/28/2019 - 11:45 am.

      Yes Joe, your correct. Let’s just keep whack-a-molling this thing for another 3 decades. We can dump trillions of dollars on billionaires to address their “problems” (whatever they may be), but we can’t attempt anything but the cheapest possible solutions for those crashing out of the economy.

      We’ve spent decades dismantling and defunding the safety net that’s supposed catch these people in order to balance budgets and save taxpayers money, while lavishing trillions upon corporations and their millionaire/billionaire executives.

      My prediction is that more of these tiny houses will end up in MPLS back yards as VRBO’s than they will end up housing the homeless.

      Yes, we need to raise wages and eliminate the medical debts that drive people out of their housing. We need reconstruct and enhance social services for those who need them. We need to subsidize and build affordable housing that is safe and connected with adequate services and staff. And we need to control housing costs so they don’t spiral out of affordability for so many people. And we need to have emergency shelters that provide sufficient dignity, security, and portals to necessary social and medical services.

      None of this is going to be cheap, but economic justice and human welfare aren’t supposed to be “cheap”. We don’t expect our pro-sports stadiums to be cheap do we?

      We put a billion public dollars into that stadium for Ziggy Wilf and it sits there empty 95% of the time. That building alone could shelter the cities homeless and with proper staffing make it a secure and stable shelter. We have tens of thousands (if not more) square feet of vacant buildings that could be used as secure storage space for people’s belongings and service portals. How come it is that whenever we dump millions and hundreds of millions of public subsidies into private developments no one ever considers requiring public service of some kind? Revenue and ownership is private but costs and risk are socialized. Whatever. We really should think about having a serious discussion about this crises… sooner the better.

      • Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/28/2019 - 07:24 pm.

        Yep. Rental space for exiting homeowners, now there is something to forage a rebellion around. Snicker. Thank you capitalist Empire. The Showboat Stadium literally down the street from the site of the native homeless encampment was almost too much to bear. I could go on but everyone seems to be looking the other way. Again as always.

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