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Inviting the homeless home: Forest Lake church agrees to host Minnesota’s first tiny house village

Faith Lutheran Church has become the first organization to welcome tiny homes on its property, an option that represents one answer to the state’s ballooning homeless population, supporters say. 

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

A Washington County church has agreed to host Minnesota’s first village of tiny houses for people who are currently sleeping outside.

After a vote last week, the 1,500-member Faith Lutheran Church in Forest Lake is the first organization to welcome tiny homes on its property at the request of a Twin Cities-based nonprofit that believes the housing option represents the state’s best answer to its ballooning homeless population. 

The nonprofit, called Settled, is trying to partner with faith-based groups in Minnesota to serve as landlords of the 100-square foot homes in part because federal laws governing church properties protect them from restrictive land-use changes. That means when neighborhoods or city planners make parcel adjustments to limit or increase development, churches can be exempt. 

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If all goes according to plan, Faith Lutheran’s 7.8-acre property will be home to a village of 12 tiny homes — each of which includes a twin bed, a kitchen, composting toilets and more — for formerly homeless veterans in 2021. It would be the first settlement of its kind in Minnesota, though cities in other parts of the country for years have allowed tiny homes for low-income residents.

“While more and more housing is being built in the metropolitan area, much of it is out of reach for those who need it most desperately,” Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron, who has committed the county’s support to helping Faith Lutheran’s effort, said in a statement.

A cheaper option

The number of Minnesotans sleeping in tents, cars, alleyways, train cars or other such spaces has more than doubled since 2015, with emergency shelters throughout the Twin Cities often at capacity and waitlists for subsidized housing vouchers more competitive than ever. 

According to Settled co-founder Gabrielle Clowdus, tiny homes represent a key part of the solution. The houses can be built for just $20,000 to $35,000 each, a fraction of the next-cheapest options, manufactured homes and government-sponsored affordable housing.

tiny house interior
Photo by John Swee/Dodge Creative Photography
An interior view of the tiny house prototype.
While studying the idea as a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, Clowdus quickly realized Minnesota’s zoning building regulations would make the concept 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 drive up construction costs.

But Clowdus found a way around those rules. By constructing the tiny homes on $5,000 trailers with wheels, the houses qualify under state law as recreational vehicles that provide temporary shelter. The one hitch: under current Minnesota law, RVs are not legal to live in year-round, so Settled plans to lobby state lawmakers to create a new category of legal housing as part of its strategy to make the housing option mainstream across the Twin Cities metro. 

A good fit

With its recent motion, Faith Lutheran established a committee of church-goers to work with county officials like Miron and city leaders over the next several months to figure out how, exactly, the village would function. “The intention is not to simply put tiny homes in a parking lot,” Faith Lutheran Pastor John Klawiter said.

As envisioned by Settled, residents of the villages would pay $200 to $300 monthly in rent and play a role in maintaining the community. There would also be a “common house” (not on wheels) that would include dining spaces, bathrooms, laundry and kitchens for tenants to share. Meanwhile, volunteers from the church would live in tiny homes, too, to help make sure tenants follow the rules and stay safe.

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For tenants of the future settlement, project leaders are planning to recruit homeless veterans in Washington County or the northeast metro. 

While the area’s homelessness problem is nowhere near that of Minneapolis and St. Paul a one-night count of homeless people in Washington County tallied 277 people in 2018, compared to almost 3,300 in Hennepin County alone — Klawiter said the characteristics of the area make it a good fit to test a settlement of tiny houses. He said members of his congregation share similar values, like helping the poor, even if they vary in their political leanings.

“While it’s true that in Forest Lake we don’t ‘see’ people living in tents, there are people from Forest Lake and Washington County who are homeless are hidden or are now living in other places,” said parishioner Jennifer Tolzmann. “This new tiny house community will give us the power to invite them ‘home’!”