Rapid City’s Mayor-Elect Steve Allender wants to tackle homelessness by providing homes… really little homes!
[Question] In the campaign, you referred to a campus approach, and a ‘tiny houses’ concept to combat homelessness and other problems in the community. Can you expand on that?
[Allender]: The easy part is having the idea and finding people who are interested in supporting something like this. They are like a small house. I’m guessing they are going to be 120 square feet, and sometimes they are on wheels, and they have basic utilities in them suitable for electric, water and sewer for the cost of around $3,000 to $7,000 a piece. So all of these things are easy; easy to come up with homes; easy to come up with the people to help sponsor. The difficult part will be finding a suitable place for them. It can’t be down in a place that has not got water supply and sewer and electric and so on, and of course, it’s a community issue about where to put such a project. I believe there’s land. I have to believe there’s land. We have a lot of space here in Rapid City, but I believe it needs to be relatively close to the center of the city, but not necessarily in the center of the city. If I had my way, something could be moving forward within six months and maybe have a community coming together within a year. But I say this knowing that perhaps I am a little naive on the potential roadblocks, as much as zoning and council and citizen buy-in, but I’m willing to take those steps. I admire the tiny house projects that are in other communities. Until we get people off the streets — and just to be clear, we are talking about the people who are walking-the-streets-and-sleeping-under-bridges homeless, not the other 800 people in Rapid City who don’t have their own home but sleep in a shelter, you know, sleep somewhere — until we get them indoors, we can’t begin to assess the other needs that they have, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, mental illness and so on, there is most times a root cause to someone being among the walking homeless that is something other than being down on your luck. To put all of those big parts of the puzzle in order, secure housing has to come first [John Lee McLaughlin, “Allender Q&A: Here’s What Rapid City Can Expect from Its Incoming Mayor,” Rapid City Journal, 2015.06.07].
Mayor-Elect Allender has apparently been reading not just about tiny houses but tiny house villages. The Star-Tribune wrote in March about an Occupy project in Madison, Wisconsin, that has provided several homeless residents with 98-square-foot domiciles that cost about $4,000. The tiny houses are clustered around an old auto shop
The shop, once home to Sanchez Motors, sits beside the tiny houses and acts as the village hub: part workshop, greenhouse and dining room. Residents share the building’s three bathrooms and makeshift kitchen, with little more than a microwave. On a recent afternoon, volunteers constructed the frame of a chicken coop — designed to look like an even tinier tiny house — that they’ll auction off at a spring fundraiser.
To be eligible to live here, a “steward” must volunteer at least 500 hours, finishing the tiny houses, making crafts to sell or fixing up the shop itself. They pay no rent [Jenna Ross, “Tiny Houses in Madison, Wis., Offer Affordable, Cozy Alternative to Homelessness,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, 2015.03.16].
This spring, Texas A&M students designed and built two tiny houses for the Community First Village in Austin. Both under 150 square feet and built on trailers, the two houses have “separate living and bedroom areas, plenty of multipurpose shelving, storage compartments and closet space.” Since the Community First Village has communal kitchens and bathrooms, the tiny houses don’t need plumbing.
A Los Angeles man built a sleeping shack for a homeless woman in his neighborhood and raised over $50K online to build more for L.A.’s street people. The shelter, which fits in a parking space and is light enough for one person to move, is too small for local zoning ordinances to apply; police say that as long as it doesn’t stay in any one parking spot for more than 72 hours, they won’t bother the owner.
Microhouses alone won’t solve homelessness. These small homes require not just communal bathrooms and kitchens but “support services and positive tangible social interactions.” Allender is right to say that any microhousing development to serve the poor should be centrally located (how about the empty lot north of the post office? or maybe acquire some land along Jackson near Halley Park?). But Allender pursues microhousing for his homeless constituents, he should look for non-profit partners who can provide the community support that make these small shelters more viable.