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Allender Proposes Tiny Houses to Tackle Homelessness—Does It Take a Village?

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.


  1. larry kurtz 2015-06-10 11:15

    There is a saddle on state land between the hills separating the School of Mines and Robbinsdale where people are living already.

  2. leslie 2015-06-10 12:21

    well, for indian people, 1200+or- acres in west rapid are indian land already for the bording school at Sioux San that the city gave away to schools, churches and developers in the 50s. that needs to be rectified, mayor allender!!

  3. Shirley Harrington-Moore 2015-06-10 13:13

    Tiny houses is an idea whose time has come. Good for you Mayor. Next see what you can do about Indian lands. No one should have the right to take away what is granted.

  4. Richard Schriever 2015-06-10 14:55

    Shanty towns – they’re all over 3rd world countries. BTW – so-called “tiny houses” – are sure CUTE (which explains why they are as popular as kittens) – but a highly ecologically inefficient use of resources. So – not a “green” approach to solving these issues.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-06-10 15:58

    hFair point about resource efficiency, Richard. Can we build, heat, and maintain efficiency apartments with shared utilities for similar rates?

  6. Bill Fleming 2015-06-10 16:46

    Over the weekend, I had a talk with an architect who won a big award for designing really nice dwellings for around $40k. The trick was, (and this perhaps goes to Richard’s point) is that most of the “space” needs to be “outside” not “inside.” Only those things that really need t0 be “in” are “in.”

    Here are some of the most current ideas:

  7. Craig 2015-06-10 17:11

    Sure a larger building with individual “units” might be more ecologically friendly because it would be more efficient, but that model has end with mixed results. One of the problems is if a resident doesn’t maintain their unit it has a direct impact to others. Exteriors and shared spaces need to be maintained, but a few bad apples can cause headaches for everyone else.

    At least with tiny houses, if a resident opts to stop maintaining their property or trashes the interior, the structure is easily removed from the area. It is sort of like a mobile home park where everyone is responsible for their own structure and those that don’t follow the rules can be removed. Granted this requires good supervision to address concerns before they get out of control, but it can be managed.

    Hopefully someone gets behind the idea and at least tries it. 10 or 20 units as a test model could show the viability, and if things don’t pan out those structures are easily relocated or sold off. At face value it appears to have a lot of potential benefit for very little cost, and you would probably soon find some hipsters wanting to become neighbors with formerly homeless individuals due to their common bond of loving tiny houses. Diversity is good right?

  8. Bill Fleming 2015-06-10 17:38

    Craig, I think some of those tiny house designs are terrific! I agree that it’s the way to go… maybe even the way for all of us to go.

  9. larry kurtz 2015-06-10 17:49

    4 grand cash would mean far more for these people than a cabin in rapid, init?

  10. larry kurtz 2015-06-10 17:52

    $400 apiece would have moved everybody out of teepee town on the 8th of June, 1972.

  11. grudznick 2015-06-10 17:52

    Mr. kurtz is on it like a rug. If you polled these people I bet they would all want the $4,000 in cash instead of a childs playhouse in the park. I, however, would like one of these little tiny houses and might even be able to keep up with the yardwork myself. And the tiny garden I would have.

  12. grudznick 2015-06-10 17:59

    Bill, when you get one could we schedule a special breakfast with a tour?

  13. larry kurtz 2015-06-10 18:11

    and once again grud is off like a prom dress. flemster: just say no.

  14. Roger Cornelius 2015-06-10 18:43

    The tiny house concept for homelessness in Rapid City is a great idea and workable. There is so much that can incorporated into such a program.
    Alcohol and drug use has to be banned from the proposed village. It is must and an opportunity for those with problems to seek help and stay sober and drug free.
    Years back I worked for a long term residential in-house alcohol/drug program that leaned heavily on personal responsibility in all aspects of life. Our clients were mainly homeless, recently paroled prisoners, and some sentenced to our facility by court order.
    The unique aspects of the program was that clients could stay at the treatment center for as long as they choose as long as they stayed clean.
    Councilors and therapist, many from outside the center, worked with clients according to their schedules with the exception of mandatory sessions.
    Clients that were able to work were encouraged to do so and we often worked with them to find gainful employment.
    As you can see, there are other opportunities for the homeless beside shelter, but shelter and employment have to be solved first.
    Many of the homeless do have some sort of small income, whether it be SSI, EBT, or other services. Those that are capable of making a small payment for their homes should be required to do so.

  15. Lynn 2015-06-10 19:52

    I agree that the use of Tiny houses are a great idea! About 3 years ago I was researching these for myself when I was considering moving to the west coast. Cost of living is much higher in the areas I was considering so a tiny house looked to be an affordable option that was cute, had my own green space and some privacy.

    Many people are looking to simplify their lives and look at larger houses with all the clutter and unutilized space sort of like owning a large SUV when you will never use it for what it is designed to do. A minimalistic unmaterialistic lifestyle can be liberating and it shows that tiny homes are a great option for homeless too.

    Formerly homeless residents can have dignity, privacy with a sense of independence but with help available. It would be great if they could incorporate a community garden in this community to help grow healthy foods for a more holistic approach in getting healthy and gain stability.

    One concern I have is if these houses will be insulated enough underneath (pipes freezing/cold floor & heat loss) for the winters in Rapid City vs milder climates where these houses are more common

  16. leslie 2015-06-10 20:22

    grudz-I love it when you say “these people”-those people. rush does it all day long

  17. grudznick 2015-06-10 20:39

    Ms. Leslie, those people who listen to Rush all day long get soft brains. That’s why I never listen to the radio unless it’s Masterpiece Theatre that’s playing. Plus, sometimes they play songs that really upset me.

  18. Donald Pay 2015-06-10 21:28

    The tiny house project in Madison, WI, which Cory refers to, is really not meant for all the homeless. It won’t work well for families, but it’s one solution for the homeless single man or woman, or for a couple who doesn’t mind being cramped. Generally, the participants have to have buy-in with sweat equity, sort of like Habitat for Humanity uses in their construction projects. That means they have to have some construction skills, or a desire to learn those skills. They have to be willing and able to live in a co-op type housing situation, which requires lots of social skills. They can’t be hopeless drunks, but they don’t have to be sober all the time. Some participants translate their newly found skills in construction into a job, so it has spin off benefits as well.

  19. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-10 21:48

    I agree with Roger and Lynn that tiny houses have much to recommend them as a tool to deal with homelessness.

    There is a tv show named Tiny House Nation, and those are the structures focused on. I recently moved to a studio apartment that is a little more than 600 square feet. I love it for the simplicity and ease of care. Tiny houses emphasize simplicity and ease. People struggling with mental illness or addiction are easily overwhelmed, so a tiny house would be good on several levels.

    Building materials are rapidly advancing in terms of weight, efficiency, cost, flexibility, and more, so I’m sure properly insulating tiny houses is not a problem.

  20. Rorschach 2015-06-11 08:15

    I’ve been suggesting this idea for years. In Sioux Falls there is a former trailer court on the hill across from the penitentiary that is now just vacant land. The utilities are already in the ground for multiple small units that could be built there. I’d like to see permanent structures up to 400 square feet built there that people can own – not rent.

  21. Craig 2015-06-11 10:22

    Rorschach… do you really think an empty lot across the street from the penitentiary is the best place to start a program meant to get people back on their feet and to a better life? I’d like to think we can do better. I would hate for someone who has worked for years to break the cycle of addiction and who has reformed their lives to look out of their living room window and see the building towering above them which is a symbol of failure.

    Yes some might see that as motivation, but I wouldn’t want to put formerly homeless individuals on a piece of land that I wouldn’t consider living on myself. We have a few neighborhoods with empty lots where schools used to sit – that seems like a better option for 10 or 15 of these tiny homes.

  22. Craig 2015-06-11 10:34

    Here is another thought I had. In Sioux Falls we have seen both hospitals buying up the smaller homes that surround their properties. We have also seen homes purchased by car dealerships and strip malls along 41st Street as well as Minnesota Ave.

    These homes are generally smaller in size and less expensive. Many of these homes are worth less than $100,000 – some even worth less than $70,000. So when these homes are torn down, it displaces someone or an entire family that has to find other living arrangements for roughly the same amount of money.

    As new homes are built on the outskirts of town families relocate. However the new homes that are being built are priced at $150,000 – $200,000. There is no feasible way a family who lived in a home worth $85,000 can suddenly afford a home worth twice as much.

    The fact is, we don’t build new homes that are as affordable as some of those older homes being torn down, so in effect we are pricing people out of the market and forcing them into multi-family rentals. Is that contributing to other problems? Is the dream of home ownership something that should only be available to people making $50,000 a year or more?

    We can do better. Before we ever allow homes to be demolished in the core of the city, we need to think long and hard about the potential impacts. Pushing lower income residents into apartments or trailer homes isn’t a solution and doesn’t help build families or neighborhoods.

    Tiny houses won’t work to solve all of these issues, but it could be a solution for single individuals or couples. The structures are also more apt to retain or gain value than a trailer home built out of disposable materials and which sits upon a postage stamp size lot that the resident is forced to rent month after month.

    Sometimes less is more. It is worth trying in a pilot program.

  23. Rorschach 2015-06-11 11:47

    Yes Craig. I think a property that used to be a trailer court would make a perfect place to build small houses that individuals or families can afford. There are other stick-built houses in the immediate vicinity, and there would be people who could never afford a traditional house standing in line to buy these little houses even across from the pen. By the way, there is a church right there too in what used to be the trailer court.

    Unless you would personally live in every neighborhood in town Craig, then don’t get all uppity about where somebody else might choose to live. Your personal dislike for a certain area isn’t shared by everybody.

  24. Rorschach 2015-06-11 11:59

    I just reread your comment Craig. If it’s depressing for homeless people to have a window to look out of but have that window facing the pen, then you must be outraged that the county’s homeless shelter built just a couple years ago is right next to the jail. How could Minnehaha County force people to choose between sleeping under a bridge or looking out their window at the jail? Are the people who chose to sleep inside the facility facing the jail wrong to do so?

  25. bearcreekbat 2015-06-11 15:39

    Several years ago there was a large mobile home park at the intersection of Lacrosse Street and Omaha in Rapid City, shaded by absolutely beautiful huge Cottonwood trees. Apparently someone thought they could get a better return and decided that all residents would be ordered to move their homes out prior to Christmas a few years back. The trees were destroyed, all homes removed and the lot left vacant, cold and barren ever since.

    Lately someone placed a sign there stating a strip mall would be coming. You know, just what Rapid City needs along with the myriad of other strip malls through out the town.

    Perhaps that land could be better utilized for the tiny house project that the new mayor desires. Since the owners have done nothing else with the land to date, other than to evict the low income and elderly residents and destroy the beautiful trees, perhaps the City could use the power of eminent domain, acquire the land and start building tiny houses for our homeless population, and plant some new trees.

  26. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-06-11 16:39

    Craig, many larger cities are struggling with the problem of the lack of affordable housing you described. Some have added ordinances declaring that any new multi housing buildings must include a minimum percentage of affordable units. I think that is one solution, but it is proving to be insufficient because most of the percentages mandated are under 10. Part of the problem is that luxury apartments and condos are Hot in city markets and that dribbles out to midsized cities like Omaha and SF.

    I believe it is in San Francisco, second highest COL in the US, where the city council is considering a 50% or higher rate of affordable housing. Of course builders and developers are predicting catastropes to ensue.

  27. Craig 2015-06-11 18:34

    “Yes Craig. I think a property that used to be a trailer court would make a perfect place to build small houses that individuals or families can afford.”

    Why is it “perfect”? Because the land is cheap? Because nobody else really wants to live there if given a choice? I just find it hard to believe that anyone would choose that location if there was another alternative although maybe some people really love the sight of quartzite towers.

    I remember the trailer park that sat there – it was a gigantic dump ran by a slumlord who only managed to keep people living there because he allowed a dozen people to reside in a trailer designed for three or four and they turned a blind eye to blatant crime issues. I’d call it rather insulting to suggest that is the best place for low income / no income housing and it isn’t because I’m ‘uppity’ but because I think even low income people who have faced some challenges deserve the opportunity to form a real neighborhood. It would be better served as a community garden, park, or what it ultimately will be used for… a parking lot when they eventually renovate and widen the road that runs in front of the Pen.

    “If it’s depressing for homeless people to have a window to look out of but have that window facing the pen, then you must be outraged that the county’s homeless shelter built just a couple years ago is right next to the jail.”

    Well first of all I believe the facility you are referring to is right along Minnesota Ave and is directly across from Good Sam. That is a much nicer location not staring at barbed wire and gun towers – and it’s direct neighbor to the South is the law enforcement center rather than the county jail. However even if it were next door to the jail… that jail isn’t nearly as visually dominating as the state penn.

    Second of all, the tiny house concept involves people purchasing their own homes (much like Habitat for Humanity). Sure there would likely be a few city/county owned homes that are used as transitional homes for homeless residents, but there would likely be a mixture of privately owned homes as well. When someone is putting in hundreds of hours of sweat equity and potentially thousands upon thousands of their own dollars in an effort to improve their lives… I think we can do better than placing them on a piece of land that once was home to the city’s most run down trailer park which was so aptly named “Penn View”.

    There is a vast difference between temporary shelters, and permanent neighborhoods. If we expect these types of programs to succeed, we will have to do better than shoving people into the worst possible areas just because the land values happen to be low. These should be seeding programs that can help neighborhoods thrive – and I just don’t see the potential across from the penitentiary. However, I’m open to discussion and maybe I’m wrong. At least we are talking about it.

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