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Detroit’s tiny houses give residents a home to rebuild their lives

August 22, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Tiny houses have become trendy in recent years, as people trade in traditional consumer lifestyles for a simpler option -- a living space that’s no more than 400 square feet. But in Detroit, these diminutive dwellings have a lofty goal: giving homeless and low-income people a chance at homeownership. Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Very small houses have become all the rage in recent years, as some people trade in their traditional lifestyles for an ostensibly simpler option: places that are less than 400 square feet. Well, today, there’s a twist. Tiny houses are being seen as a way to give homeless and low-income people the chance at homeownership.

Jeffrey Brown visited Detroit to find out more for our ongoing series on poverty and opportunity in America, “Chasing the Dream.”

JEFFREY BROWN: They may be tiny, but they have lofty goals: putting roofs over the heads of people who never dreamed they could own a home.

The idea for Detroit’s Tiny Home Project was born in an unlikely place — the floor of an old warehouse.

REV. FAITH FOWLER, Executive Director, CASS Community Social Services: People couldn’t imagine what 300 square foot would look like.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, could you?

REV. FAITH FOWLER: I couldn’t.

(LAUGHTER)

REV. FAITH FOWLER: So we came out and measured it out and taped it out and thought, where would I put the sofa and my bed and is this enough room? And we decided it would be.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now it is.

All right. Here it is.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: So, this is one of our studios.

JEFFREY BROWN: Studio, meaning there’s no bedroom.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Reverend Faith Fowler is a pastor and community activist working to create jobs and provide homes for the city’s most needy.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: Some have large front porches, some have decks or patios in the back. All have a nice backyard, so they could have a dog or a barbeque or just sit outside and listen to the traffic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Each of the seven homes built so far has a kitchen, living room, washer/dryer, and bathroom. Several have separate bedrooms.

Fowler’s non-profit Cass Community Social Services purchased 25 vacant lots from the city for $15,000. They’re bright spots, literally, in a neighborhood with many vacant, crumbling houses, next to one of Detroit’s busy freeways.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: We wanted this to be a part of a larger neighborhood, rather than being segregated, or separated, or isolated outside of a neighborhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, because you drive around, and much of this neighborhood is still very blighted, right?

REV. FAITH FOWLER: It — often people are worried about gentrification, I’m not so concerned yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not an issue here, right?

REV. FAITH FOWLER: No. There hasn’t been a new building in this neighborhood since 1974, and it was a garage. So, you can imagine the excitement of seeing houses go up, like a barn raising here, as people are coming to watch, and sometimes even offering to volunteer.

JEFFREY BROWN: A volunteer workforce built each home in about five weeks, using donated goods and services. That kept the cost to around $40,000 to $50,000.

The idea here is how to overcome something many of us take for granted — how to buy your own home when you have few or no financial assets, and when the whole notion of owning a home seems impossible.

For those living below the poverty line, and 40 percent of Detroit’s residents do, Fowler says there are plenty of barriers to homeownership.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: They don’t have enough money to get them through a crisis, so your car breaks down, or your hours get cut, or you get laid off, or somebody in your family gets sick, all of a sudden, you don’t have enough financial security to get through it, and so all of a sudden, you’re in a crisis that you may not recover from for years, and decades to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this gives people something that they own.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: Right, that they can have the pride of ownership, that they can have the dignity of using as a home even while they’re renting, and ultimately something they can use as collateral if they have a crisis.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new inhabitants here will rent to own. They’ll pay a dollar per square foot in rent. They’re also required to take monthly financial literacy classes and volunteer for the neighborhood watch.

After seven years, they’ll own their homes.

The tiny home trend is booming, fueled in part by cable design shows. But in those shows, people have made a choice to downsize and live simply.

The Detroit project has a different purpose.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: We were really looking for a way to give them a ladder. I mean, they’ve got to climb it, they’ve got to do the work, but we’re providing the ladder.

JEFFREY BROWN: The tiny homes are also smack in the middle of a built-in support structure. Fowler’s non-profit runs apartment buildings for people transitioning from being homeless. There’s a bike borrowing service to help people get around. And there are jobs at Green Industries, for people re-entering the workforce.

The company recycles abandoned tires and more to fashion doormats, flip flops and key chains, with the old English “D” for the Detroit Tigers.

Kevin Taylor makes coasters out of recycled glass. He credits his job here as a lifesaver, after struggling with addiction and spending time in prison.

KEVIN TAYLOR, Green Industries Employee: Well, it changed my life. I’m employed. I have my own apartment at this point in life, which is a wonderful thing. Learning how to live again.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

KEVIN TAYLOR: Well, that means waking up in the morning, doing normal things that normal people do, having coffee, breakfast, get ready to go to work, and go to work, come home.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the idea behind the tiny homes as well. And there’s one more idea: that each should look and feel different.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: So often when you’re considering affordable housing, it’s ugly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, yes.

REV. FAITH FOWLER: It’s a box, or a rectangle. It’s identical. There’s no colors. There’s no design. So, again, we wanted it to be attractive, and to instill pride in people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, different architectural styles, including so far, Cape Cod, Modern, and Shotgun.

Ed Wier, an architect from Ann Arbor, donated his services to help design a future home in a Victorian style.

ED WIER, Architect: Victorian, it’s a classic residential — American residential style, and, you know, a lot of people are drawn to a very ornate, a lot of detailing, and so, people just are attracted to it, it appeals to them.

So, obviously we had to scale it back, and kind of, how do we draw these things into a small house, into a small format?

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s hardly the norm for low-income housing. But, says Wier, that’s the point.

ED WIER: It’s a refined, elegant tiny house that somebody would love to live in. And it feels like home. What says home to you?

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the final question, really, right?

ED WIER: That’s the final question. And I think the goal was that in that, we created something that says home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

And who will call it home? After a series of open houses, 122 people applied to live in the tiny homes. Fowler is waiting on the city to give the green light before announcing the seven chosen to move in.

In the meantime, 18 more tiny homes are on the way. It’s a small number of small homes, but a big idea.

ED FOWLER: It’s really about home ownership and the American dream for people who stopped dreaming. We really were looking at not only eliminating homelessness, but with dealing with poverty for people.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Detroit, Michigan.

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