Salt Lake City’s homeless residents wait on decision about tiny home village’s fate

City Council members are expected to vote soon on a rezoning proposal and rental agreement for the supportive housing project.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Lambert puts hand sanitizer in a bucket he uses to keep his tent warm. While trying to find a safe place to stay warm this winter, he's been pushed from one location to another during camp abatements by the health department and Salt Lake City Police. Photo taken on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022.

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Tony Lambert sits on a hotel room bed poring over YouTube videos of tiny home renderings, an ankle monitor under his sweatpants pinging his location to parole and probation officers.

At times in recent months, the monitor has pinpointed him sleeping on the stony ground beneath Salt Lake City’s Guadalupe viaduct. Before that, it placed him inside a tent in a different part of town, where he spent Christmas and part of New Year’s Day until authorities kicked him out.

The 42-year-old Utah native says he’s spent years trapped between homelessness and jail: He can’t find housing because of a felony and eviction on his record, but he needs a reliable address to avoid violating court-imposed requirements. Between this and other probation infractions, he’s been bouncing in and out of lockup for the last five years, ever since his sentencing on a felony drunk driving charge.

“Every time they send me back, I have to start all over again,” Lambert says.

When he heard about Salt Lake City’s plan to build a tiny home village for the homeless, he finally saw a chance to break free of the cycle.

The 430-home community depicted in the Other Side Village’s crisp renderings would be perfect for him, he says. All he needs is a small space that he could decorate and make his own, a safe haven just big enough for him, his DJ turntables, a dog and maybe a partner someday.

All of these hopes, though, rest on a series of decisions that policymakers and providers will be making in the coming weeks and months. Before the Other Side Village is even an option for Lambert, the Salt Lake City Council would have to sign off on the project, developers would have to build it and caseworkers would have to vet him as a resident.

With the estimated countywide need for 2,950 units for people experiencing homelessness, the Other Side Village would only slightly narrow the region’s yawning housing gap. Providing all those homes at once would cost an estimated $525 million, while keeping up would require another $247 million investment each subsequent year, according to an analysis by the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.

Still, representatives for the Other Side Village believe that pioneering a tiny home project in Utah could have a transformative statewide impact by showing other, more hesitant communities that the model can work and giving them the confidence to try it themselves.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall says tiny homes will work in part because they offer privacy and independence, attracting people who might not be comfortable with existing housing options for the chronically homeless.

“We have nothing like [the Other Side Village] in Utah, but it’s a very natural evolution of Salt Lake City’s interest in how do we entice more people to say yes and receive, not only the shelter that every human deserves, but the surrounding community of support,” she said.

While the project is central to her plans for sheltering Salt Lake City’s chronically homeless, it’s already suffered setbacks since she announced her “ambitious” goal of debuting the first homes by winter of 2021.

The lengthy land use approval process has pushed out Mendenhall’s original timeline, she said. And while the Other Side Village hoped to land a $20 million state grant this year to kick-start the project, there’s little chance they’ll get that amount after lawmakers slashed the homelessness funding that Gov. Spencer Cox had requested.

The tiny home plans also lack support from some neighboring residents, who say a disproportionate share of the region’s homeless resources are clustered on the city’s west side.

But Ty Bellamy, a homelessness advocate and founder of the Black Lives for Humanity Movement, expects that people’s opposition will melt away once they start seeing a new development of bright cottages, green spaces and bustling shops.

(Courtesy of the Other Side Village) A rendering of a neighborhood in the proposed tiny home village.

“It should be open to anybody, not just the people that live there, because that’s how you’re going to bridge so many gaps between different groups of people,” she said.

As community members start changing their minds about the village, she said, maybe they’ll also start changing the way they view their unsheltered neighbors.

‘Always on the west side’

Supporters of the tiny home village often cite their confidence in the Other Side Academy, the organization leading the project, when explaining why they think it will be a success.

The Other Side Academy, which runs a residential vocational training program for criminal offenders and people with substance use disorders, has already put into practice some of the concepts from the village plan like financial sustainability and peer-accountability, where clients take responsibility both for their actions and those of others around them.

City Council member Alejandro Puy, whose district includes the proposed village site at 1850 W. Indiana Ave. and 1965 W. 500 South, said he still wants to hear debate on the project before stating how he’ll vote on it but that he backs the concept and is impressed with the Other Side Academy’s work on the city’s east side.

“Their track record and the impacts on the community have been wonderful,” he said.

On the other hand, there have been some vocal detractors of the plan, primarily west-side residents who say their neighborhoods need more grocery stores and parks rather than additional homeless services.

“Why is it always on the west side?” said Esther Stowell, a real estate agent who lives in Poplar Grove near the proposed village site. “The truth of the matter is, that’s where everything gets dumped.”

Lucia Rodriguez, another Poplar Grove resident, says she doesn’t like walking along the Jordan River trail with her children because of all the tents and needles she sees along its banks.

“If I take my kids to the Poplar Grove Park, you can see all these kind of scary people that look at you in an intimidating way,” she said. “You don’t feel safe. I honestly carry a little bottle of pepper spray with me every time I go for a walk.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Allison Dupler, Community and Engagement Coordinator at Salt Lake City Corporation helps clean up the Jordan River on Friday, July 16, 2021, as she work in tandem with a team of boaters and bicyclists bringing services to the homeless along the river.

Stowell said she thinks the village would draw even more unsheltered homelessness to the area, and that because of the requirements for getting into a tiny home, the project would do little to clear existing encampments out of the neighborhood.

She supports the idea of the village but has identified multiple city-owned properties on the east side or even outside municipal lines that she argues would be more appropriate for the village.

The Other Side Village representatives say they picked that location because it’s close to the downtown jobs and services and to the customers who would patronize the businesses planned for the site. The parcels were the only ones owned by Salt Lake City that were both big enough and accessible enough, they said.

The Other Side Village says the project opponents represent a vocal minority and point to a door-to-door “educational effort” in October showing that 59% of the west-side residents surveyed expressed support for the tiny homes.

The project leaders say they’ve spent months holding community meetings to answer questions about the tiny home plans — although Rodriguez said she only knows about the project because of her neighbor and hasn’t heard from officials or the nonprofit.

But there are supporters within the surrounding community, including Turner Bitton, who chairs the Glendale Community Council and believes the supportive housing and village amenities will be assets for the area.

In an op-ed he wrote with Erik Lopez, Poplar Grove’s former community council chair, Bitton noted that the community already hosts the International Peace Gardens and the Jordan River Peace Labyrinth. The Other Side Village, they wrote, would act as a “working, actionable symbol” of those very values promoting quality of life for all.

How it’s supposed to work

The Other Side Village’s online pitch to the community pledges that the project won’t become an eyesore — or deteriorate from tiny homes to “tiny slums.”

Instead, the project planners describe it as a future community hub for inhabitants and neighbors alike, bringing shopping opportunities, services and an amphitheater to a part of the city where some residents don’t even have easy access to grocery stores.

Musicians will perform there, farmers markets will sell locally grown produce and candidates for public office will spar in debates at the site, as they envision it.

“This will bring assets to the neighborhood, so they aren’t holding their nose and saying, ‘OK, we’ll do our Christian duty,’” Joseph Grenny, board chair of the Other Side Village, said. “I think they recognize that this is going to be a highly visited, beautiful place that will actually uplift the profile and political strength of the community.”

They’ll accomplish that, they say, with a combination of on-site support services and peer accountability.

Each person who arrives at the village will go through the “welcome neighborhood,” an orientation and stabilization process where people will get any needed mental health or substance abuse treatment and then learn the community’s rules. Valley Behavioral Health will continue to assist residents once they’ve moved into the village, while medical services will likely be available through a partnership with the Fourth Street Clinic.

Residents will have to pay rent, which will likely range between $250 to $400 a month, depending on the size, and will have to keep their homes and porches neat.

(Courtesy the Other Side Village) A rendering of one of the tiny homes proposed for the village.

The Other Side Village will also expect residents to keep an eye on one another and to “police the community” by reporting any illicit activity they observe. There will be extensive camera surveillance on the property and gating around residential areas.

“So if somebody brings drugs into the neighborhood, and you say nothing about it, then the rest of the neighborhood is probably going to address you like they are the person that did that,” Grenny said. “Because you allowed it to happen.”

Ultimately, each group of about 20 to 25 homes would have its own neighborhood council, which would help keep order in that pocket of the village.

Newcomers will have to interview with their prospective neighbors before moving into a tiny home, and these small councils would lay down consequences for people who violate the community norms. There would also be an overall village council that could review appeals, project representatives said.

The idea is to involve authorities less and give residents more power of self-determination.

“It’s not some authority from the outside, the housing authority or the police coming in,” said Maurice “Moe” Egan, director of neighbor recruitment for the village. “No, it’s your next-door neighbor.”

Paying for the plan

Despite its powerful supporters, a series of political and financial dominoes will have to fall before the Other Side Village can execute its vision.

First, council members will have to rezone the 37-acre swath of land proposed for development and formulate a rental agreement over the city-owned property. Village representatives say they expect that decision to come before city leaders in the next few weeks.

The Other Side Village will also have to figure out how to pay for the roughly $70 million project, which they plan to construct in stages over several years. The initial, 60-home phase is expected to cost about $7.5 million, with the first cottages potentially opening in late summer, according to project leaders.

To cover that expense, they’ll be pursuing state funding and trying to raise money from private donations. They’re also hoping that the city will rent them the property at a heavily discounted rate and that engineering firms, contractors and architects will offer to contribute services.

But once the tiny home village exists, it should sustain itself financially between monthly rent, on-site events and the businesses run by residents, Grenny said.

The Other Side Academy has used these social enterprises — a thrift store and moving company run by residents — to help offset its costs, although its financial filings show still also depends on donations. Grenny said the nonprofit will probably experiment with a cookie business and a few other ventures at the village and aims to be self-reliant within the first two to three years.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Other Side Academy 667 East 100 South in Salt Lake, Friday, April 14, 2017.

Residents will get a “fair wage” for their work at these enterprises and won’t be required to work there as a condition of living in a tiny home, according to the project website. However, they have the option of working regularly there or putting in a few hours if they’re short on rent and need some extra money.

While residents are responsible for rent and buying food and other living essentials, case managers and peers will reach out to help people who are struggling. In fact, Egan said, “somebody’s going to know what’s going on with you every single day.”

‘Hanging in there’

If it comes to fruition, the tiny home village won’t be temporary or transitional housing. The people picked to move in would be chronically homeless, or individuals with disabling physical, mental or substance use conditions who have been homeless for a year straight or repeatedly in the last several years.

Many of these people will need support services for the rest of their lives, the Other Side Village representatives say.

And yet they want the community to be expansive enough for residents’ ambitions to flourish.

“You can always look up the hill or down the hill and say, ‘You know what? I want something a little bigger,’” Grenny said. “‘I’m going to go work a few more hours, and I want something that’s a little cooler. Something that’s got a view of the mountain.’”

Lambert says his goal is to become a business owner one day, describing dreams of opening a gourmet grilled cheese eatery or an urban entertainment center with a makerspace, recording studio, tattoo artists and barbers.

The business would provide jobs to other village residents and cater to people who have spent years of their lives on the street, he said.

“We like things like body piercings and tattoos,” he said. “We like cool haircuts, custom shoes and backpacks.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Lambert is looking forward to living in a tiny home village where he will have a permanent address and a place where he can leave for work without having his belongings stolen when he's gone. Photo taken on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

For an unsheltered person, every day is a struggle to keep hope alive, Lambert said. And he’s not sure he could rebound if the tiny home village ends up fizzling.

Bellamy said she knows many homeless people who have everything riding on the project.

“These guys are so beat down. They’ve lost their faith in themselves, they’ve lost their faith in mankind, they’ve lost their faith in God,” she said. “They’re just hanging in there by a string,”

They’ve told her they’re developing mental health problems after being beaten or sexually assaulted, that they’re eager to get a job but can’t go in for an interview without showering and that they’re afraid of spending another winter outside. Some people have died on the streets waiting for more help and housing in Salt Lake City, Bellamy says.

But she’s been promising those who remain that better days are ahead with the Other Side Village.