SLC’s proposed tiny-house village draws vocal support, but not everyone is sold

Leaders behind the effort pledge to be “the best neighbors you’ve ever had,” while helping those who have “fallen through the cracks.”

What was nearly a united show of support from an overflow crowd for a proposed west-side village of tiny houses was broken up by moments of skepticism and concern.

Skepticism that The Other Side Academy has what it takes to run such a settlement for chronically homeless Utahns. Concern that the project would bring more problems to the west side, where residents have long felt they have carried a disproportionate share of the burden in battling the homelessness crisis.

“Why do we have to shoulder the cost of helping everyone in the city so often?” Levi de Oliveira, a Salt Lake City planning commissioner, asked City Council members Tuesday evening.

The proposed pilot phase of The Other Side Village calls for creating 85 tiny homes — 54 for unsheltered Utahns, six for on-site staffers and 25 as rentals for visitors, volunteers and the public. It would occupy 8 city-owned acres west of Redwood Road between Indiana Avenue and 500 South, but could expand if the project proves viable.

The Other Side Academy, the nonprofit that would build and operate the village, depends on the council’s approval of a rezoning request and deeply discounted land lease before it can start moving any dirt.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council members listen as people express their concern and support during a public meeting at Salt Lake City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, to discuss the city’s desire to allow a tiny-house village to be built on the west side.

Most of those who showed up at the council’s first public hearing for the project backed the proposal.

Many said The Other Side Academy has already shown itself to be a worthy partner with its success running a residential vocational training program east of downtown. The venture serves convicted criminals and people with substance use disorders.

Michael Clara, a longtime west-side activist who lives about four blocks from the proposed village, told council members he initially balked at the project but now supports it after speaking with the nonprofit and seeing the success of the east-side operation.

“Their record,” he said, “speaks for itself.”

But Amy Stocks, who works with unsheltered Utahns, told council members that running a community for the chronically homeless is different from running a treatment center. She questioned The Other Side Academy’s experience in caring for those who are on medication or have disabilities.

“I don’t believe that they have the experience like other service providers,” she said, “who have been around our community for decades.”

Tim Stay, CEO of The Other Side Academy, said the nonprofit doesn’t claim to have clinical credentials but is working closely with those who do. Village plans call for a 12,000-square-foot community center that would offer supportive services for residents, including medical and mental health clinics.

Security worries arise

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esther Stowell is joined by her children as she expresses concern over a proposed village of tiny houses in his neighborhood during public meeting at Salt Lake City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. The first phase would be located on 8 city-owned acres west of Redwood Road between Indiana Avenue and 500 South.

Esther Stowell, chair of the Poplar Grove Community Council, is not convinced that the project is good for her neighborhood.

“Some kids on the east side are riding up and down their neighborhoods freely, not worrying about getting shot, not worrying about any issue,” she told council members. “So if you do not address that issue for me, first and foremost, then there’s no way you should give [a large piece] of my community to an organization who has never run such an entity before.”

Turner Bitton, chair of the Glendale Neighborhood Council, spoke in support of the village, saying unhoused Utahns are counting on the community to advocate for them and for housing solutions.

“It’s important tonight to speak in support of not only an innovative housing solution,” he said, “but also much-needed economic development on the west side.”

Under the plan, The Other Side Academy would lease the pilot 8-acre parcel for $1 a year over 40 years. If the project were to expand to roughly 40 acres, a new agreement would come before the council.

According to a city report, the village would provide a new path to housing for the city’s most vulnerable residents, ease the strain on emergency services by offering on-site resources, clean up land that includes part of a former landfill, reduce camping and tidy up a swath of vacant property.

If built, homes would range from 280 to 400 square feet and include a full bathroom, bed and scaled-down kitchen and living areas. The Other Side Academy has said it would help existing and prospective tenants find and maintain a source of income to pay rent in the drug- and alcohol-free community.

The village would include a cookie manufacturing facility and thrift shop to give residents job opportunities and to help pay for operational expenses within the community.

The project appears to have robust financial backing. As of early July, the nonprofit had received nearly $2.2 million and had another $3.1 million pledged. This month, the Utah Homelessness Council voted unanimously to juice the project with $4 million of public money.

Most of the expenses of the nearly $13.8 million pilot project would be covered by donations and in-kind contributions.

‘We will be the best neighbors’

Joseph Grenny, chair of The Other Side Academy board, said the village would work to earn the trust of neighbors. He said the project is committed to driving down crime and improving the neighborhood.

And if there were a 37-acre parcel near his neighborhood, he said, he’d try to build the village there.

The Other Side Village, Grenny said, would be secured with controlled access, cameras and security guards patrolling the area 24 hours a day.

“Our unequivocal commitment to our neighbors,” he said, “is we will be the best neighbors you’ve ever had.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fred Alvari, left, speaks in support of a proposed tiny-house village alongside Joseph Grenny, chair of the board of The Other Side Academy, during a public meeting at Salt Lake City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

One of those neighbors would be Fred Alvari, who is now in transitional housing after spending a year on the streets. Before residents would be able to enter the village, he said, they would need to go through a strict vetting process.

And tiny homes, he said, are only part of the larger picture of care that The Other Side Village would offer.

Alvari said he understands neighbors who have concerns about the village. In his time experiencing homelessness, he has seen drug use, struggles with mental illness and resistance to services.

But there also are people who want to escape the streets.

“There’s people like me that have fallen through the cracks that want a better life, that want to turn things around and get back on their feet,” he said. “The village is the place for that.”

Council members did not discuss the proposal but voted to continue the public hearing to another meeting.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People wear stickers in support of a proposed village of tiny houses to be built on the west side during a public meeting at Salt Lake City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.