SLC’s tiny-house village was supposed to open years ago. It still doesn’t have a single home.

The Other Side community planned for the west side was pitched as a key tool in fighting homelessness. It’s been dogged by delays and still awaits its first resident.

Paul Eric Fairburn has been homeless on and off since 1990, when his mother, who reared him and his two sisters mostly as a single parent, died.

Fairburn, now 55, alternated between couch-surfing, addiction recovery programs and living on the street. Eventually, he decided to make a change.

“I’m done with that. I realized how bad that lifestyle is,” Fairburn said. “It’s taken me a long time to get to that realization, but now that I’m there, that ain’t for me no more.”

Now, he’s second in line for his own home in The Other Side Village, the long-promised west-side neighborhood of tiny houses for formerly homeless Utahns. Fairburn graduated from the community’s required prep program to get ready for the transition to his new pint-size home.

There’s one problem: Those digs aren’t ready.

Despite being given virtually free land and millions of public dollars since 2022, the village that was promoted as an essential tool to easing homelessness and turning around lives in the Beehive State has repeatedly blown past projected opening dates and has yet to make available a single home within the planned community.

While he waits to move in, Fairburn continues living in an apartment at the prep school in Murray with two other program participants.

“It’s better than them saying, ‘You’ve got to go live somewhere else until we get the village built,’” he said. “Who knows when that’s going to happen. Hopefully soon.”

When “hopefully soon” finally arrives, Fairburn said he will be ready for a life of self-sufficiency, but there’s a long way to go before villagers can start calling the plot of land near Indiana Avenue and Redwood Road home.

For now, the neighborhood is a construction site full of piles of dirt, utility pipes and heavy machinery.

That wasn’t supposed to be the case.

The big promise of little homes

By now, Salt Lake City’s first tiny-home village was supposed to have its first wave of miniature houses — 60 in all. It was supposed to have carefully landscaped streets and access to on-site social services. It was supposed to be a vibrant social hub.

All of those aspects were envisioned to work together to create a new way of pulling Utahns from the clutches of homelessness; one that focuses on accountability, self-reliance and community.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A tiny house built by HomeAid Utah, Thursday, July 27, 2023.

The promise of the village was enough to draw the blessing of leaders spanning the political spectrum. That support eventually turned into big money for the initiative.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall championed the village in 2021, saying that the project was moving forward at “light speed” and setting a goal to have it open by the end of that year.

The future site of the village was an operating landfill from 1920 to 1962, requiring significant cleanup before any homes could be installed. In 2022, Mendenhall helped the nonprofit village secure a lease on the property for a buck a year.

In his proposed fiscal 2023 budget, the Deseret News reported, Republican Utah Gov. Spencer Cox endorsed the project, asking lawmakers to shell out up to $20 million to support its construction. The Legislature ultimately approved $55 million in one-time spending on deeply affordable housing ($4 million of that was funneled to the village through a state grant later that year).

The Other Side Village, a sister organization of The Other Side Academy, scored two separate state grants (the first in 2022 and another in 2023) totaling $7 million of federal COVID-19 relief money.

The money was intended to bolster an effort to create single- and double-occupancy homes ranging from 250 to 400 square feet that would cost residents $250 to $500 a month to rent.

To be clear, the village is not dead. The project is still slated to be built in three phases and, once completed, will feature about 420 homes at a total price tag of roughly $60 million (although inflation has likely forced that number higher).

Project leaders and state officials say the nonprofit is raising additional funds through private and corporate donations to cover the full cost of the community.

Shifting timelines

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The site of the Other Side Village on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.

All the public money and political support the project has amassed haven’t helped the village meet its targeted opening dates.

In March 2022, project leaders said the first 60 houses could potentially open by the late summer of that year.

Then, the following September, officials behind The Other Side Village hoped to have residents move in by the summer of 2023.

By late July of last year, however, the nonprofit said it had just completed environmental cleanup at the former landfill site and that early 2024 was a realistic opening date.

This month, village CEO Preston Cochrane said the organization had hoped to open the first homes in May, but labor shortages and bringing in clean soil and have slowed development.

He now predicts the first homes won’t be open until the end of this year — at the earliest.

Of the 60 homes in the project’s first phase, 13 are completed and are being stored off-site. Another 17 or so are under construction.

Full completion of the project isn’t anticipated for at least five years.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Crews work at the site of the planned tiny-home village in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 6, 2024.

Bill Tibbitts, deputy executive director of Crossroads Urban Center and a prominent voice in Utah’s fight against homelessness, laments that no units have opened.

“The thing that’s really troubling,” Tibbitts said, “is that, at a time when there are hundreds of people sleeping outside, there isn’t anyone who has moved out of homelessness and into this tiny-home village.”

Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, said the idea behind the village was to get people into homes quickly.

“The location that they chose and the style of housing and the program that they chose,” she said, “all lend themselves to delays rather than rapid progress in getting people off of the street.”

Garvin and Tibbitts insist that they want the village to succeed and that a variety of housing projects can help address homelessness in Utah.

Despite the holdup, Wayne Niederhauser, the governor’s top adviser on homelessness, stands by the project as construction continues.

He praised The Other Side Village’s focus not just on creating a new neighborhood but also on supporting those who would live there with on-site services.

“We know that housing alone does not work,” Niederhauser said. “You have to have supportive services, and supportive services don’t work without housing. They go together.”

When the state awards grants like the ones the village received, he said, there’s an expectation that the projects could take two to three years to come on line.

Niederhauser said about half the projects awarded funding in 2022 and 2023 are now operational.

If state-funded projects like the village aren’t completed or fall out of compliance with contractual requirements, his office can ask for its money back and give it to another outfit.

Onerous entry requirements

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A model of a tiny home on display at The Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022.

To call the village home, formerly homeless Utahns like Fairburn have to go through a live-in prep school program that lasts six months to a year. In that time, students are paired with a coach and — if necessary — connected with outside medical and social services.

To join the prep school, and hopefully the village down the line, prospective students must have experienced chronic homelessness, lived in Utah for at least a year (Cochrane, the CEO, conceded that can be hard to prove), be sober or be willing to pursue sobriety, and be able to manage their own medications. They also have to give up their phones for up to the first 90 days — a common requirement in recovery programs.

The prep school, like The Other Side Academy, requires students to work for one of the academy’s affiliated businesses, like The Other Side Movers or the soon-to-open Other Side Donuts.

Enrollment in the prep school started with a trickle. For now, 13 people are either attending or have graduated.

Cochrane said the program plans to interview another 50 people for spots at the school. There are only 25 openings available at the Murray building where the school is currently based. The organization plans to use $6 million in state funding to build a larger space that can accommodate 56 students in Salt Lake City’s Central City neighborhood.

Strict requirements for participants has advocates like Tibbitts worried that, even when it opens, the tiny-home project might turn into a “tiny ghost town”.

“If they are requiring people with physical disabilities or serious mental illness to not just be sober, but to participate in a work program for six to 12 months before they move into a home,” Tibbitts said, “that’s going to limit how many chronically homeless people they can work with.”

Cochrane doesn’t share that worry. Many homeless Utahns, he said, are eager to get out of the shelter system and off the streets. The village, he said, would welcome them.

“We’ll definitely fill it,” Cochrane said. “If you look at those that are on the street who want something different, there is a demand for it.”

For Fairburn, living alongside other formerly homeless Utahns in a supportive housing community has helped him take the next step.

“I don’t call this a program. It’s a family,” Fairburn said. “I have a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, [whereas] before, I didn’t. I was just out there trying to find my fix.”

Fairburn has already taken steps to turn around his life. Now he’s just waiting to turn the key.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Piles of dirt sit at the construction site for The Other Side Academy in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 6, 2024.

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