South Salt Lake ∙ At first glance, it doesn’t look like much: A rectangular box covered with aluminum and broken up by two windows and a door. On the inside, a 60-square-foot room with a desk, a bed that folds down over it and a door that locks and looks onto a small covered porch.
But Jeffrey White, a small homes architect, has a big vision for the space, which he sees as a way to help combat Utah’s affordable housing crunch and to temporarily stabilize people experiencing homelessness.
“This is the time to address this kind of stuff,” White said during an interview Wednesday in his Toaster house prototype. “And this is so simple and inexpensive to do, if we get people to pay attention to us.”
The name “Toaster” is an acronym for the characteristics he wants the homes to embody: temporary, orderly, affordable, safe, transportable, effective and respectful.
Someday, White envisions 10 or more Toasters forming communal villages with shared bathrooms and kitchens. The center wouldn’t accept walk-ins, taking only individuals or couples preselected by homeless outreach teams, and it would have attached social services and a site manager to patrol for loitering, drug use and other illicit activity, he said.
To achieve that vision, White is now working to cultivate partnerships with homeless service providers, local governments and even food franchises he hopes would sponsor the units and employ people experiencing homelessness after helping them obtain their food handler’s permits.
“I’m going to take this house on a trailer and get it on the road, take it to every community out there,” he said. “Get it belly to belly with those city communities and say, ‘Is this something that you guys could look at?’”
He sees particular benefit to communities like Ogden, where homelessness is skyrocketing, or in areas farther south, where homelessness has received relatively less attention than in the Salt Lake metro area but may be starting to experience the consequences of rising rents and housing costs.
Because his concept is new, there are still plenty of questions about where a Toaster village could locate under a city’s zoning laws. The units likely wouldn’t qualify as a mother-in-law apartment, since they don’t have a bathroom or kitchen, but they are also “far different” from a shed, White said.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” he acknowledged.
Salt Lake City Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, who has a background in city planning, toured the Toaster last month and said there would likely be challenges in implementing White’s vision.
“There’s a lot of logistical issues that are not clear,” she said.
Still, she praised White for innovating — though “not exactly outside the box,” she joked — and for exploring new ways to solve some of the biggest challenges facing the city and state.
“When there’s more concrete plans for logistics, it would be worth taking a look at,” Valdemoros said.
White has put around $6,500 of his own cash into the unit, which he constructed himself in about a week — though not without a few mishaps, like the time the structure collapsed in on him, pinning him to the ground until one of his neighbors found him about 45 minutes later.
But even with the challenges, he says it’s worth the time and money.
“It’s just something that’s a passion,” he said. “It’s like why do old people plant trees? We’re never going to see them, but yet we still do. It’s the same thing. I’ve got my house. My house is paid for. I live in a nice neighborhood. But what about the other people?”
Housing is thought to be a stabilizing force for people on the streets, offering a place to sleep through the night without interruption, an address to put on job applications and a location to begin treatment for mental health or addiction.
Getting people into housing is a major focus of the Salt Lake Valley’s new approach to homeless services. Three new homeless resource centers, which will replace the Road Home shelter downtown later this fall, are focused on directing people into housing, treatment programs or care facilities rather than using emergency shelter as a default.
The new sites have combined room for 700 people, a total capacity significantly below The Road Home’s maximum occupancy of 1,062 people, a number that includes not just beds, but also mats and cots.
Amid concerns about space availability, White believes Toaster could be another way to fill the gap in emergency situations — and even bring services to people who might not seek traditional shelter.
Christina Davis, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, which is coordinating the ongoing shift in homeless services, said the agency is “always open” to new housing solutions but echoed concerns about zoning and the difficulty in finding the right people to take up occupancy in the space.
“It’s the kind of thing where any affordable housing or affordable housing solutions that meet a need is great but things like that also of course come with their own issues, too,” she said.
Transition leaders have been working on an overflow contingency plan and have noted an increase in the number of permanent supportive housing units coming on line this year and next and space for overflow at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, located near The Road Home’s shelter in the downtown area.
While White has pitched the Toaster primarily as a solution for people experiencing homelessness, he says it’s not limited to that population and could also be useful for students or artist collectives and in emergency situations like floods or fires.
“There’s so many applications and it’s just so inexpensive,” he said.
Still, he says his next step is to find others who believe in his vision the way he does and who are willing to put a few dollars behind it.
He joked, “The toaster needs bread."