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Could a community-centric village of 400-square-foot tiny homes with access to mental health resources and other services help reduce chronic homelessness in Utah’s capital city?
Advocates, service providers, political leaders and even some people experiencing homelessness say yes — and with broad-based stakeholder support and political will, the vision could become a reality as soon as November.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall recognizes that her goal to create a tiny home village pilot project before winter is “ambitious,” since it would require blazing a new trail in Utah. The obstacles to getting there could include complex zoning changes, Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) pushback from the community and funding.
“There’s nothing like this in the state of Utah,” Mendenhall said in an interview. “We have no experience here doing something like this. So our systems from the homeless system statewide to our zoning, our current service providers, this isn’t something that any of us have in our bailiwick.”
Still, the mayor is confident the vision can become a reality, noting that there are all the “right ingredients of support in Utah — from our volunteer-centric culture to the philanthropic and organizational interest to the political commitment in Salt Lake City.”
Many of the details around a tiny home village will need to be refined in the coming months, including who would run it, where in the city it would be established, how it would be funded and even how big it could be.
But the concept isn’t entirely uncharted territory.
As they eye a brand new model for housing people experiencing homelessness in Utah, service providers and government leaders are looking to Community First Village, a 51-acre, master planned tiny home community in Austin, Texas, that has seen success in moving people off the streets.
Like that model, “what we’re envisioning is really building a neighborhood where people have pride in their community, they’ve got shared experiences, there’s a shared level of concern for maintaining the safety of their neighborhood,” noted Jean Hill, co-chair of the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness.
“So it’s not something to be afraid of,” she added, “and actually has worked in Austin.”
Whom could a tiny home village help?
Mendenhall and other advocates of the tiny home village concept think it would be particularly suited to helping the state’s growing chronically homeless population.
The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness in Utah rose in 2020 to 688, from 512 the year before. Of those, 64% were unsheltered, according to the annual Point in Time Count, a yearly census of Utah’s homeless population.
Proponents say a tiny home community could boost the city’s affordable housing stock, addressing the high demand and low vacancy rates for housing amid an affordability crunch that’s making it difficult even for those who have a housing voucher to find a home.
“At this point, in my opinion, all housing is good housing,” said Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler, who said she’s supportive of the tiny home concept. “Anything that kind of adds to the diversity of our housing stock is a good option that we should be exploring.”
Mendenhall said she thinks the village could also address a deeper and more complicated need: the desire many people experiencing homelessness have to be around an understanding community.
“When I talk to people who fit that definition of chronically homeless and ask, ‘If I can get a van here right now to help you move your things and guarantee you there’s a bed at the resource center tonight, would you go?’ And they tell me, ‘No,’” she said. “I’ve heard from people who have said, ‘I don’t want to be in an apartment complex where no one understands what I’ve been through.’”
A peer-based village could help preserve the community and sense of belonging that some people find in encampments, she said, while also providing much more stability and safety.
A tiny home village could also incorporate opportunities for work or service to help people find purpose, she said — from a community garden or chicken coop to a barber shop, auto repair facility or pottery studio that could give people the ability to use the skills they already have and learn new ones.
“That’s one of the ways that we’re [looking at] finding the broader community integration to really come in and connect with the village,” she added. “So maybe you’d get your tires changed or your oil changed or do some holiday shopping there. Or go volunteer to weed a few rows in the community garden with the residents and make a meal together that evening in the shared kitchen.”
Ty Bellamy, a homeless advocate who helped organize the high-profile Camp Last Hope in Salt Lake City earlier this year, has been advocating for tiny homes with the mayor’s office and said the unsheltered people she’s spoken to are excited about the concept and frustrated that it’s taking so long to come to fruition.
“Absolutely they’re interested in it,” she said. “They keep asking me, when it’s going to happen, is it really going to happen.”
Several people experiencing homelessness have expressed interest in the tiny home concept in interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune over the last few months.
Hill, with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, says she agrees tiny home villages could be helpful for chronically homeless populations. But she cautioned that they shouldn’t be seen as a solution for homelessness at large.
“I don’t want people to think this is going to solve everything for every person,” she said. “The tiny home community works for some people. It doesn’t work for everyone.”
Tiny homes likely wouldn’t be a good fit, for example, for families experiencing homelessness, she said.
And while there are some people without a home who would rather be in a community like the one the city is exploring, there are others who would have more success in an apartment or a single-family home.
“I think we need to recognize that low-income individuals and people experiencing homelessness don’t fit in one box any more than the rest of us want to,” she said. “Apartment living may not be ideal for people who are experiencing homelessness or low income, so the tiny home may be their ideal. For some people, neither of those options are going to be very effective. They’re going to need their own home.”
Where would a tiny home village go?
As she works toward a November timeline for creating the community, Mendenhall has been convening groups of service providers and other stakeholders in recent weeks to look into questions around the concept, including where a village could go, what services would be offered there and how it would be funded.
The first question — where to build the community — has been among the thorniest in a city that’s largely built out. And even when the city finds a place, there’s no guarantee the zoning regulations in the area would allow such an undertaking.
Mendenhall said groups have been looking into regulations around the housing types offered at other tiny home villages, including RVs, tiny homes on stilts and small dwellings built into foundations.
All of those models face different requirements. And however the city decides to move forward, the mayor said there may be zoning changes that would be required in order to facilitate the creation of a such a village.
“Because we don’t have anything that contemplates a tiny home village, there are municipal steps we have to take with any option,” she said. “But some of those steps are longer, some are shorter with different areas of the city.”
Mendenhall said there could eventually be hundreds of tiny homes in Salt Lake City and other parts of the state. The pilot project slated for this fall will likely be smaller, she said, but will need to be big enough to create a “viable community” and create a sense of “momentum.”
As they explore options for land, city leaders face calls from many homeless advocates who want to see the government donate its surplus land to the cause in order to keep costs down.
“It’s sitting there collecting dust anyway,” Bellamy said of the city’s underused land.
Jeff White, a small homes architect who has created a prototype for a tiny home village he says could help the homeless get off the streets, has espoused a similar vision and is calling on the city to develop the community on an underused plot of land it owns on the west side.
His “Toaster” village — an acronym for the characteristics he wants the tiny homes to embody: temporary, orderly, affordable, safe, transportable, effective and respectful — would include not only tiny homes but also open space for vegetable gardens, a “spiritual motivation center” and a public gathering space at the site on 1850 West Indiana Avenue.
The area is close to warehouses that he says would provide ample work opportunities for those who stay at the village, in addition to work opportunities on the site.
White said he’s floated other sites to city leaders and developers “and every time I kept getting the big N-O.” But he continues to pursue this lot because “I haven’t heard a ‘no’ yet.”
Mendenhall has yet to name a site for the village or even to indicate which ones the city is considering. But she said the municipality is looking into the concept of donating its own land for the community.
“I have no intention of doing this pilot village somewhere where we don’t have confidence that it can stay in perpetuity,” she said. “And because of that, we also want it to have space to grow and scale up. So this should mean a significantly sized piece of property, and land is one of the many things that Salt Lake City has to potentially contribute. So do many other levels of government and organizations.”
Wherever it goes, the project is likely to run into opposition from a faction of community members concerned about the impact it could have on their neighborhoods.
City leaders say they’ve considered the possibility of pushback from the community at large, but say they’ll deal with that issue if and when it comes.
“Of course that’s in my mind,” said Fowler, the Salt Lake City Council chair. “But for me, I’m not in a space where we would need to think quite that far ahead. Because like I said, we’re really still exploring the how, when, why, what, where of it all.”
Who would run it, and who would fund it?
In addition to finding a place to build a tiny home village, city leaders and advocates have also begun thinking about how to run the community and how to finance it.
While there are no clear answers yet about how much the tiny home center would cost, Mendenhall said funding is actually “one of the least intimidating factors in launching a bold idea like this.”
“Certainly I don’t mean to dismiss the weight of it,” she said. “But we have a very generous community. We have examples around the country that show different ways you can engage the architecture community, home developing community, religious organizations.”
And she said she looks forward to extending an invitation to those partners around the state, “to say, ‘Now please come and help us make it a reality.’ And I believe that they will.”
In addition to financial partners, the city will also need to find an organization with the willingness and expertise to run the brand new community. Mendenhall said she believes that entity should be a nonprofit rather than a government entity.
Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, noted that some tiny home communities have been run by religious-based organizations that have many volunteers.
“We certainly have a lot of energy in our community right now with different groups wanting to help the unsheltered,” she noted, “and maybe that can translate.”
Whoever runs it, advocates and city leaders alike agree that the community will need to provide services to the residents, including mental health resources, and connect people to the broader landscape of homeless services in the state.
For Mendenhall, that means “that service providers have relationships, access and presence with the residents who need that support and that there aren’t any barriers to residents being able to have a case manager through [Volunteers of America Utah] if they want, or access their [Veterans Affairs] benefits without having to leave the village.”
Hill, with the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness, said she’s been impressed with the process the city and other stakeholders have gone through so far to explore the tiny home concept.
And whatever ends up being built, she agreed that its success will ultimately hinge on providing support for the residents who live there.
“There’s some other groups out there talking about just building a village, and you can’t just build a village,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into providing housing and services to people who are incredibly traumatized. We don’t want to traumatize people in the process of trying to help people.”
Mendenhall said she anticipates making additional announcements about the tiny home pilot project in the coming weeks.