The newly picked designer of Salt Lake City’s tiny homes village for the homeless wants 40 houses ready by March

The Other Side Academy has been picked to manage the pilot project and promises the surrounding neighborhood ‘will be better for it.’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayor Erin Mendenhall talks about the status of her goal to have a tiny home pilot project in place this winter, during a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 29, 2021. Behind her is a conceptual drawing.

The nonprofit The Other Side Academy will design and manage a village of tiny homes in Salt Lake City, Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced Thursday, the latest step toward her goal of having a pilot project ready for the homeless by this fall.

The Other Side Academy runs a two-year, live-in program located near downtown that teaches vocational and life skills. Many of its residents apply to attend as an alternative to serving time in jail.

The academy has “a proven track record of successfully managing a peer-based community in Salt Lake City while being an asset to the neighborhood and the city as a whole,” Mendenhall said in an interview explaining the decision to partner with the nonprofit. “I’ve been so impressed with their integrity and their devotion to service.”

Bringing on an operator and manager that will help with fundraising, create the community and ultimately supervise it is a “huge step forward” to building the village in Salt Lake City, the mayor said at a news conference.

Under the new agreement, Salt Lake City has not committed any city funds to pay the nonprofit for its design work and eventual management duties.

Instead, the academy and city officials will try to gather donations to cover those expenses, Mendenhall said. The city may eventually use federal funds to help pay for upfront costs, she said.

Other details around the project, which would be the first of its kind in the state, also still need to be refined — including where in the city it will be established and how big it could be. Tiny homes generally have 400 square feet of space each.

“I’m not interested in piloting the community in a temporary site,” Mendenhall noted. “And so [we’re] looking for a location that has enough space to scale in the future and that would never force the residents to move again because of the location.”

Joseph Grenny, board chair and co-founder of The Other Side Academy, said it is working toward the mayor’s November deadline and hopes to have 40 homes ready for move-in by March 2022.

“If you don’t set an aggressive goal, you’ll accomplish nothing,” he said. “And so we don’t want to be wringing our hands and holding lots of meetings. We want to get this done and moving.”

Creating the ‘right culture’

The nonprofit plans to create a land search committee of people who can help narrow in on a site big enough to ultimately accommodate as many as 400 or 500 tiny homes, each with their own bathroom, kitchen and sleeping space — likely about 30 acres.

The site will need to be large enough to include space for community gatherings, services and even businesses that could be run by residents on site, Grenny said. The city also wants a location with access to public transit and city services, where utilities are installed or readily available and that is not adjacent to industrial or large-scale business operations.

There are a few potential places in Salt Lake City that could fit the bill, Grenny said, though each comes with its own challenges.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah architect Jeff White stands on an underused site on the west side of Salt Lake City as he holds a model showing what his tiny home community might look like, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

Until Salt Lake City’s site is chosen, Mendenhall said it’s too soon to pin down a price for development of the tiny homes, though some of the costs could be eligible for payment through the $87 million the city will receive from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act.

But Mendenhall and The Other Side Academy hope much of the funding will come from donors, who they’d like to provide architectural services and the tiny houses themselves, as well as volunteer work to help ready the site and prepare the homes. It’s also possible that the land for the village could be donated or that its cost could be reduced by an altruistic seller, Mendenhall said.

On Thursday, the Other Side Academy announced it would make the first donation to the tiny home village of $50,000, raised through its social enterprise efforts.

While there may be a need to fundraise for upfront costs, Grenny said he doesn’t anticipate that The Other Side Academy will come to the community every year to fundraise for ongoing operational or maintenance costs at the village.

The Other Side Academy “requires no operational donations and hasn’t since about one year of operation,” he said. “We believe that people have far more potential than we often give them credit for. And so one of the prides of this community, of this village, will be that it will not have a requirement for ongoing donations.”

The new village, he said, “will ultimately be self-reliant.”

He expects village residents will be required to pay a small fee for rent, though The Other Side Academy hasn’t settled on a number yet. Other funds, he said, would come from business ventures, like the thrift store or moving company that are run by the clients in the academy’s two-year program.

In addition to paying rent, Grenny said those who live at the village will be expected to “obey all the laws of the land,” to participate in the community in some way and be accountable to their peers — promises that he indicated may help stave off any Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) sentiments from the village’s neighbors.

The most important component of making the village both a success for people experiencing homelessness and a “gem” for the community, he said, will be establishing the right culture.

“Infrastructure alone doesn’t solve the problem,” he said at the news conference Thursday. “Infrastructure is necessary. Tiny homes are a great concept. But tiny homes without the right culture could be a tiny disaster at some point.

“So what The Other Side Academy felt required us to step forward is to share what we know how to do, creating a peer culture of accountability and strong norms that will make this a wonderful place to live.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A conceptual image of a tiny home development. Mayor Erin Mendenhall gave an update on the status of her goal to have a tiny home pilot project in place this winter at a new conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 29, 2021.

‘Not a one-size-fits-all solution’

Mendenhall and other advocates of the tiny home village concept — a coalition that includes government leaders, homeless service providers, activists and some people experiencing homelessness — think it would be particularly suited to helping the state’s growing chronically homeless population.

Some people experiencing homelessness decline shelter beds, the mayor noted, and she believes a peer-based village could help preserve the community and sense of belonging that people find in encampments while also providing more stability and safety.

“We’re trying to address the complexity and the reality of the situation and acknowledging that our solutions need to be as diverse as the challenges that our homeless neighbors are facing,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Proponents also see the tiny home village as a way to 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 to find housing, even for those who have a voucher to help pay their costs.

As they move forward on the project, service providers and government leaders have been 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.

Former Salt Lake City Councilman Andrew Johnston, the city’s new director of homelessness policy and outreach, said Thursday that he thinks the pilot program could be welcoming place for some single people who may struggle to find community when they leave homelessness.

“It’s attractive for a certain crowd,” he said. But it “may or may not fit well” for people who have more severe mental health or substance abuse challenges, he added, or who are aging and need more in-home health care.

“So we’ll need this and a lot of other things,” he said, noting that the tiny home village alone won’t solve homelessness in the capital city.

With a managing partner on board, Mendenhall said, work will begin “in earnest” to make the tiny home village happen in Salt Lake City.

“We are invested in this community,” she said. “We hope that it will be able to expand beyond the pilot, but also that it will inspire and motivate other parts of the state of Utah to build similar tiny home communities. We need this kind of housing throughout the state of Utah.”