Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Is It Time for Tiny-House Villages?

Tiny-House Villages Offer Transitional Housing as Well as Much More Permanent Options

It was a natural step for Andrew Heben, the transition from the Occupy movement into creating collaborative housing for homeless and low-income populations. He became aware of the need for more and better housing options for the homeless during his Occupy days, in fact, as they drifted into encampments seeking safety and shelter.

An urban planning student at the time, he was taught to “value the input of the people you’re planning for.” So for his senior thesis in urban planning he set out to find out just what the homeless want in the way of housing, by visiting tent-city encampments across the country.

“What I found is that these camps are a lot more organized than they are portrayed in the news media,” Eben recently told a group of nearly 100 gathered at Bidwell Presbyterian Church several weeks ago to hear his thoughts on alternative housing options for the homeless.

Author of the book Tent City Urbanism: From Self-Organized Camps to Tiny House Villages, Eben discovered “sustainable dynamics” in the camps he visited—direct democracy, economic self-management, mutual aid, and resourcefulness among them. So the question for Eben became: How can those dynamics be preserved while infrastructure, the physical housing situation, is improved?

It takes a village . . .

It takes a village . . .

tomake a village. (photos used courtesy of Opportunity Village, Eugene, Oregon)

to make a village. (photos used courtesy of Opportunity Village, Eugene, Oregon)

He pointed to three models that “bridge the gap between the street and stable, sustainable housing.” The sanctuary camp allows people to camp in safe, sanitary conditions rather than environmentally sensitive forests and wetlands, much like Occupy camps established around the country. A transition village offers very basic tiny house shelters for temporary stays, often with separate, shared social space and cooking and bathroom facilities. An affordable micro-housing village offers “more robust” tiny housing, often self-contained homes with small kitchens that provide permanence–“sustainable places to transition to,” as Eben put it—for very low-income residents.

Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon, the transition village that Eben co-founded, grew out of Occupy Eugene. The village occupies a one-time trailer park site and includes 30 very tiny houses—a mix of Conestoga huts and “bungalows” just 60 to 80 square feet in size, providing little more than sleeping space. A 30-foot yurt heated in winter by a pellet stove serves as a community center and meeting space. Nearby are shared kitchen, restroom, and shower facilities.

a Conestoga hut at Opportunity Village

a Conestoga hut at Opportunity Village

“The first day we had access to the site we built five structures,” he said. The tiny-house bungalows go together quickly thanks to modular panelization construction techniques “that return the home-building process to the people, similar to an old-fashioned barn-raising.”

“The people” are critical to village success, which by design requires citizen-residents to participate in decision-making.

According to Eben, the “capital costs” for Opportunity Village—all from private donations—have $98,475, or $3,395 per housing unit. Monthly operating costs average about $2,422, or $839.50 per person annually.

That compares to societal costs of $20,000 to $25,000 per person annually, he said, when people are living on the streets.

Most significantly, though, when Opportunity Village supporters approached the Eugene City Council for an extension of their use permit, “no one came forward to speak against it.”

Yet Opportunity Village isn’t “the answer” for homelessness. It serves only single adults and couples, and isn’t designed to accommodate the needs of families and children. People who are unable to follow the community’s rules—including the ban against alcohol and drugs onsite—also can’t be accommodated, which means “the worse-off folks” are still unhoused.

The community does offer an affordable housing option for many people who aren’t well-served by homeless shelters.

Next up for Eben is Eugene’s new Emerald Village project, “a grassroots model for long-term, ultra-affordable housing” that provides more permanence—and a tiny-housing community that’s also self-sustaining and free of government subsidy. It’s intended as a longer term, sustainable micro-housing community.

Overview ofAndy Eben's next project, which will more permanently house the homelsss

Overview of Andy Eben’s next project, Emerald Village, which will more permanently house the homeless

The tiny houses will be roughly twice as big, at 120 to 150 square feet, with a kitchenette, heat, and electrical hook-ups. Similar to Opportunity Village, tiny houses will be supported by common gathering, kitchen, and restroom facilities.

Emerald Village residents will be expected to make monthly payments of $150 to $200 toward the value of their tiny house—yet this “rent” helps them build an asset for the future. If a resident decides to leave the village, he ort she will be able to “sell” that accrued equity back to the community nonprofit—which makes this an excellent way to save money for standard rental deposits and/or first and last month’s rent.

Among other micro-housing projects Eben mentioned was Occupy Madison’s OM Village, whose motto is “ending homelessness one tiny house at a time.” In November of 2014 OM finally received its Madison, Wisconsin use permit, which allows dwellings on the East Johnson Street village site to be occupied. Three tiny OM houses have been finished so far, with six more scheduled for completion by spring 2015.

More ambitious still is Community First! Village in Austin, Texas, an in-progress, 225-unit micro-housing development where residents will pay $100 to $300 per month to live. Sponsored by Mobile Loves & Fishes (“Miracles on Wheels”), the program’s mission is positively biblical—literally, as in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and take care of it.”

“Houses” at Community First! include fully self-contained fifth-wheel RV trailers, micro-houses with shared bathrooms and kitchens, and canvas-sided tent cottages.


Thinking about starting a tiny house village in your town? Here’s the roadmap. Find the map and more nuts-and-bolt resources from other folks who are doing it at the Village Collaborative.

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