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Living small: Tiny homes throw a potent pebble into Lansing’s housing pool

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The words “housing bubble” bring to mind bleak images of foreclosure sales, tax auctions and rows of huge, muscle-bound McMansions, sitting empty for lack of buyers. For more than half a century, homes in America got bigger and more expensive until the bubble spectacularly burst.

Across the nation, a dramatically downscaled vision of affordable housing is popping up, like outcrops of colorful mushrooms, and it’s starting to pop up in Lansing.

“Tiny homes” (under 600 square feet and often half that in size) and their bigger brothers, “small homes” (under 900 square feet) look like a cute fad on TV, but a group of Lansing area residents see them as a partial solution to the crying need for affordable housing.

Living in a tiny home can be a lifestyle choice, as it is on chirpy HGTV shows, or a crucial key to home ownership for people in poverty or the homeless.

Lansing Area Tiny Homes is a diverse group of more than 50 Lansing area residents, from builders to accountants to people looking for a home they can afford. Their goal is to start a non-profit organization and build a settlement of tiny homes for low-income and homeless people in Lansing. The group is led, for now, by the Rev. Jon Pohl of Asbury United Methodist Church, until a board of directors is established.

At the same time, local developers such as Dave Muylle and Brent Forsberg are putting a toe in the tiny and small house markets, bucking decades-long traditions and layers of legal barriers that have discouraged Americans from living small.

Casitas at Cass

The diverse group that gathered at Asbury United Methodist one night last week disagreed on the details, but there was a clear consensus that tiny homes have the potential to help people in poverty attain the dream of home ownership.

Michigan’s most conspicuous example, and a potential model for the Lansing group, is Detroit’s tiny home community, just off the Lodge Freeway’s Elmhurst exit, on the city’s west side.

The nonprofit Cass Community Social Services builds and manages the homes, which are set on 25 vacant lots purchased from the city for $15,000.

So far, 19 homes, ranging in size from 250 to 400 square feet, have been built, six more are underway and 10 larger homes for families are planned. They are the first new structures the neighborhood has seen since 1974.

A volunteer work force built each home in a few weeks with donated goods.

In a sharp rebuke to the institutional drabness of many public housing projects, the Cass homes are designed in different architectural styles: Cape Cod, modern, shotgun, Victorian. Cathedral ceilings make them feel much larger than they are. Porches and patios extend the living space and enhance the feeling of community. The cost of the first seven homes was about $40,000.

The Rev. Faith Fowler, the nonprofit’s director, said the homes are meant to offer disadvantaged people “the pride and dignity of owning a home, and, ultimately collateral.” Occupants pay a dollar a square foot monthly rent and are required to take financial literacy classes and do volunteer work in the community. After seven years, if the requirements are met, the house is theirs.

The Cass project is one of a long string of tiny house projects across the nation, many of which have their roots in political activism.

Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, began in 2000 as a tent city and evolved into a village of over 40 tiny homes. Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon, evolved from an Occupy Eugene encampment to a village of 30 very tiny shelters (about 200 square feet in size) with a communal yurt for sleeping on cold nights. Second Wind Cottages in Ithaca, New York, turned a homeless encampment behind a Wal-Mart into a village of 20 winterized tiny homes. Hickory Crossing in Dallas, built in 2016, houses 50 chronically homeless people. The list is long and getting longer.

Beret and ski cap

The Cass project came up frequently at the meeting at Asbury United Methodist. Brad Warrenburg, a utility worker specializing in rebate programs and energy efficiency, didn’t know anybody at the LATH meeting, but he sat in a rear pew and listened intently, his interest piqued by the group’s Facebook page.

A few years ago, faced with a month and a half shutdown from his job at Ford Motor Co., Warrenbug joined a group in New Orleans that built homes for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

He’s interested in helping the Lansing group make its tiny homes energy efficient.

“I’ve been in too many homes doing audits for people where they have their utilities shut off because they can’t pay the bill,” he said. “I like the whole idea of tiny homes.”

The diversity of the Lansing group was evident in the conversations that broke out after the meeting. Warrenburg, clad in a tweed suit and beret, stood in the lobby next to Benjamin Jones, a bearded, ruddy builder, dressed in ski cap and heavy work clothes.

Jones loves architecture and has studied it since high school. Tiny homes combine that interest with his other driving passion, protecting the environment. He has long planned to build his own homestead, following principles of sustainability.

“I want to put as minimal a footprint on the planet as possible,” Jones said. “We don’t need these 3,500-square-feet mansions to live in.”

The average American house put out over 28,000 pounds of carbon dioxide in 2015, while the average Cass tiny home puts out 3,500 pounds a year, according to data from Cass Community Social Services.

Jones has just finished designing a tiny home in a rural area near Dimondale for a woman who is retiring in April.

The house will be about 320 square feet and cost $15,000. He plans to position two shipping containers, each 20 feet by 8 feet, at right angles to each other, creating a patio space between the wings. (The client calls it a “catio,” for her cats.) There will be a bedroom, a bath, a kitchenette and living area with a trundle bed for guests. The house will be heated with a wood stove and powered by a solar grid. Water will come from a well and there will be a septic tank.

Jones will start work as soon as the shipping containers arrive, so the client can move in this fall. He was delighted to learn of the LATH meeting and is eager to take part in the group.

“This is a good chance to show how we can reinvent the idea of community, how to live and how to give back,” he said.

Mary Lynn Granado’s interest in the Asbury Church meeting was far from abstract. She needs an affordable alternative to her current housing situation.

“I’m going to be alone one day,” she said. “My husband’s dying of kidney failure and I need a place to live that I can afford.”

Granado’s income from disability payments comes to about $1,000 a month, but she has years to go before her regular Social Security payments kick in.

She doesn’t want to end up in a federally subsidized housing project and hopes to help the group any way she can.

“Even working, people are struggling,” she said. “I’d like to be a part of this even if I can’t afford to have one built for myself.”

The cottages and the councilman

When it comes to tiny houses, Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz is a believer.

“The work Dave Muylle has done on the east side has been awesome,” said Betz, whose First Ward includes the east side.

Muylle, a small-scale developer and restorer of craftsman-style homes, is the mastermind of Cottage Row, a village tucked into Lansing’s east side.

So far, four cottages are completed and occupied and two more are under construction. At 1,000 to 1,100 square feet, the cottages exceed most people’s definition of “tiny home,” which is fine with Muylle, because he doesn’t like the term anyway.

“I don’t consider myself a tiny home builder,” Muylle said. “What I’m interested in the size and the design of the house being appropriate — maybe it’s 400 square feet, maybe it’s 900.”

He’d like to see the city make it easier for small builders like himself to participate in the creation of their own homes “instead of leaving housing in the hands of a few big developers.”

“My project took four years before I finally got approval to build this thing, because of increased density, shared driveways and things like that,” he said.

Muylle’s eight-plus years of hard work may reverberate beyond his little village. Councilman Betz watched the cottages go up when he lived on Leslie Street. He still lives nearby and walks his dogs by Muylle’s village frequently.

“They’re gorgeous,” he said. “I’m very impressed with his work.”

Two weeks ago, Betz met with Jon Pohl of Lansing Area Tiny Homes and offered his support.

“I believe they’re a path to ownership and equity that low-income people don’t get,” Betz said. “If I had a tiny home available to me, I would love to purchase one myself.”

Betz’s hopes for the project go beyond helping low-income people build equity. “If this is done right, we can house a lot of the homeless population,” he said.

Betz said he is asking LATH for a “road map” of “all the things we need to get done and changed to have this happen,” from zoning to other kinds of red tape.

“We have a ton of laws associated with everything, and so does the state,” Betz said. “I’m interested in making it as easy as possible to build these because I think they’d be a valuable resource to the community.”

The city is seeded with seekers of simplicity with plans for nestling into a tiny home.

Architect Frederic Lee McLaughlin is planning to build his own tiny home on a southside lot he picked up at a tax sale in the 1980s for about $700, on the west side of Everett Lane between Crest and Hodge streets. McLaughlin can expound for an hour about the design principles behind the rooftop patio at East Lansing’s El Azteco, which he designed, but let’s stick to our tiny topic.

He plans to build a house about 570 square feet in size, using straw bale construction. Straw bales, cemented in place by a mortar-like semi-liquid, make surprisingly strong exterior walls. Michigan’s building code allows it. (Benjamin Jones, the man who is building the shipping container homes near Dimondale, is also building a larger straw bale home for a client near Harrison. When two inspectors came to look at the semi-finished home, one bet the other that straw bale construction was prohibited and he lost the bet.)

Straw bale walls are thick, making tiny spaces even tinier, but McLaughlin has his retirement nest all laid out.

“I’m focusing on doing it as simply as I can,” McLaughlin said. He hopes it will come in under $50,000.

When McLaughlin tells people about his plans, he gets a lively response. “I live in the state Capital,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve talked with everybody from tea partiers, a few years back, who were very interested in this, to the most liberal types.”

But he is concerned that the advocates put their money where their mouth is.

“We’re not encouraging people to build affordable houses while we’re living in a 5,000-square-foot house,” he said.  “I’m coming up on 73 this May, but I’m pretty energetic. I still want to make a contribution.”

Blue thing on Elm Street

The most famous “tiny home” in Lansing is the much-talked-about 600-square-foot home on Elm Street in REO Town, built by developer Brent Forsberg on a 33-foot-wide lot. The simple rectangular structure has no second floor and no basement. The robin’s-egg-blue exterior is frequently called “edgy,” even by Forsberg himself.

Muylle said he supports Forsberg’s REO Town house, even though it’s not what he would have built.

“The city called it a chicken coop, a Katrina cottage,” Muylle said. “It should be celebrated. People like it and it solves a problem.”

Forsberg’s development team is talking with the city of Lansing to develop a “pocket style neighborhood” of similar homes in REO Town. He plans to apply for a zoning variance to get the village approved. He’s busy with other projects and expects to submit his plans to the city this summer.

In the meantime, Forsberg bought an abandoned trailer park near Eaton Rapids at a tax sale and approached the city with a proposal for a village of “small homes” ranging in size from 760 to 900 square feet.

Two of the planned 12 homes in the village are now under construction, despite the winter weather. The houses are clustered to create more green space around the village.

It took about six months for Forsberg’s team to get the project approved, chiefly by getting the lots rezoned from single family residential to higher density residential.

In Lansing, homes on lots wider than 40 feet must measure at least 24 feet by 24 feet, according to zoning administrator Susan Stachowiak. When a lot is 40 feet wide or less, the house must be 20 feet by 20 feet.

Anyone can apply for a variance, but Stachowiak said no one has done so since she took her post in 2000.

“Both Dave Muylle’s and Brent Forsberg’s houses comply with that requirement,” she said.

“I’ve had a few people over the years inquire about tiny houses, but nobody’s ever submitted anything official,” she added. “I know they say it’s a trend, but I don’t know.”

Forsberg thinks he knows. In his view, smaller homes are a logical response to several recent changes in the housing market that are hardening into long term trends.

“There is a fad component, with the TV exposure and all that, but what we try to look at is, what is the trend behind that?” he asked. “For my parents’ generation, investing in a house, spending time in the yard and working on the house was a big part of their life. Now people want to get out, be more active and have other experiences outside the house.”

The 2008 housing crash and economic downturn put jets under that trend. Shocked homeowners found that those dream houses upon which they lavished so much money and time weren’t the solid investments everyone thought they were.

From 1950 to 2015, American houses got bigger and bigger, including the houses Forsberg was building. The average size of an American house was 2,657 square feet in 2015, up 40 percent from 1975.

“We finally saw that trend turn in 2015,” Forsberg said. All the while, labor and material costs continued to increase.

“In the Lansing area, median household income is $43,000 a year,” Forsberg said. At that income, families should spend no more than $1,200 a month on housing and utilities.

The prospect of a huge, unfilled demand for affordable housing – a demand that is likely to grow — was obvious.

But what form should the housing take?

Forsberg turned to the principles of architect Andrés Duany, founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an influential urban planning think tank with a charter that calls for “the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods.”

“How do we build a living experience at a people sized scale?” Forsberg said. “That’s how we designed these homes.”

Future of civilization

Dave Muylle insists he doesn’t build “tiny homes,” but he said he would love it if Lansing Area Tiny Homes challenged the city with a set of drawings, a site, a cadre of volunteers and community support.

“That’s the way things change,” he said.

Like Forsberg, Muylle believes that people are woven into the fabric of a neighborhood much more effectively when they live in smaller homes embedded in a neighborhood than in larger apartment blocks.

“I know it’s messy,” Muylle said. “You’re dealing with a lot of small builder-owners instead of one developer, but we don’t incentivize that kind of building, and we give millions of dollars to big multi-use projects,” he said.

Muylle said the city’s regulatory landscape, from zoning to building codes, is stacked against people who think small.

“Last year, there were six new house building permits pulled in Lansing, and two of them were mine,” Muylle said. “What are these guys afraid of? If somebody does something stupid and it’s a total failure, so what? That’s the way we make progress.”

Single-family homes have been approved, built and sited in the same way for generations, Muylle said, and a re-evaluation is long overdue.

“Only one in five households is the standard mom, dad and kids,” Muylle said. “We’re trying to fit everybody into the same thing and it doesn’t work.”

A zoning variance here and there isn’t the answer.

“They don’t want to do a variance,” Muylle said. “It sets precedents and they get their hair on fire about that. There needs to be systemic change.”

Forsberg is sympathetic to city officials who are wary of tiny homes, for fear the city will be stuck with enclaves of substandard housing, but he has his own concerns about the future. As wages stagnate and the homeless population grows, how will we keep people sheltered in a way that respects human dignity and doesn’t help fry the planet?

“The cities of 50 years from now will be shaped by decisions we make today,” Forsberg said. “These are great conversations to be having in the community as we define what housing looks like for the future of our civilization.”

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