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Tiny Home Summit looks at housing solutions for Chicago
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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Set between an Austin, Texas neighborhood housing estate and the halcyon panorama of the Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, there is a 27-acre village of mobile and tiny homes each with its own unique facade.

There, the residents of the village called Community First! can enjoy a continually expanding garden, try their hands at bee keeping or organic farming, learn a trade or nurture their artistic expression. The village also includes an on-site medical facility, an outdoor theater and walking trails.

Visitors to Community First! have often remarked "I want to live here."

The people who do are Austin's chronically homeless and disabled—people who have been transported from solitary hopelessness to a mutually supportive neighborhood of their own far from the shadows of eviction, hunger, harassment, arrest and violence.

Community First! is a project of the Austin-based nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

For the more than 250 attendees of the two-day Tiny Home Summit at the University of Illinois at Chicago April 18-19, it was just one breathtaking example of what is possible when addressing the need for additional housing solutions for the city's homeless youth.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes President and CEO Alan Graham was not the only featured guest to present a virtual tour.

He was joined by the speakers from five other cities which provide, or are planning to provide, tiny or micro homes for the homeless.

While the summit's focus was on youth homelessness, representatives from communities including Nashville (Rev. jeff carr), Greensboro (Teri Hammer), Memphis (Stephanie Reyes), Dallas (Brent Brown and John Greenan), and Seattle (Melinda Nichols) demonstrated that the application of lower-cost, quicker-to-build tiny homes are already in use for all levels of need including youth, adults and the country's veterans.

Kelly Saulsberry from the Chicago Commission on Human Relations moderated a discussion with the out-of-town presenters.

The goal of the Tiny Homes Summit hosted by The Pride Action Tank—a project of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago—the Windy City Times, and lead sponsor Polk Bros. Foundation alongside UIC's Gender and Sexuality Center and The Alphawood Foundation was to determine what is possible in Chicago and to take deliberate steps toward making a tiny homes community in the city a reality.

To that end, the menu of speakers introduced by summit chairperson, co-chair of the Pride Action Tank and Windy City Times publisher Tracy Baim and Pride Action Tank Executive Director Kim Hunt included government officials, social workers, service providers, funders, urban planners, builders and architects.

The summit had its roots in the Windy City Times LGBTQ Youth Summit two years ago. At that summit, about 100 youth were asked to help provide solutions to their situation. Among the recommendations were tiny home communities. LGBTQ youth make up an estimated 20-40% of the youth experiencing homelessness in Chicago and across the country.

Beth Malik of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH)

laid the foundation of the issue in terms of the sheer numbers of homeless individuals statewide which are growing at an alarming rate.

She also addressed the challenges faced in garnering an accurate picture of the problem.

"An analysis by the CCH estimates that 125,848 Chicagoans were homeless during the course of the 2014/2015 school year," Malik stated. "The figure includes individuals and families and people both living in shelters and outside."

She added further estimates from that year based on figures provided by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) who "identified 20,205 homeless students. This number includes 2,622 unaccompanied students. The State of Illinois identified 54,638 homeless students. That number is double what it was six-years ago."

"We know for a fact that there is a huge lack of resources within the city for homeless young people," Malik said. "There are approximately 375 shelter beds specifically for homeless youth in Chicago and about 580 statewide. This represents close to a 97 percent service gap. With the lack of a state budget in Illinois, these resources are very much at risk."

Executive Director of the homeless youth advocacy and social justice organization The Lyte Collective Casey Holtschneider, Ph.D., LCSW spoke about the need for additional forms of housing to support youth who leave transitional living programs. She said tiny home communities might fill that gap, with services wrapped around independent living.

The summit was able to provide a few of the faces behind the numbers in a session entitled Youth Voices and Tiny Homes moderated by Mike Newman and Rashmi Ramaswamy—co-founders of the Chicago-based SHED Studio design architectural practice. Youth speakers were Nick, Kasey, Lala, Maria and Will.

Through a myriad of innovative projects, SHED Studio attacks homeless and affordable housing ideas head-on.

In thinking about tiny homes, Newman and Ramaswamy said that SHED Studio had conducted a number of sessions with youth gauging their opinions concerning the kind of home and community they would like to live in and be a part of.

By expressing needs both practical and aesthetic and daring to dream about home, youth participants had helped design a floorplan and footprint for what a Chicago tiny homes community might look like.

"'We believe you belong here' was [something] we all agreed on," youth participant Will said. "We want a home to be somewhere where you belong and has a little piece of yourself in it."

"We need to be in a safe community," Maria added. "So we don't have to always be on alert."

One example of a tiny homes community already in existence in Chicago was described by Mary Tarullo, senior organizer of the social, economic and racial justice community organization ONE Northside. Those "tiny homes" are in vertical buildings, rather than the proposed free-standing structures at the summit.

ONE Northside has worked successfully to preserve Single Occupancy Units (SROs) which are designed to accommodate people on low incomes or those who have a disability without first examining a credit background or whether an individual has been incarcerated.

"We need to be especially creative to preserve, build and improve affordable housing on the North Side," Tarullo said. "If we're not intentional about doing that, then the city is going to become more racially and economically segregated than it already is."

Marissa Novara, director of Housing and Community Development at the Metropolitan Planning Council, noted that tiny homes on the North Side would stem declining populations in neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park which has been tearing down apartments in favor of single-family detached houses.

She also stressed the difference in cost both in financing and developing a publically subsidized unit of affordable housing at $350,000 verses between $50,000 and $80,000 for a tiny home.

A Government Housing Panel moderated by Hunt and featuring Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Office of Community Planning & Development Director Ray Willis, Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) Office of Housing and Coordination Services Director William (Bill) Pluta, Housing Authority of Cook County Executive Director Richard Monocchio, and Chicago Housing Authority Chief of Resident Services Mary Howard helped merge the discussion about tiny homes into the services each agency provides while laying out some of the challenges they face whether through budget allocations, the prolific numbers of youth on a waiting-list for housing and the sheer dearth of resources.

Nevertheless, Monocchio asserted that he was "very excited" about the summit.

"This is very inspiring and it's got me thinking about what we can do," he added.

Along those lines, a panel centered upon the practicalities of how tiny homes could work in Chicago featured representatives from organizations including affordable housing advocates Enterprise Community Partners (Andy Geer), homeless solution providers All Chicago (Lydia Stazen Michael), poverty elimination leaders Heartland Alliance (Carlos DeJesus), and the housing solutions advancement organization the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH, represented by both Katrina Van Valkenburgh and Christine Haley).

Moderated by Lambda Legal Tyron Garner Memorial Fellow Aisha Davis, the panelists looked ahead to ending youth homelessness in Chicago by 2020 and how Tiny Homes could play an integral part of that goal while overcoming not only the challenges laid out by representatives from the government agencies, but funding, rallying political support and confronting zoning issues.

"Zoning is a huge challenge," CSH Central Region Managing Director Katrina Van Valkenburgh said. "Tiny houses don't fit within existing zoning. To even be able to do it, we have to make some really big changes."

Addressing the zoning and planning problems were architect and urban designer with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development Gerardo Garcia and zoning attorney from the Vedder Price law firm Danielle Meltzer Cassel.

Construction Manager for the Pilsen-based neighborhood advocacy organization The Resurrection Project Carmen Noriega served as moderator.

"Anytime something new is proposed or city government has to consider a proposal that is not typical, there is a lot of hard work that has to happen," Garcia said.

Meltzer Cassel had already begun that work by examining the compliance of tiny homes with Chicago's existing zoning codes. The list of technicalities to overcome—including the average size of a dwelling unit relative to the land area it occupies, parking availability and more—was daunting.

Garcia said that his department was "open to working with stakeholders to try to find solutions."

Rob Rose, executive director of the Cook County Land Bank, discussed the many possibilities of using vacant land in both the city and suburbs to build tiny home communities.

Despite complex issues and the fact that the Illinois budget impasse has already stretched their existing resources to the limit, there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm on the part of the nonprofit service providers and philanthropic organizations including Unity Parenting, The Night Ministry, Teen Living Programs, The AIDS Foundation of Chicago, The Polk Bros. Foundation, The Alphawood Foundation and The Field Foundation who concluded day one of the summit's discussions.

Panels moderated by Chicago Youth Storage Initiative Director Lara Brooks and Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Debbie Reznick highlighted new and existing youth homeless advocacy programs that could be worked into a Tiny Homes model of care, examined its long-term impact on youth homelessness and how to meet the funding challenges of building and sustaining a tiny homes community.

Day one of the summit ended with a tour of the tiny home built 100 yards south, next to the Jane Addams Hull House. Price Construction built the 330-square-foot home in 2.5 days on site, for under $30,000, after building out the roof and walls off-site. The structure impressed visitors, many who proclaimed "I would live here!"

The model home was based on the drawings from the winner of the recent Tiny Home Design Competition organized by AIA Chicago, the AIA Chicago Foundation, Landon Bone Baker Architects, Windy City Times, and Pride Action Tank with funding provided by the Alphawood Foundation.

Architects Marty Sandberg, Lon Stousland and Terry Howell designed the winning entry selected from among almost international 300 submissions.

Cook County State's Attorney candidate Kimm Foxx and 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell toured the tiny home and expressed support of the design and concept. Dowell had allowed the design competition to be set in her ward.

Catherine Baker of Landon Bone Baker coordinated the competition and the second day of the summit featured a panel, moderated by writer Lee Bey, on the winning design.

Also on day two, Eithne McMenamin of St. Pauls United Church of Christ and Jeff Bone of Landon Bone Baker discussed their joint effort to bring a tiny home rental community to the city's South Side. They have been meeting with city zoning people and neighbors to discuss the obstacles to create what they hope to be Chicago's first sanctioned tiny home community.

Another presentation was from Kavita Sharma and Adrianna McKinley of Bootstrap Villages, who also want to bring tiny homes to Chicago.

The summit ended with break-out sessions where people could brainstorm the next steps to creating tiny home communities in Chicago.

Tiny homes can be one new piece in the tool kit of housing needed in Chicago, summit chair Baim said. "This is not to replace other forms of housing, but we need more affordable and supportive housing in this city. Tiny homes can be part of that—they are lower cost, quicker to build, and our model on display shows they can also be beautiful and dignified," she said.

Hunt concluded: "If [Tiny Homes] can happen in Chicago, they can happen anywhere."

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