MADISON, WIS. - On his day off, Gene Cox rose with the sun, pulled a hood over his gray hair and started a pot of coffee.
Deep sleep was still new to him. His first night here, in late February, Cox awoke every two hours, looked around and realized that he was no longer living in his van — which, in cold months, required routinely waking to turn the key and blast the heat.
Cox now has a house. A tiny one. But all 98 square feet are his.
“Every day I try to find something to be grateful for,” he said, “but this is just beyond words.”
Cox, 41, and his three neighbors, who had once huddled in trucks and tents, recently moved into a row of brightly colored tiny houses that they helped build. With the help of a crowdfunding campaign, the nonprofit Occupy Madison founded this “village,” as they call it, turning the microhousing trend into an inexpensive way to shelter people struggling with homelessness. The houses, equipped with super-efficient electric heaters, cost just $4,000 apiece.
The village has inspired international curiosity and could become a template for similar projects. Activists, nonprofits and students from hundreds of cities — including Rochester, Duluth and St. Cloud — have e-mailed, called and visited. One guy recently stopped by from Australia. Google is interested.
“The questions range anywhere from, ‘How do we do this here?’ to ‘How do you heat them?’ ” said Bruce Wallbaum, the treasurer of Occupy Madison, which formed after Occupy Wall Street’s protests began in 2011. “Then, of course, we get lots of people from all over the country looking for houses, which is really sad.”
Wallbaum parked his white pickup truck at the village workshop, unloading bags of McDonald’s food and materials from Menards.
“Are these cute or what?” he asked, holding up a pair of windows.
The shop, once home to Sanchez Motors, sits beside the tiny houses and acts as the village hub: part workshop, greenhouse and dining room. Residents share the building’s three bathrooms and makeshift kitchen, with little more than a microwave. On a recent afternoon, volunteers constructed the frame of a chicken coop — designed to look like an even tinier tiny house — that they’ll auction off at a spring fundraiser.
To be eligible to live here, a “steward” must volunteer at least 500 hours, finishing the tiny houses, making crafts to sell or fixing up the shop itself. They pay no rent.
“Shelter is a need,” said Wallbaum, wearing both reading and safety glasses atop his head. “But what is really going to make it a sustainable village is meaningful occupation, things that people get to plug into, that give their lives meaning.”
A nail gun punctuated the blues playing on the radio as Allen Barkoff, a volunteer, showed a student around.
“It was a total disaster before we got here last April,” he said, pointing to the roof that they replaced, the bathrooms that they redid and the electrical outlets that they rewired. Outside, he outlined in the cold air where the group plans to expand, adding a kitchen and community room. Until that $80,000 addition is done, an agreement with the city limits the village to three tiny houses. The second phase calls for six more, which might require more bathrooms.
“They hold one or two people,” Barkoff said. “Two people if they know one another really well.”
‘Home sweet home’
In the evenings, Betty Ybarra and Chris Derek light candles in the little green house they’ve lived in since 2013, when it was parked on a street. They found its solar porch light free online. They made the window boxes from a discarded headboard. The shutters are old closet doors, cut into four parts.
Ybarra, 49, painted the small purple sign hanging on the wall: “Home sweet home.”
Struggling in an abusive relationship, “I found myself to be displaced at times,” Ybarra said. Sherecalls sad times — being evicted, assaulted, imprisoned — but often ends with a swift shake of her head: “Once you put me down … I’m coming back up.”
She met Derek, 56, more than two years ago, as Occupy Madison’s protests against economic inequality morphed into a homeless encampment that shuttled between government properties and park campsites. At Token Creek Park, the couple’s tent flooded, “like a water bed that broke,” Ybarra said. They struggled to hold electrical cords above water. “I was afraid to go to sleep,” Derek said.
Sitting around the fire, the activists and homeless folks “came up with all kinds of crazy ideas,” Wallbaum said, a few inspired by ice fishing shanties on the four lakes that carve up this city. Houses on wheels that weigh less than 3,000 pounds didn’t need to be licensed, they learned, and could be parked on the street for two days at a time.
Then they found the old auto shop, on the edge of a neighborhood but also near a former cheese warehouse. They bought it for $110,000.
Some neighbors objected, circulating a petition against the project. “There was a lot of rhetoric versus reality — assumptions that this was just going to be packed with alcoholics,” said Larry Palm, a Madison city alderman whose 12th district includes the village.
During months of meetings, neighbors and city staff also raised legitimate concerns about noise, numbers and safety standards. He reminded fellow elected officials that the nonprofit was seeking no city money.
“They’re going to house 20 people without taxpayer subsidies,” he said. “Give them some credit.”
In May, the City Council unanimously approved Occupy Madison’s request to rezone the land. Since the stewards moved in, the first few in November, Palm has heard no complaints. He cheers the village’s model of involving future occupants in the process of building their houses.
“We’re not talking about transitional housing,” he said. “They are home. That’s really the dignity of the whole thing.”
The tiny house villages that have sprouted in cities across the country — including the Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., a $3 million development — abide by the “Housing First” strategy: While the reasons for homelessness are complex, the theory goes, the first step should be to provide people with housing.
In St. Cloud, services are “still very much under the idea that you must prove yourself first, and then you might get on the list for possible housing,” said Tina Lamberts, a musician and homeless advocate who is pushing for tiny homes in the central Minnesota city.
“They don’t need another program or another coat,” she said. “They need a place to live.”
Anything that reduces the cost of housing is worth pursuing, said Steve Berg of the National Alliance to End Homlessness, later adding, “as long as you avoid some of the pitfalls.”
Among them: “Segregating people who were homeless in a part of a community where they’re cut off from the chance to get jobs and medical care,” said Berg, vice president for programs and policy.
Ghetto or utopia?
People tend to view Madison’s village either as a ghetto or a utopia, Wallbaum said. The reality is messier.
In theory, stewards can stay forever, but one of the first to move into a tiny house — a man involved with the group for many months — is gone. After he kept “drinking and getting out of control,” as another steward put it, the board asked him to leave.
It took some 50 hours of discussion to settle on that “very difficult decision,” Wallbaum said. True to its Occupy roots, the group celebrates consensus and stewards joke about meetings that span days. “We are also a group that raged against all kinds of other organizations that ban people and throw people out,” he said. The conflict left the group exhausted.
Students taking Introduction to Construction at LaFollette High School used to build a shed. But then teacher Todd Faulhaber heard about the tiny house village.
“As soon as I saw them, I thought, yeah, we can totally do this,” said Faulhaber, a technology and engineering teacher.
While the construction is similar, it’s more like a “true house,” he said. So students learn more about electricity, insulation and windows. “It’s a much truer project,” he said. “The door is a real door.”
On a recent morning, students Rebecca Watring, 16, and Anthony Feller, 17, grabbed a few 2-by-4s for the front of the structure. “Let’s cut a scrap piece,” Feller suggested after staring at the miter saw. He ran one through, cutting at a diagonal. He measured. Then he gave Watring a thumbs up.
Working on a house “makes us be more precise,” Watring said later, “because we know people will actually be living in this.”
Last semester, before hitching up the completed house to a trailer, the students wrote letters to the future occupant and slipped them inside. “Hi my name is Patrick and I helped build your tiny home,” one note read. “Everyone in my class knew that we could change a life.”
For Cox, having a tiny house means his 8-year-old son, Evan, can stay overnight — on a retractable bed Cox is building for his visits. “This is just the most fantastic …” he said, choking up as he gestured to the place where he will put it. “I can’t even. I’m starting to get emotional.”
A few years ago, Cox’s car broke down. For good. To get to work, he bought a van, then decided to sleep in it, rather than paying rent. “I chose the van over a place to live,” he said. “I figured, it can double for a while until I get it paid off.”
He showered at truck stops before work, doing information technology at a bank. He foraged for food, making flour out of thistle and salads out of dandelions.
This spring, he will plant herbs in his window box. Basil, oregano, parsley. Serving in the Navy, he spent time in Italy.
Cox appreciates being in a neighborhood, knowing that other tiny house developments, like the one in Olympia, Wash., sit in industrial areas. During meetings last year, he was struck by neighbors believing homeless people are sexual predators, drug users and alcoholics. Cox doesn’t drink or do drugs.
“But me being egalitarian, I wouldn’t mind if there was an alcoholic that lived next door to me,” he said. “And we can create that environment to change that behavior.”
He and other volunteers stopped by the shop on a Tuesday evening and learned their task: Replacing the work bench with one that’s lower and, to encourage conversation, circular. They started and stopped and searched online for tutorials.
“I’ve got a joke for you,” Cox announced. “How many occupiers does it take to cut a circle?” They laughed.
Rob Bloch took hold of the saw and, leaning close, slowly followed the curve along the plywood. Every few inches, he blew away dust. As he approached the edge, Wallbaum and Derek silently stepped closer. The saw passed through. The plywood dropped into Wallbaum and Derek’s outstretched hands.
“Nice!” Wallbaum exclaimed, grabbing Bloch’s shoulder.