DeWayne Parker was tired of moving, and he was tired of sleeping in light-rail trains, libraries, parking ramps and parks — like hundreds of others who are homeless in the Twin Cities.
Last fall, after he witnessed a shooting on the light-rail line heading to St. Paul, Parker finally had enough. He joined a grass-roots effort to design an alternative to living on the streets or in crowded emergency shelters. Once a week, Parker and up to a dozen members of a homeless advocacy group called Street Voices of Change would come in from the elements and discuss practical solutions to the area’s shortage of affordable housing.
After more than a year of deliberation, the group has embraced the idea of starting a community of “tiny houses” for the poor and homeless. The miniature homes, just a few hundred square feet each, would be cheap to build and highly affordable, appealing to the growing number of low-income people shut out of the metro area’s housing market.
The proposed project is called the Envision Community, and if approved by the city of Minneapolis, it would be the first community of tiny houses in the Twin Cities metro area.
While modeled on tiny-house communities in other cities, the project is unusual in that it stems from a rare collaboration between a major hospital and the homeless community. Doctors at Hennepin Healthcare, formerly Hennepin County Medical Center, threw their support behind the concept after seeing how often patients turned up at the hospital with troubling and costly medical problems attributable to being homeless. All told, more than 100 individuals who have experienced homelessness have been interviewed for the project and provided advice on its design and amenities.
Backers hope the first stage of the community, accommodating 18 to 36 people, will be completed by next fall, likely on a vacant site close to public transit in Minneapolis.
“If we can get more people off the streets, the trains and the concrete, we can save both lives and money,” Parker said, as he showed life-size designs of the community on display at First Covenant Church in downtown Minneapolis.
So far, Envision is little more than a concept, with no land or funding. Its design could also run afoul of local zoning ordinances that dictate building size and the maximum number of structures on a lot.
Even so, the concept already has the backing of some local homeless advocates, health care providers and several Minneapolis City Council members who are searching for a solution to a Minneapolis housing crisis whose effects became starkly visible since this summer, as more than 200 men, women and children moved into a sprawling homeless encampment in south Minneapolis.
As of July, there were 1,357 people staying in emergency shelters in Hennepin County and another 523 sleeping outside, according to the latest count.
Supporters of the tiny-house project include City Council members Jeremiah Ellison, Cam Gordon and Jeremy Schroeder, who together plan to introduce a measure later this month that will begin the approval process by giving notice of plans to change the city’s zoning ordinances.
“This project offers a creative pathway to affordable housing that we’ve never explored before,” Gordon said in an interview. “We are in a real housing crisis in this city, and it’s clear that what we are doing has not been meeting people’s needs.”
The concept of intentional, micro-house communities has flourished in the wake of years of breakneck increases in housing costs in large cities across the United States. Experimental mini-home villages have sprung up in more than a half-dozen cities, including Austin, Texas, Madison, Wis., Portland, Ore., Detroit, Phoenix and Seattle.
Many of the dwellings compress the essentials of a home into a compact space no larger than 500 square feet. To make the project more affordable, the tiny houses proposed in Minneapolis would lack indoor plumbing, but residents would share a communal facility for meals, bathing, laundry and meeting space.
But as such projects have multiplied, so have concerns about the mini abodes. The federal government, through the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, warned that tiny houses have the potential to isolate their inhabitants from the broader community and should be considered only as part of a wider plan to address homelessness. “Ending homelessness means making sure that people are in a permanent, homelike environment where they have the opportunity to build long-term community connections,” the agency said in a 2016 memo.
Not all of the tiny-house communities have worked. In Seattle, local authorities recently moved to shut down a community known as Licton Springs Village, which was controversial for permitting its residents to use drugs. People living near the community of about 30 residents complained that the village had become a magnet for drug dealers, and they reported an increase in crime and 911 calls after it opened in 2017, according to news reports.
“There has been a general rush to tiny homes as a model without much thought about what people who are homeless actually want,” said David Hewitt, director of the Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness.
Still, the Minneapolis proposal has several key differences. Under the project’s financial model, Envision would contain a mix of residents — long-term homeless, people who have experienced homelessness in the past, and those who have never been without a home. Only 20 percent of the residents would be chronically homeless. Backers say the more diverse mix of residents would prevent the community from becoming a ghetto of concentrated poverty. And unlike projects elsewhere, it would have no chain-link fences or gates to keep people out and no limits on how long residents can stay.
The tiny houses would be fastened together in U-shaped clusters of six units, in part to circumvent minimum-size requirements under local housing ordinances. The modular design would also enable it to expand as funding increases and if the community attracts more residents.
“We’re not putting people off in some distant corner,” said Dr. William Walsh, a surgeon and deputy chief innovation officer at Upstream Health Innovations, a team at Hennepin Healthcare that has provided input on the project. “Dignified housing has to be socially integrated housing.”
Another difference is the key role that medical providers, particularly Hennepin Healthcare, played in the project’s development. The concept was driven, in large part, by concerns over the high medical costs of people who are homeless, who frequently cycle through hospital emergency rooms and inpatient units because of health problems that stem from living on the streets. A study last year by the nonprofit Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance estimated that someone experiencing homelessness generates medical costs of nearly $2,700 a month — a cost borne primarily by health insurers that contract with Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program.
Given the potential savings, the large health plans have a vested interest in the tiny-house project’s success, proponents said. Walsh envisions that one day the large health plans could provide individual rental subsidies for residents because it would be much cheaper than, in effect, housing them in expensive hospital ERs or intensive care units.
“My dream is that one day we would see doctors write prescriptions for housing just like they write prescriptions for medication,” Walsh said. “But first, we have to show the community that our model works.”