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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tiny Houses by and for the Homeless in Madison, Wisconsin

WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Editor's Note: The following article, written by Pat Shneider, about the building of a village of tiny houses for the homeless by Occupy Madison, originally appeared in Madison's The Cap Times in July. Since then, the movement gained national attention from articles in Al Jazeera America and The Huffington Post, and has seen a number of similar projects pop up as far away as Portland, Oregon, Texas, and New York. The village in Madison was officially opened in November, just in time for the holidays, with four people moving in to the three existing homes with plans for more on the way.

Keith Valiquette says it was the sense of community that attracted him to Occupy Madison's tiny house movement. And he predicts that others, even people who can afford regular-sized houses, will be joining him.

Valiquette, 65, now homeless after a long working career and owning a business as well as houses, is in line to live in the third tiny house constructed by Occupy Madison volunteers. His dog, Chip, will move in with him.

He and the occupants of other tiny houses built by Occupy Madison plan to park them on the nonprofit organization's east-side property later this summer, once toilet and shower facilities are installed in a former auto body shop on the site. The group has city approval to park up to nine tiny houses around the main building, which will also have a common lounge space and a workshop for construction of the houses. Community gardening space will be up front and visible on the one-third acre site, while the tiny houses will be located behind a six-foot fence.

"This is not just for homeless," says Valiquette. "What we're doing with tiny homes is going to be a godsend to the middle class in the future. This is entry level housing for young families, college student."

There's no question tiny houses have captured plenty of attention. There are a half-dozen projects in other cities similar to Occupy Madison's, aiming to provide permanent housing for homeless people. There's also a growing movement of people downsizing to smaller housing to live more simply and cheaply. The movement has generated online communities, books, movies and a tiny house conference in North Carolina this spring with another planned next year in Portland, Ore., where tiny houses are a hot trend.

A typical tiny house, from Occupy Madison

Tiny houses are not only more affordable and lead to more sustainable lifestyles, they build community by bringing people closer to one another, literally, say enthusiasts.

"We've got to quit building these monstrous boxes to house people. It only separates us. I'd just as soon see people at all levels of society living in these tiny villages. I hope down the road our village isn't just homeless people," Valiquette says. "I hope we're part of the larger community, not an enclave."

Community within the village is fostered by the common goals of Occupy Madison members in constructing and managing it through rules adopted and enforced by the group. A sense of community with neighbors beyond the fence that will surround the village may be more difficult.

Occupy Madison's revolutionary development plan - which the city will continue to monitor through numerous conditions placed on zoning approval - got a mixed reception from neighbors.

Some welcomed it as an innovative experiment in affordable housing. Others worked to get the plan rejected by city officials, saying that allowing it would make the Emerson East neighborhood the only one in the city where building codes are not enforced, thereby lowering property values.

And although the neighborhood debate included suggestions that formerly homeless people living in the village would be lawless or dangerous, Valiquette says he didn't take that personally.

"I was a homeowner," he says. "I have no animosity toward those who opposed us. It's a little self-interested, but it's understandable."

Yet as far as concerns over the value of their housing investments, "the banksters in the world have a bigger effect than we do. We're peanuts," Valiquette says.

Neighbors who have supported the village "see the bigger picture," he says. "They are why I am part of this. We as a society need to come together again."

The interior of a completed house, from Occupy Madison

Brenda Konkel, an Occupy Madison board member, says neighbors already are volunteering their time and donating things like flowers, which were planted on the property last week.

Konkel says that sustainability features, like the houses being built of largely recycled materials and the community gardens, are attracting neighbors to find out more about the planned village.

"And they like that you can do it yourself," she says of the tiny houses in which recipients invest "sweat equity" along with other volunteers.

Long term, "we hope to find a bigger piece of land for a bigger village, with more opportunity for urban agriculture. But to find that in a place with public transportation will be hard," Konkel said.

She estimates that Occupy Madison has been contacted from people in a couple hundred communities asking for their plans for building the houses and information on related issues like the zoning impediments to houses that are smaller than codes allow.

"Eventually, I'd like to develop a national list-serv on what we did here," to share information, she says.

Valiquette says he values the opportunity to get to know people from all walks of life that he has gained through Occupy Madison and hopes the lure of the tiny house movement opens people's eyes to the variety of people who find themselves "homeless."

"Homeless people are as varied as all the other people in your neighborhood," he says. They are the people couch surfing with friends or staying with relatives, and the people sleeping on the porch of the City-County Building.

"I'm not just building a tiny home. I'm building a community," he says.

From The Cap Times, July 19th, 2014: "Tiny house occupant drawn to Occupy Madison village out of desire for community" by Pat Shneider. Read the entire article here, and learn more about Occupy Madison's Tiny House village at

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Higher Ground

Photo credit: Evan Hildebrand

One early October morning, riding along one of the many bike trails that crisscross the city, I look up as the still-cold sunlight falls onto a bank of windows emerging from a tan-colored building, pointing out into the bike path. The view is commanding, and the view that those windows command, the view behind me, is just as arresting: the whole of downtown Minneapolis, newly lit in the crisp fall air. One would be forgiven for thinking that those windows belong to a luxury apartment building, not unlike those I passed not moments ago. But they do not. They belong to a homeless shelter, designed by Cermak Rhoades Architects.

A bit of background: Cermak Rhoades Architects, founded by Terri Cermak and Todd Rhoades around 20 years ago, deals mostly with what associate Chris Wegsheid called "supportive housing": designing affordable housing for marginalized populations who need some assistance in one form or another, such as the recently homeless, mentally ill, or substance abusers. Their innovative architectural responses to pressing social concerns have led to the firm receiving two out of the three AIA-Minnesota Affordable Housing Design Awards granted since the award's inception in 2012, as well as and admiration from their peers involved in public interest design in the Twin Cities.

Photo credit: Evan Hildebrand

The building I'm looking up at, known as Higher Ground, was designed for Catholic Charities and meant to replace an overcrowded homeless shelter nearby, but takes the potential much further than a simple room with cots on the floor. It combines a temporary shelter with longer-term housing solutions: the building represents a bottom-to-top gradient in terms of increasing independence, privacy, and domesticity, a layering meant to help to ease a transition out of homelessness. The bottom floor houses a large overnight shelter, with raised bunk beds for over 120 people, as well as meal services, medical help, and a computer lab, as well as a large expanse of windows that flood the room in natural light. Above, the second floor holds a pay-to-stay shelter, booked in advance, and marked by increased privacy and security. The freedom, privacy, and space afforded to residents only increases from there, with the upper floors holding more permanent housing, with SRO (single-room occupancy) units and, on the very top floor, full efficiency apartments. The design of the floors also reflects the feelings of each change from temporary to permanent housing, becoming increasingly domestic, from the greater use of metal and concrete for the bottom floor shelter to the subdued homeliness of the upper apartments.

Higher Ground is like few other homeless shelters in the Twin Cities, but it shouldn't be. It shows the dedication, intelligence, and sheer intelligence that Cermak Rhoades have brought to bear to their work with supportive housing, and this Minnesotan metropolis is better for it. Perhaps when I ride this way again, a few more luxury apartments will be replaced with homeless shelters and affordable housing. And, if they're all designed as well as Higher Ground, I won't even notice the difference.

Editor's Note: This essay was originally a submission to the Berkeley Prize Essay Competition. Although the deadline for submissions to the 2015 competition has now closed, you can find out more about the Berkeley Prize here.