Tiny Houses Give Low-Income Detroit Residents a Shot at Home Ownership

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Tiny homes like this one are starting to have a big impact in Detroit. (Photo: Ariel Celeste Photography/Shutterstock)

Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) is a Detroit-based nonprofit that has remained unfailingly focused on feeding the hungry and providing job opportunities for formerly homeless men. But under the visionary leadership of Rev. Faith Fowler, this powerhouse of a social services agency has grown and moved on to even bigger things.

Well, not too big.

Spanning two vacant blocks on Detroit’s northwest side, CCSS is building tiny houses — 25 of them, to be exact — as part of an innovative rent-to-buy housing program that gives students, seniors, the formerly homeless and other low-income Detroiters the chance to achieve something that may not otherwise be financially feasible: home ownership.

To be clear, these aren’t the garden shed-esque emergency shelters that cater to the chronically homeless. (Those 100-square-foot micro-dwellings often don’t feature much more than a roof, a bed and an all-important front door with a lock.)

In contrast, the structures built by CCSS are legit. Just look at that Tudor-style model unit with the decorative stone chimney pictured above — it’s certainly worthy of any micro living-obsessed lifestyle blog.

Ranging between 250 and 400 square feet, the dwellings being built at this budding tiny home enclave are smaller than the average American home, no doubt, but they’re also fully kitted-out and include all the amenities — full bathrooms and kitchens along with the standard appliances and furnishings — that one would expect from a “normal”-sized residence. Complete with porches and/or back decks, they’re independent, functional living spaces ... just with a dainty footprint.

"It's not tiny at all," Fowler says in the below introductory video to the project. "It's a game-changer."

Tiny housing meets plus-sized largesse

CCSS recently completed work on the first round of rent-to-own residences at Detroit’s debut tiny house development.

These six structures, constructed by professional builders and finished by CCSS volunteers to help keep labor costs down, join the development's handsome 300-square-foot model unit, which was unveiled this past September and features granite countertops, a dishwasher, air conditioning and a washer-dryer combo according to The Detroit News.

The homes are all situated on foundations (no wheels here) on their very own regular-sized lots.

At the end of May, CCSS held the Cass Community Social Services Tiny Homes Progressive Tour, a fundraising event in which donors were treated to a sneak peek of the community’s soon-to-be-inhabited inaugural homes.

Speaking to Crain’s Detroit Business, Fowler explains that the initiative has raised roughly $1 million in just under a year, including a $400,000 investment from The Ford Motor Company Fund and additional major donations from the United Way of Southeastern Michigan, the McGregor Fund and the RNR Foundation. A slew of local churches also have been crucial benefactors during the initial fundraising stages. (Founded in 2002, CCSS has its roots in the Cass Community United Methodist Church.)

May’s open house event, which was the only chance for the general public to see the homes' interiors before residents move in, aimed to raise $10,000 more in funding.

The first six homes cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to build with a decent chunk of that going towards utility hook-ups and foundation work. In addition to volunteer labor, several companies including Michigan's very own Herman Miller have stepped up to donate furnishings and building materials.

“What's interesting about this project is there's not a government dime, not a penny in it,” Fowler tells Crain’s. “Detroit is full of many, many neighborhoods that need redevelopment. It's fun to be a part of one that's doing something exciting.”

Fighting urban blight with dainty dwellings

While this low-income housing initiative is somewhat reminiscent of Habitat for Humanity, one major difference is the absence of a mortgage. Residents, who must go through an extensive application process and meet income eligibility requirements, enter a monthly rental agreement with CCSS that’s based solely on the square footage of each individual home. If the square footage is 290 feet, the monthly rent is $290.

Utilities are not included in the monthly rent. However, the cost to keep the heat on and the power running in such a diminutive, well-insulated dwelling won’t break the bank.

After seven years of continuous renting, residents will be given the opportunity to own the house and the surrounding lot so long as they volunteer weekly within the community and join a homeowners' association. As renters, residents also are required to attend classes in home maintenance and personal finances held at CCSS's main campus, which is located just south of the tiny house development.

As mentioned, CCSS gives preference to students, seniors and minimum wage workers as well as the agency’s own employees, many of whom are formerly homeless. To qualify, applicants must make between $10,000 and $20,000 annually. Akin to standalone studio apartments, a majority of the new homes are not geared for families given that they don’t include fully private bedrooms (only two do), although subsequent phases of the development could potentially include larger — but still tiny — homes that are suitable for more than one or two people.

"People making that small amount of money can’t qualify for a mortgage,” Fowler recently told Fast Company. “So they’re essentially locked out of housing that serves as a piggyback for the rest of us. In addition to the pride of having a place you can call your own, the beginning of wealth, or the security of having an asset you can call your own, was very important to us. More important than the tininess of the home.”

Speaking of importance and tininess, Fast Company notes that this singular project has been unhindered by the one thing that often proves to be a major headache for tiny house developments (and tiny houses in general): zoning laws. Detroit does not have minimum size requirement for tiny homes on the books and the project did not run afoul of any city zoning laws. So in that regard, the development has been smooth sailing thus far.

“They’re learning from us and we’re learning from them,” Fowler tells The Detroit News of her organization’s relationship with the city’s zoning department.

With the first residents of Detroit’s one-and-only tiny house development slated to move into their digs at some point this month, Fowler is already thinking well beyond this two-block launch pad. As she noted to The Detroit News last September, there are a staggering 300 vacant lots within just a mile radius of the development site. And these pockets of blight, still so ubiquitous around large swaths of on-the-rebound Detroit, are just begging for a few tiny additions.