Rent-then-own tiny house village seeks to reinvent Detroit's low-income housing

Residents, who include formerly homeless people and those who were in foster care, pay low rent on houses that range from 250 to 400 square feet. After paying rent for seven years, they will be given the deeds to their homes.

Trevor Bach
Keith McElvee stands outside his new tiny house in Detroit. Residents, who are formerly homeless people, senior citizens, or young adults who aged out of foster care, pay $1 a square foot a month for their homes, which range from 250 to 400 square feet. After seven years, they will be given the deeds to their homes.

In 2013, when Keith McElvee got out of prison after a 12-year stint for a drug conviction, he returned to a neighborhood in northwest Detroit that he didn’t recognize. “This is like Beirut,” he thought. “Like a war zone.”

Mr. McElvee is naturally gregarious and social-minded. Out of prison he struggled, but then found work doing homeless outreach at Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a nonprofit. Four years later he’s a full-time employee tasked with helping more than a dozen clients secure housing and jobs, and speaks proudly of success stories, like the man he helped to curb alcoholism and earn his truck-driving license. “My passion is people,” he says. “I like to help people.”  

But McElvee’s background and low salary meant his own housing was precarious: His apartment in the same neighborhood cost $450, nearly half his monthly income. In August, he moved into a new place, a “tiny house” that costs him significantly less per month – and that he’s on track to actually call his own.

“That’s the key,” McElvee said of his projected home ownership. “That’s a beautiful thing.”

Detroit’s Tiny Homes Project, run by the same organization, represents an innovative approach to low-income housing: Instead of high-density apartment buildings, residents pay low rent on well-constructed tiny houses that range from 250 to 400 square feet and include kitchens, washer/dryer units, and heating and cooling.

Tiny homes are a popular housing trend, popularized by shows like HGTV’s “Tiny House Hunters,” and have been sprouting up as a novel approach to curbing homelessness. But the Cass project marks the first where residents, after paying rent for seven years, will actually be given the deeds to their homes.

“We thought, ‘With an asset they would fare better in the longer term,’ ” says the Rev. Faith Fowler, CCSS’s executive director. “And tiny homes really became the vehicle for that.”

Reverend Fowler, a native Detroiter and longtime pastor at the Cass Community United Methodist Church, has through decades of service earned a reputation as one of Detroit’s most devoted and innovative citizens: Among the various CCSS programs she oversees are projects that employ local homeless people to transform thousands of illegally dumped tires into sandals, doormats, and hanging planters. 

Since 2002 the organization has run homeless residency programs. It was in 2013, Fowler says, that she first considered tiny homes. Her mother had recently died, and she was thinking a lot about inheritance – and how the poor often miss out on what can be an important economic safeguard.

Villages of tiny homes for the poor already existed or would soon exist in cities like Portland, Madison, and East Austin. Fowler dreamed of building a community on Cass’s large campus that would provide both housing and assets for Detroiters who needed them most.  

“So do you think anybody will want to live in these?” Fowler remembers a board member asking.  

There was no shortage of need. Detroit, despite a recent economic revitalization, still has the country’s highest poverty rate among big cities, at 36 percent. A January count found more than 2,000 homeless people in the city, and the rapid gentrification taking place in some areas has led to new fears of housing shortages. “The city is at a critical crossroads in its history,” Detroit councilwoman Mary Sheffield recently told the Detroit Free Press. “How we address the housing inequities that will inevitably arise will determine ... if all Detroiters are included in the revitalization.”

Last fall, CCSS received 122 completed applications for the initial batch of seven houses. Plans call for a neighborhood of an eventual 25 tiny homes, all with unique designs and their own lots. In the six months after the initial window closed, more than 900 people requested applications.  

“I think it says probably two things,” Fowler says of the demand. “One is that folks are needing good, clean, safe affordable housing. And two is: Everyone has the aspiration to own their home.”

No government funding is involved. Construction costs come out to about $50,000 per house and have been subsidized with donations, including a $400,000 gift from the Ford Motor Company. Architects provided plans pro bono, and the houses are built both by teams of volunteers and paid contractors. Low-income tenants – a planned mix of formerly homeless people, senior citizens, and young adults who have aged out of foster care – agree to pay the organization one dollar per square foot, plus electrical bills. The rent goes toward program fees but doesn’t actually pay for the houses directly. Residents also agree to take classes on maintenance and financial literacy, and attend regular meetings of their new neighborhood’s homeowners association.

“This is going to be a little community,” says McElvee.

Even before the first batch of homes was built, the project received an avalanche of attention: Much of it was positive, but Facebook posters railed about “future tiny crack houses” and “another step toward communism.” Others doubted that such a project could work here – “Detroit isn’t like Austin and Portland. Get a clue” – or questioned the decision to build new structures at all in a city that already has tens of thousands of abandoned houses.

Fowler isn’t opposed to rehabbing – she points out that her organization has already revitalized more than a dozen homes – but this particular space happened to be vacant. The construction costs are significant, she says, but still amount to far less than building new full-size houses or even extensive rehab work. “We’re building quality homes that will last decades.”

In August, after donating many of his possessions so that he could downsize, McElvee moved in to his new 310 square-foot beige one-story, part of an initial community that ranges in age from 24 to 74 and has an average annual income just shy of $12,000. (Six of the seven currently constructed homes are now occupied, with a tenant scheduled to move into the seventh Nov 1. Five more homes are expected to be completed next April.)

His first night in the new house, he says, he anxiously paced for 20 minutes. “I kept walking around. I said, ‘This is so small, am I going to like it?’ ” He was also overwhelmed by tourists and other curious visitors who came for unannounced visits, sometimes talking right outside his window or knocking.

But he quickly settled in, also finding his place as a good neighbor. McElvee patrols the area at night and helps out his elderly neighbor, watering her grass and taking up her garbage bin. When the residents’ washing machines had a glitch, another resident went around to each house offering to fix it.

“That was the whole point,” says McElvee, “so that everybody knows each other and looks out for each other.”

And the lower rent and future ownership also means that, decades after he grew up as a ward of the state in a rough boys’ foster home in the same neighborhood, McElvee has in middle age the promise of a new economic security.

“Now I can breathe,” he says.

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