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Tiny Houses Bring Big Change

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You may have seen it while driving down Spring Street: A slope-roofed house smaller than many garden sheds, bearing a banner on its green paneled side that reads, “Help us build homes for the homeless.” It may be only 156 square feet, but this miniature house and others like it are set to have a big social impact on the Greensboro area.

That’s the mission of Tiny Houses Greensboro (THG), a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit dedicated to building the Triad’s first tiny house community for those experiencing homelessness. The Spring Street house is the first of a proposed five tiny homes to be built starting in the new year.

All houses will be fully furnished and hooked up to standard utilities. They will be arranged into a sort of village, which will also feature a community garden and outdoor meeting space.

“It’s going to be like an association in a townhouse format. Everybody will have their own little piece of property and then the rest of the property is common grounds,” explained Teri Hammer, first vice chair of the THG board.

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Hammer has been with THG since the group began as a think tank at Greensboro’s Interactive Resource Center (IRC). People from the IRC, the local homeless community, and the Greensboro population at large met to discuss the problem of housing those in need. Tiny houses soon emerged as an affordable alternative to transitional housing options. They also got favorable feedback from representatives of the people they are designed to shelter.

“We have a fellow who’s been homeless on our board, and another fellow who’s in transitional housing, but it’s very unstable,” said Hammer. “Folks from that community have a voice on our board and a voice in this community.”

Potential residents of the tiny house village will need to apply, and will sign rental agreements just like any other rental situation. There should be no shortage of applicants. According to data gathered by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, there were 502 homeless adults without children in Guilford County in 2015, only 145 of which were in any sort of transitional housing.

Funding is an issue with a project of this scale, but THG’s proposed financial setup ensures that the village will largely pay for itself. Each resident’s rent will be one third of his or her monthly income. A portion of that money will be placed in community trust to be used for maintenance on the houses and grounds. Hammer believes this system will keep the THG village from relying on government funds.

“We’re trying to get ourselves out of that cycle of government spending for affordable housing,” she said.

For potential residents, this setup may also be the best option to break the cycle of homelessness. The tiny homes were first intended as transitional housing, which meant that after a year, residents would have been encouraged to move on. But the THG board has since reconsidered that plan.

“We realized putting a timeline on a person is not a functional way to get them help,” said Hammer. “If someone’s still struggling with their job making minimum wage, and we ask them to leave and they have nowhere to go, we’re back to square one.”

Under the new system, tiny house residents may stay as long as they need, provided they pay rent and abide by their rental agreement. The goal is to integrate residents into the city around them, restoring their self-confidence while challenging society’s perceptions of those who have been homeless.

“I’m hoping people will see that it’s successful, that it’s not disruptive, and that it doesn’t devalue their property,” said Hammer.

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The first step towards this paradigm shift is to get people involved in the village’s construction. THG has no staff; the houses will be built by volunteers, with the aid of a professional construction manager. Hammer is grateful to locals who have already contributed, including a class from Cornerstone Academy that helped furnish the model house and Windshield Glass Incorporated, which generously allowed it to be set up on their property.

Bringing THG’s vision to life will require more donations of time, materials and money. That last need prompted THG’s Sleep Inn fundraiser. Since Nov. 11, THG board members have taken turns sleeping in the Spring Street house. They will continue to do so until THG reaches its donation goal of $50,000. They are currently at $18,500 and going strong.

They aren’t breaking for the holidays, either. Hammer herself volunteered to sleep in the tiny house the night of Christmas. She said she is happy to do so to make the village a success and, eventually, to expand the project to sites in other neighborhoods.

“The goal is to have them tucked throughout the city, nestled inside different neighborhoods so residents feel they’re members of a community,” said Hammer.

To learn more about THG or contribute, visit www.tinyhousesgreensboro.com.

Mia Osborn is a Greensboro-based freelance writer who hails from Birmingham, Alabama.

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