Detroit’s tiny houses give residents a home to rebuild their lives

Detroit’s tiny houses give residents a home to rebuild their lives


WOODRUFF: Very small houses have become all
the rage in recent years, as some people trade in their traditional lifestyles for an ostensibly
simpler option: places that are less than 400 square feet. Well, today, there’s a twist. Tiny houses are being seen as a way to give
homeless and low-income people the chance at homeownership. Jeffrey Brown visited Detroit to find out
more for our ongoing series on poverty and opportunity in America, “Chasing the Dream.” (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEFFREY BROWN, PBS NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENT
(voice-over): They may be tiny, but they have lofty goals: putting roofs over the heads
of people who never dreamed they could own a home. The idea for Detroit’s Tiny Home Project was
born in an unlikely place — the floor of an old warehouse. REVEREND FAITH FOWLER, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST:
People couldn’t imagine what 300 square foot would look like. BROWN (on camera): Well, could you? FOWLER: I couldn’t. (LAUGHTER) FOWLER: So we came out and measured it out
and taped it out and thought, where would I put the sofa and my bed and is this enough
room? And we decided it would be. BROWN (voice-over): And now it is. (on camera): All right. Here it is. FOWLER: So, this is one of our studios. BROWN: Studio, meaning there’s no bedroom. FOWLER: Correct. BROWN: Yes. (voice-over): Reverend Faith Fowler is a pastor
and community activist working to create jobs and provide homes for the city’s most needy. FOWLER: Some have large front porches, some
have decks or patios in the back. All have a nice backyard, so they could have
a dog or a barbeque or just sit outside and listen to the traffic. BROWN: Each of the seven homes built so far
has a kitchen, living room, washer/dryer, and bathroom. Several have separate bedrooms. Fowler’s non-profit Cass Community Social
Services purchased 25 vacant lots from the city for $15,000. They’re bright spots, literally, in a neighborhood
with many vacant, crumbling houses, next to one of Detroit’s busy freeways. FOWLER: We wanted this to be a part of a larger
neighborhood, rather than being segregated, or separated, or isolated outside of a neighborhood. BROWN (on camera): Yes, because you drive
around, and much of this neighborhood is still very blighted, right? FOWLER: It — often people are worried about
gentrification, I’m not so concerned yet. BROWN: Not an issue here, right? FOLWER: No. There hasn’t been a new building in this neighborhood
since 1974, and it was a garage. So, you can imagine the excitement of seeing
houses go up, like a barn raising here, as people are coming to watch, and sometimes
even offering to volunteer. BROWN (voice-over): A volunteer workforce
built each home in about five weeks, using donated goods and services. That kept the cost to around $40,000 to $50,000. (on camera): The idea here is how to overcome
something many of us take for granted — how to buy your own home when you have few or
no financial assets, and when the whole notion of owning a home seems impossible. (voice-over): For those living below the poverty
line, and 40 percent of Detroit’s residents do, Fowler says there are plenty of barriers
to homeownership. FOWLER: They don’t have enough money to get
them through a crisis, so your car breaks down, or your hours get cut, or you get laid
off, or somebody in your family gets sick, all of a sudden, you don’t have enough financial
security to get through it, and so all of a sudden, you’re in a crisis that you may
not recover from for years, and decades to come. BROWN (on camera): But this gives people something
that they own. FOWLER: Right, that they can have the pride
of ownership, that they can have the dignity of using as a home even while they’re renting,
and ultimately something they can use as collateral if they have a crisis. BROWN (voice-over): The new inhabitants here
will rent to own. They’ll pay a dollar per square foot in rent. They’re also required to take monthly financial
literacy classes and volunteer for the neighborhood watch. After seven years, they’ll own their homes. The tiny home trend is booming, fueled in
part by cable design shows. But in those shows, people have made a choice
to downsize and live simply. The Detroit project has a different purpose. FOWLER: We were really looking for a way to
give them a ladder. I mean, they’ve got to climb it, they’ve got
to do the work, but we’re providing the ladder. BROWN: The tiny homes are also smack in the
middle of a built-in support structure. Fowler’s non-profit runs apartment buildings
for people transitioning from being homeless. There’s a bike borrowing service to help people
get around. And there are jobs at Green Industries, for
people re-entering the workforce. The company recycles abandoned tires and more
to fashion doormats, flip flops and key chains, with the old English “D” for the Detroit Tigers. Kevin Taylor makes coasters out of recycled
glass. He credits his job here as a lifesaver, after
struggling with addiction and spending time in prison. KEVIN TAYLOR, GREEN INDUSTRIES EMPLOYEE: Well,
it changed my life. I’m employed. I have my own apartment at this point in life,
which is a wonderful thing. Learning how to live again. BROWN (on camera): What does that mean? TAYLOR: Well, that means waking up in the
morning, doing normal things that normal people do, having coffee, breakfast, get ready to
go to work, and go to work, come home. BROWN (voice-over): That’s the idea behind
the tiny homes as well. And there’s one more idea: that each should
look and feel different. FOWLER: So often when you’re considering affordable
housing, it’s ugly. BROWN (on camera): Yes, yes. FOWLER: It’s a box, or a rectangle. It’s identical. There’s no colors. There’s no design. So, again, we wanted it to be attractive,
and to instill pride in people. BROWN (voice-over): And so, different architectural
styles, including so far, Cape Cod, Modern, and Shotgun. Ed Wier, an architect from Ann Arbor, donated
his services to help design a future home in a Victorian style. ED WIER, ARCHITECT: Victorian, it’s a classic
residential — American residential style, and, you know, a lot of people are drawn to
a very ornate, a lot of detailing, and so, people just are attracted to it, it appeals
to them. So, obviously we had to scale it back, and
kind of, how do we draw these things into a small house, into a small format? BROWN: It’s hardly the norm for low-income
housing. But, says Wier, that’s the point. WIER: It’s a refined, elegant tiny house that
somebody would love to live in. And it feels like home. What says home to you? BROWN (on camera): That’s the final question,
really, right? WIER: That’s the final question. And I think the goal was that in that, we
created something that says home. BROWN: Yes. (voice-over): And who will call it home? After a series of open houses, 122 people
applied to live in the tiny homes. Fowler is waiting on the city to give the
green light before announcing the seven chosen to move in. In the meantime, 18 more tiny homes are on
the way. It’s a small number of small homes, but
a big idea. FOWLER: It’s really about home ownership and
the American dream for people who stopped dreaming. We really were looking at not only eliminating
homelessness, but with dealing with poverty for people. BROWN: For the PBS NEWSHOUR, I’m Jeffrey
Brown in Detroit, Michigan.

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