In Chatham County, a nonprofit will build tiny homes for the homeless | Chatham County | Indy Week
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In Chatham County, a nonprofit will build tiny homes for the homeless 

Doc visits the Farm at Penny Lane.

Photo by Alex Boerner

Doc visits the Farm at Penny Lane.

Doc was never supposed to live this long.

The 58-year-old's stringy, chest-length hair, stuffed beneath a camouflage UNC hat, is mostly gray. His back, worn by a lifetime of construction, is giving him hell, so he's made a reclining chair in his living room into a makeshift bed.

Now that he doesn't drink anymore, Doc (who asked that his full name not be used) feels every labor-intensive, grueling construction job he's worked. He says he's spent. But he nonetheless seems like a coiled spring, tightly packed muscle on a scarecrow's frame, balled-up energy looking for a release.

Doc talks about living in 27 states, mastering martial arts, serving in Lebanon with the Marines in the late 1970s, the post-traumatic stress disorder he blames on an alcoholic father, living in the woods when he was stiffed on a construction job in Burlington and his sometimes all-consuming struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He also talks about his messy fight with booze, relocating to a 10-by-15-foot storage shed in Chapel Hill five years ago and, finally, his timely rescue two years ago by Cross Disability Services, or XDS, a nonprofit offering support services and treatment to people with disabilities and mental illness.

XDS found an apartment for Doc, but with affordable housing a perennial crisis in Orange County, that's not always an option for those in need or the nonprofits that help them. Simply put, people like Doc need new ideas.

XDS executive director Thava Mahadevan thinks he's found one. He hopes to deploy the burgeoning small-building movement to revolutionize the fight against homelessness in the Triangle and Chatham County. It's an idea first popularized in the Pacific Northwest but not yet tried in North Carolina.

That's about to change.

Next month, Mahadevan and a Chapel Hill construction company will build a 336-square-foot model home at the Chatham County Fair. This house—like the others that will follow—is designed for people like Doc who are grappling with a mental illness or disability.

When it's finished, XDS will transport the home to the Farm at Penny Lane, a 40-acre campus in rural Chatham that serves as the nonprofit's home base.

By the time the first phase is completed, Mahadevan hopes to have built at least 10 tiny homes on the farm for some of his neediest clients.

These miniature homes, and their even more miniature rents—XDS' mortgages will be about $200 to $300 a month per unit—may well be the future of affordable housing, he says. "It gives hope to people about housing. A little bit of hope can do a lot."

The 40-acre Farm at Penny Lane offers people with mental illness a sustainable approach to improving their quality of life. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • The 40-acre Farm at Penny Lane offers people with mental illness a sustainable approach to improving their quality of life.

Mahadevan stumbled upon this new approach to a longstanding problem when he learned about Opportunity Village, a small encampment of tiny homes for the homeless that opened to national media coverage in Eugene, Oregon, in 2013.

Mahadevan, who also serves as director of operations for UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, saw the potential, particularly in western parts of the Triangle, a region plagued by chronic affordable housing struggles and its own relatively consistent band of homeless squatters.

Last January, during its annual "point-in-time" count, the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness reported 108 homeless people in Chapel Hill and Orange County, the vast majority suffering from a severe mental illness or a substance abuse disorder.

Another 2,000 were counted in Durham and Wake counties, although the group's estimates depend on individuals appearing in local emergency shelters. Many intentionally avoid shelters, making instead for wooded areas.

Doc was one of those squatters. Two years ago, XDS learned about Doc from another local nonprofit, the Community Empowerment Fund. Doc was living inside a bare storage shed in Chapel Hill, paying the $180 monthly bill when he could and scuttling away if any of the storage company's corporate owners made an appearance.

He wasn't the only one. Doc says at least 10 families were living in the complex in other sheds, some units as small as five by 10 feet.

click to enlarge habitat_house-floor_plan_rev3.jpg

Today, XDS has secured an apartment for him in University Lake, a plain brick apartment complex off Barnes Street in Carrboro, but such affordable apartments are becoming a rarity, particularly those that accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers.

Mahadevan's tiny-home project will depend on a loosely assembled coalition of health and mental health care providers, charitable building outfits, regional mental health organizations, such as Cardinal Innovations, and increasingly desperate housing advocates, all of them shepherded by XDS.

For XDS' clients, many of whom live in Orange County and depend on monthly federal disability checks of about $730, it may be the last option. The median rent in the county is $872, higher than any other county in the region, and an increasing number of landlords are booting tenants who depend on Section 8 vouchers as they woo a more upscale clientele.

Meanwhile, the cost of new construction is on a staggeringly steep slope. Orange County's median home price in 2012 was a lofty $319,000. And, at a public housing meeting in Chapel Hill this year, the town's economic development officer told town leaders that construction of new homes valued higher than $500,000 rose by 3,117 percent from 1990 to 2010. In Chatham County, the median home value is a more modest $211,000, but housing groups warn that plans to build the upscale, 7,200-acre Chatham Park—thought to be the largest development in North Carolina history—will change all of that in the next 30 years.

"There's such a hunger for affordable housing," says Mahadevan.

Anna Spears, development director of the Chatham Habitat for Humanity, says her organization will provide the funds for the model home's construction next month, which should take just a few days to complete. It is expected to cost about $38,000. Chapel Hill company Bold Construction will donate labor.

This is a novel approach for Habitat. The organization typically serves small families with a modest annual income between $17,000 and $40,000. Many of XDS' clients, who earn less than $10,000 a year and struggle with disabilities and severe mental illnesses, usually do not qualify.

And while Habitat typically focuses on smaller-than-normal homes, the 200-to-300-square-foot variety is new, both to the nonprofit and practically everyone else in North Carolina.

"Once a year, we sit down and say, 'This is great, all that we're doing,'" Spears says. "But what about the people in dire situations? We're missing them. What are we doing for those people?"

Orange County Commissioner Mark Dorosin is one of the county's most outspoken advocates on affordable housing.

"We should not compartmentalize mental health and disability and homelessness," Dorosin says. "All of these issues are interconnected, so our solutions should be interconnected as well."

Dorosin calls the tiny-home project in Chatham "huge," and while he says he can't envision such bustling villages spreading all over the region, the work is inspiring. He hopes the county will become involved, too.

"What's exciting is this willingness to innovate," he says. "That's 10 people who didn't have a home before."

This is what Mahadevan says he wanted all along. XDS' tiny-home village can't house all of the region's homeless, or even a small fraction of them. But he hopes the project will spur local leaders—many of whom have expressed support, if not financial backing—into action.

"They say the right things, but more people must act," he says. "It is a crisis."

On Doc's front door, a sign reads, "Members only—proof of psychosis required." A banner for his fledgling business, Mad Cow Signs, rests on the sidewalk.

Inside, his feisty homemade signs compete for space on the walls. "I'm angry you're not saluting me," reads one. A faded American flag hangs in the kitchen, and an orange Fender Stratocaster sits proudly by the television, which blares Two and a Half Men.

For the first time in his life, Doc isn't drinking anymore. Sobriety hurts. All he has to offer is a Coca-Cola. No beer, of course.

"It doesn't matter what station in life you come from," he says. "You have to have a base of operations."

Now he has one.

Doc could have never imagined this life two years ago. And, if he becomes one of the first tenants of XDS' proposed tiny-home village in Chatham County, he says he'll welcome it no matter how small the space.

"It's like the Taj Mahal when you're living in a shed." he says.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Can tiny homes cure homelessness?"


  • Is going small and cheap a viable strategy?

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