Thanks to all our residents and employees who helped support the VCP in 2018!
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The 13 tiny houses sit in neat rows on the small plot of land in south Kansas City. There’s a comforting uniformity to the group, each structure a simple A-frame or slant roof, painted a rich hue: deep blue or dark maroon, slate gray or mustard yellow. An American flag flies outside most of the homes.
The lives inside also match. The men and women here have all served their country in uniform. And every one of them was homeless before arriving this year and being given their own address and key.
“We build communities — communities that are the beginning of a journey for those who said yes to this country and need someone to say yes back to them,” said Brandonn Mixon, an entrepreneur who helped to found the Veterans Community Project out of frustration with the usual efforts to get veterans off the streets.
Come November, the size of the “village” will double, thanks in part to a corps of volunteers and support from the city.
The endeavor here is a determined response to the seemingly intractable issue of homelessness in cities nationwide — an issue often exacerbated by an extreme shortage of affordable housing and complicated by policy debates about the use of shelters and treatment programs.
While the first of its kind in Kansas City, VCP mirrors the increasing number of tiny-house projects that nonprofit groups, churches and other organizations have been building in recent years — from Seattle to Nashville, from Austin to Detroit to Upstate New York, where 15 “Second Wind Cottages” symbolize second chances in the small town of Newfield.
These miniature abodes, which generally measure between 100 and 400 square feet, offer a mix of independence, stability and compassion on what supporters consider a critical micro level.
“If you’re living in a tent on the street by yourself, with all your belongings, you’re not going to move into a shelter,” said Sharon Lee, the founding executive director of Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute. “You don’t want to sleep next to someone you don’t know. You’re worried about bed bugs. You’re worried about getting your stuff stolen or being assaulted.
“You move into a tiny house, you lock the door. You’re safe.”
But in a country where more than half a million people experienced homelessness last year, there’s tension even among supporters over what constitutes a tiny house and how much of a macro-level solution it can try to be.
Early on, some structures were mounted on wheels specifically to avoid zoning and building code requirements. Some are still derided as little more than “sheds with beds” — lacking utilities or other basic necessities and support — and those places are the ones more likely to face pushback, if not sharp opposition, from potential neighbors as well as some advocates.
Kevin Polk, executive director of the American Tiny House Association, considers it “incredibly important that we use this resource to help the people who are most in need.” Yet he notes that housing for the homeless and transitional housing are subjects that challenge many communities.
“There is an unfortunate phenomenon in the United States, which is that what communities would really like homeless people to do is go someplace else,” he said.
In Kansas City, the Veterans Community Project tackled fears early — with a bit of help from the moon bounces and barbecues the organization hosted for anyone interested in its housing plan, as well as the tiny-home model that the VCP took on the road.
“We just went around and started engaging people, talking to them, saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do. What are your concerns?’ ” said co-founder Bryan Meyer, who remembers being asked whether homeless men and women were just going to be dumped in shacks on the site.
No, he reassured VCP’s future neighbors. Still, he acknowledges that it took tangible evidence to help others fully understand the concept of the village. The model home, with new white cabinets, recessed lighting and Ikea-style beds, “broke down a lot of barriers,” he said.
Leo Morris, who is one of the newest residents, moved to the village in August after he lost his house in a fire. The 82-year-old Air Force veteran arrived with his dog, Petey, and since then has been busy making #3 his own.
“I’ve had more visitors than when I had a house,” he said last month. “They’re helping me decorate to help it seem a little bit more like me. One’s going to have a housewarming for me in a week.”
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) supports the potential of tiny houses, though a 2017 report included strong caveats that they not be separated from “the broader community” and that they be part of a “coordinated system” of temporary and permanent housing opportunities to make a sustainable difference.
Council Executive Director Matthew Doherty worries about smaller also being lesser. What often has been erected, he stresses, bears no resemblance to the tiny homes the public sees featured on HGTV shows and in blogs as a chic way to live a minimalist life.
“I just want to make sure that we’re not creating a separate standard of housing that we have somehow deemed as acceptable for people who are homeless, that we would not see as acceptable for anybody else in our community,” Doherty said.
Perhaps no corner of the country has turned to tiny houses more than the Pacific Northwest, especially the Seattle area, where such structures account for nearly 13 percent of the shelter space in which public officials have invested.
The Low Income Housing Institute manages nine tiny-home villages and has two more in progress for a mix of constituencies. Its still-controversial approach is evolving. Early on, given a 2015 emergency mandate as Seattle grappled with burgeoning tent encampments, the structures built were less than 120 square feet and were mounted on pier blocks and 4×4 skids so they could be easily moved.
The goal was speed, to get tiny structures up quickly, and to circumvent city ordinances and building code. (Seattle is being sued for alleged legal violations in issuing a permit for one of the pending projects.) The villages have communal kitchen and laundry spaces and separate bathrooms.
Lee talks about a recent callout to artists to help decorate one village’s doors and walls and praises the less-specialized volunteers who continue to support project after project.
“The community buys in,” she said. One retiree remains committed to building one tiny house a month, “and he gets all his neighbors to come.” Some people have even bought and donated tiny houses as wedding gifts.
And the effort has yielded results, according to Lee, with a 2017 city evaluation finding that those who live for a year in tiny houses have greater success at being employed and moving into permanent housing than they would have had they remained in tent encampments.
Compared with Seattle and other high-cost cities, Kansas City does not have an affordable-housing crisis. In fact, the Interagency Council last year declared that the city had “effectively ended homelessness among veterans” through the city’s participation in an Obama-era initiative.
But Mixon, who was deployed to Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and Meyer, who served five years in the Marine Corps, kept seeing real problems among local veterans. They and their buddies started using their own money on hotel rooms for veterans rejected by shelters or other transitional housing because of previous infractions, addiction issues or ineligibility based on the extensive benefits criteria of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Surely there was a better approach, they thought.
At first, the group planned to refurbish an apartment complex or other building and provide not just transitional shelter but case management services. With the encouragement of Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, they adopted tiny homes as their model.
VCP was able to tap into a “groundswell that we never saw coming,” Meyer said, with interest and monetary contributions from Kansas City and beyond. VCP has sought no federal funding. Construction has been volunteer-driven, and contractors have discounted their work.
“I’ve never been involved in a project so full of passion and full of energy, motivation and momentum,” said Loar, who now chairs VCP’s board of directors.
The founders had expected the first 13 homes would take nine months to build. But after buying a five-acre property for $500 from the Kansas City Land Bank — an empty lot surrounded by a storage facility and apartments and duplexes — they ran hard into reality. The lot didn’t have a sewer line, and part of the group’s deal with the city in securing its blessing was that the village would be fully compliant with municipal codes and use public utilities. Adding that sewer connection set the project back one year and $1 million.
Meyer is quick to point out that although VCP is a village of tiny houses, that was not the primary motivation when the organization was created. Simply giving a homeless person a house “doesn’t fix anything,” he said.
So there’s a focus on addressing the big picture: health, financial independence, education or training, networking and support. Each applicant is evaluated for his or her needs and must be stable enough to fit into the community, where residents can live rent-free for up to 18 months as they work toward attaining permanent housing. For those with substantial addiction or psychiatric problems, VCP works with other organizations to find more suitable transitional housing and treatment programs.
Along with a 5,000-square-foot community center, the second group of tiny houses is nearly finished. A few important design changes were made on the basis of the several months that Meyer lived in unit #5 this summer as a sort of quality-control experience. (Among his observations, he realized that the air-conditioning unit needed to be repositioned for better circulation.)
The village ultimately will have 49 homes. The four co-founders think theirs is a model that can work elsewhere, and they say they have fielded inquiries from hundreds of groups in other cities. VCP also intends to replicate its own work elsewhere, with negotiations underway with officials in Nashville; Longmont, Colo., north of Boulder; and O’Fallon, Ill., a suburb of East St. Louis.
“There’s a lot of very smart, educated people that believe this is a true, viable option for homelessness,” Meyer said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re doing it justice.”