A tiny house, a big step

Standing on a two-acre plot of land in southwest Longmont, Navy veteran Paul Melroy surveys the scene: Upon this tractor-raked swath of dirt, there will be 26 new tiny homes and a community center by the end of 2021, if all goes according to plan. The miniature dwellings will be transitional homes for veterans in Northern Colorado experiencing homelessness. And at the community center, the Veterans Community Project (VCP) will headquarter its Longmont chapter, providing supportive and recreational services to housed and unhoused vets alike. 

Homelessness “is a problem that we’ve spent decades trying to grapple with somewhat unsuccessfully as a nation,” says Melroy, executive director of VCP’s Longmont operation, who’s been working on the development since he arrived in Colorado five months ago. “There’s no cookie-cutter solution to any of this, and you have to be willing to attack things from a lot of different angles.” 

VCP was founded five years ago by a group of combat veterans in Kansas City tired of watching vets fall through cracks in the city’s homelessness framework. Some services can exclude veterans due to discharge status, Melroy says, and for psychological reasons, it’s particularly difficult for some vets to go straight from living on the streets to living in an apartment — which is the singular strategic focus of the popular Housing First model to which many cities, including those in Boulder County, subscribe (see News, “An incomplete picture,” Aug. 27).

So, VCP designed a tiny home village in Kansas City — Habitat-for-Humanity style, the organization crowdsourced volunteer labor to build 49 less-than-400-square-foot homes where vets can live, free of charge, for up to two years, while seeking permanent housing. Since opening in 2018, VCP has helped dozens of vets exit homelessness and served thousands more through its community center with a robust wrap-around service system. 

Now, despite months of COVID-19 delays, VCP has broken ground in Longmont, its first expansion location. Alternative housing models are finally gaining traction in local and national conversations about reducing homelessness and housing insecurity, Melroy says. “We’re starting to get clever.” 

Other cities like Detroit, Los Angeles and Portland have been using micro communities to help serve a variety of low-income and homeless individuals for years, but the concept has been slow to take root on the Front Range. Colorado Village Collaborative (CVC)’s Beloved Community Village, a collection of 19 transitional tiny homes in Denver, grew out of a 2017 pilot program and again expanded in 2020. VCP’s village in Longmont will be the first of its kind in Boulder County. 

With small footprints, minimalist designs and independent privacy, tiny homes present a cost-effective way for vulnerable community members to gain some stability, advocates claim. (CVC tiny homes cost about $15,000 to build; VCP’s about $10,000.) But others contend the high-density village designs will disrupt neighborhood traffic patterns and aren’t viable in space-starved cities. More argue transitional housing is a financial distraction from the ultimate homelessness solution: permanent housing. 

Permanent housing has been the exclusive focus of Housing Solutions for Boulder County (HSBC, the inter-governmental body responsible for implementing the local Housing First strategy). Since 2017, HSBC reports 465 people have successfully exited homelessness into permanent housing, but officials also acknowledge a major factor limiting the program’s success: the short and slow-growing supply of affordable housing. This summer, more than a dozen rent vouchers went unused due to difficulties in matching people with apartments.

As folks wait for opportunities to open up, the limited services make it increasingly difficult to cope, and marginalized individuals experiencing homelessness in Boulder are disproportionately prone to compounding hardships. But, advocates say, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), the technical classification of any sub-400-square-foot living space including tiny homes, could help the situation in Boulder and complement the Housing First mission.

Masyn Moyer, vice chair of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board (HAB), has been advocating for ADUs for more than a decade. Because “everyone loves vets,” she says, and because the need is so great — in Colorado, 9% of the unhoused are vets even though they only comprise 7.6% of the population — the VCP may be a palatable way to demonstrate the viability of tiny homes to the community. 

For the hundreds more individuals experiencing homelessness with no history of military service, and thousands more who are vulnerable to the region’s ever-rising housing costs (seniors, young families, low-income workers), Moyer argues ADUs could help prevent more homelessness in Boulder County, in addition to helping solve it. 

Creating micro-communities, however, is far from simple. In Boulder, the concept has been routinely dismissed over the years, primarily due to concerns about neighborhood density and land use.

For much of the 2010s, Moyer traveled around the country, advocating for ADU legislation on a national level, including the expansion of ADUs in the International Building Code. According to Tiny House Society, which tracks tiny home legislation in different states, tiny homes might be growing more popular on a conceptual level, but city codes and restrictive development regulations may lag behind due to cumbersome public policy processes. While VCP has experienced a relatively smooth and straightforward development process in Longmont, with city officials directly championing the project, that hasn’t been the case elsewhere in Colorado. 

CVC’s village had a tumultuous start, with intense community debate around the village’s location. Though it’s now situated on city-owned property in the working-class Globeville neighborhood, the project faced rounds of public scrutiny that nearly thwarted the process. After the first year of operation, however, an independent study found nearly 90% of Globeville neighbors reported no impact or a positive impact on their sense of community; nearly 80% reported no impact or a positive impact on their traffic, safety and noise. Also, crime rates didn’t increase near the village, despite concerns it would. Building off this success, in July, CVC broke ground on a new Women’s Village, designed in partnership with the City and County of Denver, which will feature 14 tiny homes and other amenities on a previously vacant city block in the Cole neighborhood.

The situation in Boulder has been different. 

“We’ve over time made it harder to do that kind of thing,” explains geographer and community activist Claudia Hansen Thiem.

Decades ago, ADUs — in the form of tiny homes, “carriage houses,” stand-alone apartments, mother-in-law suites, converted trailers or school buses — used to be commonplace in Boulder. Take a stroll down the historic Mapleton Avenue and many of these small dwellings are visible, Hanson Thiem notes. But current zoning and land use codes have evolved over time to intensely regulate new construction of any ADUs. 

Beginning in the 1970s, Boulder began a concentrated effort to “down-zone” neighborhoods and minimize the variety of housing development options, Hanson Thiem says. To preserve neighborhood character and suburban values, the stricter codes and zoning requirements eliminated opportunities for higher-density living, such as triplexes, small apartment complexes and/or ADUs. In exchange, developers prioritized single-family residences, which many community activists now cite as a major contributing factor to the city’s current lack of affordable housing. While expansion and development opportunities in general remain limited in Boulder, some building diversity has slowly come back. 

In 2018, after the International Building Code was ratified to include ADU-specific code, Boulder’s City Council adopted an ordinance to allow incremental new ADU development — less than one-half of 1% of growth each year. “That took us 10 years to negotiate,” Moyer says, recalling the sheer exhaustion of the public process. “And that’s all we got?”

Hanson Thiem, who once lived in an ADU in California, says it’s still a start. “If you start looking at housing insecurity, which obviously is a precursor to homelessness in a lot of cases, I think anything that you can do to create more small-scale options for people is going to help that situation.”

The ability to add one or two ADUs to a neighborhood is a far cry from creating a tiny home village, however, and even farther from one that includes a transitional program for unhoused community members. First, a concentrated number of tiny homes would violate the current ADU development allowances, and second, there’s a history of resistance to adding homelessness services to Boulder neighborhoods.

On a logistical level, the creation of a tiny home community in Boulder, regardless of its purpose, “would need to [have] a different kind of land use zoning in place,” Hanson Thiem explains. This is possible through public process, however, if City Council were to take up the issue and if there was enough community interest.

“I think there is interest, but that interest is not reflected in the leadership that we’ve elected, and that’s a big disconnect,” Hanson Thiem says, as she’s spent years working within various community groups like Boulder Progressives on the issue.

But Boulder’s City Council has continued on what many say is a conservative Housing First path, routinely directing ideas for new transitional or service-oriented programs to private nonprofits, other service providers, individuals and faith congregations. HSBC continues to focus funding exclusively on providing permanent housing opportunities. 

In July, HSBC presented a homelessness strategy update to Boulder’s City Council, wherein tiny homes were acknowledged as a potentially helpful response to homelessness, but not an ideal one and not something HSBC will itself pursue. 

“Tiny homes could meet the goals of the Homelessness Strategy,” the report states. “However, concerns about land usage, placement, structure and need may not align with Homelessness Strategy 3,” which directs staff to use data-driven results and maximize service efficiencies during decision-making. HSBC has not commented publicly on VCP’s Longmont project, and does not plan to fund or facilitate future tiny home village projects. 

Back in 2016, after some members of Boulder’s City Council visited Portland to research homelessness responses, Council member Aaron Brockett recalls: “I came back with a lot of energy to see if we could [replicate a] tiny home village in Boulder,” he says. But when he and then-Council member Jan Burton proposed some potential sites, Council majority voted down the idea. “We were never able to move forward on that.”

Though VCP hasn’t received federal or state financial support (funding is sourced from private individuals, corporate donors and fundraisers), it has received plenty of encouragement from local and state officials, which can go a long way in helping destigmatize community perceptions of homelessness, or at least homeless vets. “My understanding is the neighbors were actually great, that we did not get a lot of NIMBY-type pushback here,” Melroy says. 

For the moment, however, VCP’s only neighbors are an RV service center and self storage buildings. Soon that will change. 

The VCP village site is a donation from HMS Development. A couple years ago, Kevin Mulshine, an HMS partner, visited VCP’s Kansas City village and was impressed enough to lobby for its expansion in Longmont, offering to be its host. While VCP will occupy a tiny corner of the property, HMS is planning a residential subdivision for the rest of the 65-acre lot. Eight Habitat for Humanity homes will also be constructed and financed for low-income families. 

“It’s the first situation we know of in the country where transitional homeless housing is being built in conjunction with a subdivision where the top price on some of the properties will be about $900,000,” Melroy says. “Of course we’re going to want to be good neighbors.”

Despite the popularity of new national TV shows like Tiny House Nation and Tiny House, Big Living, convincing neighborhoods to welcome tiny homes has been a substantial, sometimes fatal, roadblock for village ventures across the country. Neighborhoods in many cities — Des Moines, Iowa; Charlotte, North Carolina; Tallahassee, Florida; and Denver, to name a few — have organized robust campaigns opposing tiny home villages. 

In Des Moines, which faces homelessness problems similar to Boulder with fewer shelter beds than people in need of shelter, the homelessness advocacy organization, Joppa, has been specifically lobbying for a transitional tiny home community for years. Even after securing independent funding and services partnerships, a 2017 proposal was dismissed due to neighborhood opposition. According to Joppa’s website, “The bottom line: land use is the only thing holding up this proven solution.” 

In 2018, when the City of Boulder entertained proposals for use of the 22-acre Hogan Pancost property in East Boulder, Kurt Firnhaber, director of Housing and Human Services, put forward alternative and affordable housing ideas, including a tiny home village. It was briefly, but not seriously, entertained — no feasibility analysis was ever conducted, and the property was ultimately absorbed into open space. 

Hanson Thiem, who recalls the Hogan Pancost debate, says it probably echoed the ’70s down-zoning movement: pro-single residencies, anti-high density. “I think the concerns then were probably the same that they are now, just about overcrowding, about parking,” she says. 

“I don’t think ADUs are an answer to homelessness, but they are part of this puzzle about housing security in the city,” she adds. ADUs “are creating options for people who don’t necessarily fit into the standard categories of affordability, but who still need housing in the community. … By doing so, you can also open up other options so that the people who live in ADUs are not competing for the apartments in the same way. You give everybody a little more slack in the housing market to find what they need.”

Moyer is one of those people who doesn’t quite fit into standard housing situations. She spent years of her youth experiencing homelessness and eventually grew into and then out of being a homeowner in Boulder. She knows intimately both sides of the coin: what it’s like to be powerless and powerful in urban environments. 

Emma Athena Masyn Moyer, vice chair of Boulder’s Housing Advisory Board, hangs out in her converted school bus.

When her kids grew up and left home a few years ago, she realized tiny-house living was the best fit for her lifestyle. “It’s where I resonate,” she says. “My goal was to shrink my footprint. I didn’t need a large house anymore. I didn’t want to have roommates. … I’m also coming up on being a senior, and I was one of the individuals who didn’t plan well young, based on my trauma [and] being homeless … so I don’t have a retirement plan.”

To stay in Boulder — reducing her living expenses, maximizing an environmentally conscious lifestyle, and maintaining her clientele as a hairdresser of 20 years — Moyer converted a 98-square-foot school bus into a cozy mobile apartment with a full suite of amenities, like a kitchen sink, convection oven, toilet, guest bed and a lounge area for Gus, her dog. She lived happily in the “schoolie” until she was tapped for a seat on the Housing Advisory Board in 2017. Due to city rules, board and commission members must reside within city limits; if Moyer wanted to serve on HAB, she’d need to provide a physical address. 

It’s one of many city policies Moyer condemns for discriminating against the poor and working classes of Boulder. “As much as we pay lip service to wanting to have all stakeholders [represented] in our community, that completely leaves out our unhoused,” she says. 

What’s more, when it comes to the public process, Hanson Thiem has observed older, wealthier homeowners, those already established in their neighborhoods and “who tend to have a NIMBY-ish reaction to these kinds of policies,” are the ones who continually show up to public meetings. “And so when we have had proposals for liberalizing these kinds of housing rules, they get chipped away at over time,” she says.

Moyer feels a community disconnect, too. “You know, our pragmatic elders say, don’t spend more than 30% of your income on housing. Yet, we try to do that and we’re vilified for living with multiple people or creating community or creating alternative housing — all shit they did when they were younger,” she says. “I mean, living in buses was cool back in the day.”

Moyer hopes if the VCP village can set a good example for local ADU communities, it could open doors to permitting mobile tiny homes on wheels, like her schoolie, which are not forms of residence currently allowed in the city. 

And for its part, VCP has been doing all it can to set itself up for success. The inaugural Kansas City site has moved 76% of village participants into permanent housing — about double that of similar programs, Melroy says. He attributes the success to hearty supportive services like health and wellness programming, various types of counseling, educational opportunities, a donation center and recreation area. Replicating the project in Boulder County, “It’s this little bit of a grand experiment,” he says. 

VCP has spent years building relationships throughout the County, primarily with the nonprofit HOPE (Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement), which has started to refer veterans to VCP for specialized assistance. Partnering with existing local organizations, “is the key to success for us. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Melroy says. 

Though to others, it certainly looks like VCP is paving the way. In the last two or so years, VCP has received thousands of inquiries about tiny home logistics from all over the country, 700 or so of them serious, including offers to gift land in exchange for VCP coming to town. The organization’s goal is to build eight more tiny home villages in the next two years in various cities across the country. St. Louis is next on the list.

“We seem to have caught on with something in the community psyche; it’s a beautiful thing.” 

With VCP charging ahead, advocates hope it’ll drum up support for pilot opportunities for non-veteran unhoused populations and working class folks in Boulder. Both HAB and the Human Relations Commission have been exploring the possibility of tiny homes as transitional and affordable housing options, and plan to make their case in front of City Council in the coming weeks.  

This article continues a multi-part series analyzing how COVID-19 has changed the conversation around homelessness solutions. Reporting for this series was made possible, in part, thanks to the Solutions Journalism Network.

Boulder Weekly is partnering with KGNU to produce a podcast based on the series that will launch at the end of October.