Keith McElvee was released from prison in 2013 after a 12-year stint for a drug conviction and returned to a northwest Detroit neighborhood that he didn’t recognize. After struggling to adjust to life out of prison, McElvee found work doing homeless outreach at Cass Community Social Services (CCSS). McElvee’s background and low salary meant his housing situation was unstable. But thanks to Detroit’s Tiny Homes Project, his housing situation is looking up.
The Tiny Homes Project is an innovative approach to low-income housing. Instead of high-density apartment buildings, tenants pay low rent on tiny houses that include kitchens, washer/dryer units, and heating and cooling. The tiny homes range from 250 to 400 square feet.
Tiny homes are a popular trend, but they’re also being used as a way to decrease homelessness across the country. The Cass project is the first of it’s kind to allow residents to actually own the home after paying rent for seven years.
“We thought, ‘With an asset they would fare better in the longer term,’” says the Rev. Faith Fowler, CCSS’s executive director. “And tiny homes really became the vehicle for that.”
CCSS has run homeless residency programs since 2012. In 2013, Reverend Fowler first considered tiny homes as a housing solution for low-income families. She had dreamed of building a tiny home community on Cass’s large campus to provide assistance to Detroit residences that needed help the most.
Despite Detroit’s recent economic revitalization, the city still has the country’s highest poverty rate, coming in at 36%. A count done in January found more than 2,000 homeless people in the city, and the rapid gentrification taking place led to a fear of housing shortages.
After the announcement of the project, CCSS received 122 applications for the initial seven houses. Eventually, there will be a neighborhood of 25 tiny homes. Residents of these homes will now be able to join the 83% of Americans who think having a backyard is important and 90% of those who think a well-maintained yard is important. Each tiny home will have a unique design and its own lot. This will allow residents to do with it as they wish, like plant trees and shrubs, which can save up to 25% in energy bills when placed strategically.
There is no government funding behind this project. Construction costs are covered by donations, architects planned pro bono, and the houses were built by teams of volunteers and contractors. The tenants will pay one dollar per square foot, plus electrical bills. Residents will also take monthly financial literacy classes and participate in their neighborhood watch program.
McElvee quickly settled in to his new home. He patrols the area at night and helps his elderly neighbor by watering the grass and taking out the garbage.
“That was the whole point, he said, “so that everybody knows each other and looks out for each other.”