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First residents move into Detroit’s Cass Tiny Homes

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Looking around her brand new 350-square-foot home in Detroit, Gladys Ferguson can’t pinpoint what she likes best about her tiny house. She likes it all.

“The whole thing,” said Ferguson, 63. “In and out. It was built from the ground and it was built for me.”

Ferguson is one of the first residents of Cass Tiny Homes, a development of tiny homes in Detroit just west of M-10 at Elmhurst that could prove to be a new model for low-income housing in the city. Developed by Cass Community Social Services on land where abandoned houses once stood, the $1.5 million project, the largest of its kind in Detroit, has made national headlines.

More than 100 people applied to live in the rent-to-own houses — rent is based on square footage, or $1 per square foot — during an application period in October 2016. Since then, an additional 900 people have expressed an interest in the development.

“There’s a tremendous need,” said the Rev. Faith Fowler, the head of Cass Community Social Services, who came up with the idea for the development.

Fowler said all of the residents selected for the first six houses are low-income and make an average of $998 a month in income. They each also had to pass a rigorous vetting process that included financial, criminal and housing histories. The homes are rent to own over a period of seven years.

Aside from Ferguson, who moved in in late August, one resident is a student at Wayne County Community College; another is a minister in his late 50s with health problems who previously lost his home and job.

Despite the critics who question spending so much on these homes — they cost $40,000 to $50,000 each to build — Fowler believes the project could be the start of a new approach to low-income housing. Each house is built in a unique style to foster pride.

“They’re nice houses,” she said. “They’re not junk.”

Still, the project isn’t for everyone. Fowler said one resident who was selected, a veteran, saw the house and changed his mind. It was too small, he said. “And that’s OK,” said Fowler. “I appreciated that he told us before he moved in.”

Ferguson, on the other hand, has no qualms about living in such a small space. She previously lived in a two-bedroom house in a rough neighborhood in Detroit, but “it got to be too much,” said Ferguson, who has rheumatoid arthritis and walks with two canes. It had more than a dozen stairs.

Now, she only has to navigate one step on to her front porch. Inside, there’s a small loveseat, a fairly spacious kitchen and a separate bedroom.

“I like it,” said Ferguson. “I don’t like a lot of clutter.”

Indeed, only a few personal items have found their way into Ferguson’s new home. She brought her computer and TV. In one corner are two large ceramic vases she bought years ago from Value City Furniture. On the kitchen counter are two black ceramic dolphins.

“I got those 17 years ago from JC Penney,” said Ferguson, a widow who has two grown sons. “I never had anything of my own (before). I always took care of other people. So I wanted to get something for me.”

Outside, sweetheart roses envelop the front of Ferguson’s front porch, which is fitting for a woman neighbors once called the “Flower Lady” because she loved gardening so much.

One item Ferguson is glad she has is blinds. Visitors from all over the country stop by all the time to learn more about the tiny houses. “You’ll see people from all over, everywhere,” said Ferguson.

Construction should start as early as this fall on three more tiny houses, said Fowler, who said they’re just waiting for paperwork to be approved by the city of Detroit. Depending on financing, another three could be built, as well.

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Twitter: @mfeighan