Big dreams, tiny houses: Detroit project offers affordable, rent-to-own housing

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
  • Cass Community Social Services plans to build 25 tiny houses for low-income residents
  • Construction on model unit will begin in late May or early July
  • Houses will range in size between 300 to 400 square feet

Standing on a large swath of green grass dotted with trees just west of the M-10 service drive in Detroit, the Rev. Faith Fowler doesn’t see vacant lots where two abandoned houses once stood. She sees future tiny houses.

The Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services shows the English Tudor-style model for Detroit’s planned tiny houses.

Soon, work will begin on a model unit for an ambitious project for Fowler’s agency, Cass Community Social Services. It plans to build 25 tiny houses primarily for formerly homeless people in Detroit that they would rent to own over a period of seven years.

The $1.5 million project, east of Cass’ headquarters, will cover 21/2 blocks near Elmhurst and the M-10 Service Drive, just east of Woodrow Wilson. Once it’s finished, it will likely be the largest tiny house development in Detroit and possibly Michigan.

“It’ll be a little community within a couple blocks here,” said Fowler, pointing to the lot where the model unit will be built soon. “It’ll be just like a regular community — only smaller.”

The project comes as tiny houses continue to grow in popularity across the country as a way to downsize and get back to the basics. And with a shortage of affordable housing in Detroit, Fowler says, it’ll give low-income residents something very few have — an asset.

“We want them to own a home because we know what a difference it makes,” said Fowler.

Steve Ragan, senior vice president for development and external relations for Southwest Solutions, a Detroit-based nonprofit social services agency that works on housing, is excited that a city once known for its innovation in housing is returning to its roots. And it’s not just that the Cass project involves tiny houses; more importantly, Ragan says, they’re energy-efficient.

Energy efficiency and innovation “go hand in hand,” said Ragan.

But whether tiny houses could be the model for affordable housing isn’t clear.

“One of the challenges with tiny houses as an affordable housing (option) is that it’s a very specific lifestyle that some people are going to be comfortable with and some people aren’t,” said Ragan.

For Fowler, the idea of building tiny houses hit her a few years ago when her mother died, leaving behind a cottage in Roscommon that she inherited. Fowler realized that doesn’t happen to poor residents — inheriting assets. At the time, she’d been following the tiny house trend.

Curious about whether tiny houses would be an option for low-incomes residents, Fowler visited what are called pocket communities of formerly homeless people in Oregon and Washington. There, tenants have a small house with a bedroom and bathroom, but walk to shared facilities for meals and laundry.

The pocket communities have been a success, but “that is not what we’re proposing,” said Fowler. “We want to build tiny homes that people can afford the rent in, and that are safe, clean and affordable. And after seven years, they’ll have earned the house without having to qualify for a mortgage or paying any interest.”

And Cass isn’t scrimping on each home’s design. Each one will have a different style and range in size from 300 to 400 square feet. The model unit looks like an English Tudor style with fieldstone on part of the exterior. Contractor Richard Scheck with Frank Rewold and Son will help modify architectural plans as needed.

Residents “are coming from shelters or senior citizen homes where everything is the same,” said Fowler. “We wanted them to say, ‘I live in the house with the stone or the windows up front’ to make them attractive, distinctive, as well as energy-efficient.”

The Rev. Faith Fowler stands in the footprint of a tiny house that will be built for low-income residents in Detroit.

Cass now has 25 lots — and is waiting for approval to buy even more lots from the Detroit Land Bank. Each house will be situated on a 30-by-100-foot lot with a long, narrow backyard and no driveway. Each house will cost between $48,000 and $64,000 to build, depending on the style and square footage.

“It’s a little more expensive to do it that way, but if we don’t build with dignity, then we’ll continue to have low-income houses as we’ve (always) had it,” said Fowler.

But first, Cass needs to continue fundraising. Fowler says they’ve raised $500,000 and at least two foundations have pledged their support, including the Ford Foundation.

Fowler says applicants for the tiny houses — they’ll have a mix of low-income seniors and students in the development, along with those who have been homeless — are already lining up. The model unit’s foundation will be poured by early June on one of the lots on Elmhurst and will take five weeks to build. They hope to have residents moving in by October.

“We’re trying to set these residents up for success,” said Fowler.

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