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Detroit tiny house project is ‘game changer’

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Calling it a “game changer” that could be a test-case for transforming some of Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods, Cass Community Social Services and its supporters on Thursday unveiled a 300-square-foot tiny house, the first unit of a 25-unit project that will eventually become the city’s largest tiny house development.

Crowds lined up on the sidewalk to see inside the Tudor-style house with a stucco exterior and fresh sod on Elmhurst just west of the Lodge Freeway (M-10). The house will serve as a model unit until six more are built on nearby Monterey Street this fall. Once they’re finished, formerly homeless people and low-income seniors and students who meet certain criteria will move into all seven tiny homes, hopefully by late October.

“This is not just about a house,” Richard Lord, treasurer of the RNR Foundation, which has donated $65,000 toward the $1.5 million project. “It’s about changing the lives of the people who will be here.”

The project, called Cass Tiny Homes, is the first of its kind in Detroit and possibly Michigan. All 25 homes will be completely different in style and will range in size from 250-400 square feet. They’ll be built on 30-by-100 lots where vacant houses once stood.

Jim Vella, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund, which has donated $400,000 to the project and may commit more down the road, calls the tiny home project a “game changer” and transformational. He said tiny homes may not work for every neighborhood in Detroit, where vacant land is abundant, but it’s one option to creating more affordable homes in the city and bringing back neighborhoods.

“I think this is going to really take off,” he said. “... What it does is provide affordable housing for people who can’t afford something else on their own.”

The project is the brainchild the Rev. Faith Fowler, head of Cass Community Social Services. She said she came up with the idea after her mother died, leaving Fowler a home in Roscommon. It made her realize how often low-income residents don’t have assets passed down from one generation to the next. And she also started thinking about the tiny house trend.

Detroit has no restrictions on building tiny homes, which has been an issue in other parts of the country with minimum building size requirement. Still, Fowler said one of the first things they did more than a year ago was reach out to the city’s zoning department, since this is the city’s first tiny home community.

“They’re learning from us and we’re learning from them,” Fowler said.

Roughly 50 people have already applied to live in Cass Tiny Homes. Fowler said interested residents will have to meet certain U.S. Housing and Urban Development income development guidelines, along with a criminal background check. Applications were accepted in July and will open again for the month of October.

Fowler said the homes will all be rent-to-own over a seven-year period and rent will be based on the home’s square footage. A 300-square-foot home will be $300 a month.

And while the houses may be low-income, they aren’t plain and boring. Inside the model unit, which has a lovely arched ceiling, are nooks for a twin bed and table with four chairs. It has granite counters, a washer-dryer combination, a dishwasher and air conditioning. A deck will soon be built off the back.

Fowler said they wanted to build something residents would be proud of. Each house costs approximately $40,000-50,000 to build.

“This is a program about aspirations,” Fowler said. “It isn’t just a housing program.

Cass has raised $700,000 of the $1.5 million they need and Fowler joked on Thursday about taking anyone out to lunch who might be interested in donating. “I’ll even take you to the Whitney,” she said.

Fowler said it doesn’t take much. One little girl donated $25 from her lemonade stand for the project.

Once the neighborhood is finished, more tiny homes could be built.

“There are 300 vacant lots within in a mile of where you sit now,” said Fowler.


(313) 223-4686

Cass Tiny Homes

■ 25 units at Elmhurst and the Lodge.

■ Residents, all formerly homeless or low-income seniors or students, will rent to own over seven years. Rent will be based on square footage.

■ Houses will range in size from 250-400 square feet.

■ One to two people per house at most in first phase.

■ Applications will be accepted again in October. Email ccumcac@aol.com or (313) 883-2277 ext. 201.