Owning a home is part of the American dream, but for people who are in poverty or were recently homeless, it's often just that: a dream.
The Tiny Homes project in Detroit hopes to change that.
The project was born out of a nonprofit called Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), run by Rev. Faith Fowler, who began thinking about how property is passed down within families after her mother passed away a few years ago.
The goal of the project is to give people with low incomes or who were recently homeless the opportunity to own homes of their own.
"We were looking for a way to help homeless and other low-income people gain an asset," Fowler explained over email.
These tiny homes are unique for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most significant is that while similar tiny-home homeless relief projects have popped up in other locations, Cass Community Tiny Homes is the first to offer properties that are rent-to-own.
This is an important distinction because of the advantages that come from owning property, like building equity and tax deductions. Perhaps the most significant benefit, however, is what owning property can do for a family in the long term. Studies show the main reason children from wealthier families end up doing better financially as adults than children from poorer families comes down to their parents owning more valuable properties in nicer neighborhoods with better schools — homes that they pass down to their kids.
Here's how the rent-to-own plan works: The tiny-home community reaches out through shelters and neighborhood canvassing to find people who are ready to move into a home but can't afford one. There is a review process for prospective tenants that culminates with an interview. Once accepted, tenants start a year lease, paying rent no more than a third of their monthly salary.
The rental price of each unit is $1 per square foot, meaning a 250-square-foot house costs $250 a month to rent. Because the tiny homes are built for energy efficiency, utilities are estimated to be quite low, approximately $35 a month.
After seven years of paying rent, the tiny house becomes the tenant's property. There's just one catch: mandatory attendance at monthly financial coaching and home-ownership classes.
Currently, the Detroit Tiny Homes community has enough property to build 25 single-family homes ranging from 250 to 400 square feet.
The tiny homes share borders with the CCSS campus, so unlike many low-income housing projects, residents live side-by-side, mixed in with the local community rather than separated from it. In fact, some of the tiny houses may eventually be occupied by students and CCSS staff members.
The development is funded entirely by private donations and foundations, including the Ford Motor Fund, the RNR Foundation, and the McGregor Fund.
The best part? There will be 25 different styles of houses — a different design on each lot.
Unlike many shelters, these residences aren't drab or uniform in any way. Each one has a gorgeous facade with lots of details and a unique architectural style.
"We want to instill a sense of pride in the residents," wrote Fowler. "Most people will be coming from situations where everyone had the same bland setting (shelters in particular). We also believe by having so many styles in a concentrated area that others will be drawn to the neighborhood."
So far, over 600 people have applied for the units, and construction of the first six units is underway.
Here's the first tiny house, which was completed on Sept. 6, 2016:
Because tiny homes can be constructed so quickly and cheaply, CCSS plans to expand the project to accommodate larger families.
According to Fowler, there are many more vacant lots near the original building sites, allowing the project to grow exponentially.
If successful, these tiny housing developments could change everything for low-income families in Detroit. They'll provide an opportunity that wasn't there before: to own property that they can pass down to future generations, giving them a sturdy foundation on which they can rely.