A collaborative project between the Stamps School of Art & Design and a local homeless advocacy group has the city abuzz with the possibility of a tiny house community.
MISSION, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing a voice for the city’s homeless, has been an advocate for the tiny houses project for several years and hopes to see the concept take shape in Ann Arbor.
Brian Durrance, a MISSION board member and former president of the organization, said a tiny house community would not only benefit the local homeless population but could also service those who don’t need larger facilities.
“Many people see these houses as a solution to the problem of affordable housing, not only for homeless people but for single people and aging adults — people who don’t need all of the amenities a large house offers,” Durrance said. “I think a lot of the technical issues are being worked out across the country in different conversations, and those discussions are now occurring as well here in Ann Arbor.”
The efforts of MISSION were matched by those of Ann Arbor City Council Member Stephen Kunselman (D– Ward 3), who recently brought forth a proposal to bring a tiny house community to a city-owned property at 415 W. Washington Street.
The idea to build a tiny house community at that specific location has since been abandoned due to issues concerning legality, practicality, and previous proposals for developing that property. The wake of Kunselman’s push, however, has many community members considering the option of incorporating tiny houses into the city in the future.
Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor, who was opposed to Kunselman’s proposal, said that 415 W. Washington may not be the right location for the project and that the timing is not be the best for this experiment.
“There are zoning and building code obstacles in respect to tiny homes,” Taylor said. “If they can prove to be legally available within the boundaries of state law, we, in Ann Arbor, would be interested in exploring how we could incorporate tiny homes into our affordable housing portfolio.”
One group in particular, students enrolled in Experimental Architecture in the STAMPS School of Art and Design, dedicated an entire semester to the manufacturing of these tiny houses. Students work with MISSION’s Camp Take Notice, a self-governing tent city for the homeless located in Ann Arbor, to design and fabricate a fully functional, 80 sq. ft. home.
The class, led by professor Roland Graf, spends the first day of each semester visiting Camp Take Notice, talking to residents, and coming up with ideas for how to accommodate the community’s needs in a tiny home.
This year’s end result, a collaborative effort between students and CTN residents entitled “The Outlook,” was made using sustainable, recyclable materials. “The Outlook” runs on solar power and was assembled from pre-fabricated sections. The Outlook will undergo a few tweaks before it is moved to its permanent home at Camp Take Notice.
Professor Graff was keen to acknowledge that his students, alongside Graduate Student Instructor Cameron Van Dyke, were able to take full advantage of the input given by the homeless community in the designing and building processes.
“Cameron and I had specified most of the basic design parameters, such as the maximum size (80 sqft), the ability to easily re-assemble and transport the structure, etc., in consultation with MISSION beforehand,” Graff said. “We then invited Mission members and friends to all design critiques and presentations, where students had the opportunity to engage with them personally and learn from the first hand experience of people who used to live in small structures.”
MISSION president Sheri Wander said her group is striving to make the tiny house conversation more robust and diversified until the idea no longer seems foreign or frightening to Ann Arbor residents.
“What is needed is for City Council and other government officials to be willing to change zoning laws and other things as necessary in order to create these opportunities, and that conversation is just beginning,” said Wander.
Wander also said she hopes those in need of homes or low-income housing will be included in further discussion about the tiny houses option.
“I would like to think Ann Arbor could take the models that are out there and expand on them, make them better, and fit our particular community,” Wander said. “I think that’s a conversation that should involve many voices both at the political level with politicians and city council, but also, and very importantly, with the people who will benefit most from having another alternative for affordable housing.”
Mission plans to continue pushing for the incorporation of tiny houses in Ann Arbor with plans to develop a tiny house community on the organization’s property on Stone School Road.