Two separate projects in two progressive, plus-sized college towns — Madison, Wisc., and Austin, Texas — are providing homeless residents with roofs to take refuge under; roofs that are notably modest in size but designed to make a huge impact.

While I’ve featured a smattering of transitional housing arrangements over the years — including retrofitted shipping containers in the U.K. and Vancouver, green-rehabbed historic properties in Los Angeles, and Bloombergian developments in the South Bronx — this is the first time I’ve featured housing initiatives for homeless and extremely low-income residents that are best described with one word: tiny.

The mission of OM Build, a small-minded division of Occupy Madison, is rather straightforward: “building tiny homes with and for people without homes.” After launching last summer and successfully jumping through a few bureaucratic hoops (read: zoning permits), the first of a planned 10 tiny homes to be built by Occupy Madison by the end of 2014 — a 96-square-foot trailer-bound abode built primarily with reclaimed and recycled materials — has been completed and is parked, for now, in a church parking lot.

Clad in reclaimed shipping pallet siding and completed in just two months using donated funds and materials, the inaugural OM Build tiny house is outfitted with many of the trappings of a traditional “home” cleverly squeezed into a limited amount of space: a full-sized bed; a working kitchen with microwave, mini-fridge, and reclaimed wood countertops and cabinetry; and a bathroom with composting toilet. And while there’s not exactly a ton of room to spread out in, the home offers just enough space for its resident, Betty Ybarra, to get back on her feet and take a huge step in the right direction … a step toward independence.

“Everybody did a part. It's been a community effort,” Ybarra tells WMTV. “It's exciting. I've never owned my own house.” Ybarra, who has been homeless and living in a tent since last May, pitched in and helped to build the home alongside a dedicated team of Occupy Madison volunteers. Similar to Habitat for Humanity builds, the home, which cost about $4,000 to construct, was paid for by Ybarra in sweat equity.

Ybarra’s self-sufficient micro-home-on-wheels is topped with a small PV solar system donated by UW-Madison; a team from the school will monitor the home’s energy performance as part of an ongoing research project. Heat will be provided by a small propane heater, although Occupy Madison board member Walter Wallbaum tells Takepart that future versions of the home will ideally boast more sustainable heating systems.

 

Construction is nearly complete on the second OM Build tiny house while Occupy Madison continues to focus on the big picture: streamlining the building process of future homes (ideally one per month) and securing private land in which to erect a cooperative tiny house village for the (formerly) homeless, which could include as many as 30 homes, including the one happily inhabited by Ybarra and her partner.

“We’re obviously addressing the problem of people without homes. But all the people who live in the community may not be homeless. There are people who are not homeless involved in Occupy Madison who want to live in a tiny home,” Wallbaum explains to the Capital Times.

While a community of tiny homes is the ultimate goal for Occupy Madison, it's recently become a reality for Alan Graham of Austin’s Mobile Loaves & Fishes after nearly a decade of planning and fundraising. The faith-based charitable organization with the mission to “provide uncompromising love and hospitality to our brothers and sisters in need” was granted permission by the city to move ahead with plans for “a 27-acre master-planned community that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas.”

Dubbed Community First! Village, the soon-to-break-ground East Austin community will include a 3-acre garden, chapel, medical facility, workshop, bed and breakfast housed in a vintage Airstream trailer, and an outdoor movie theatre operated by Alamo Drafthouse whose founder, Time League, has been a supporter of Graham’s vision from the get-go: “Above all the projects in Austin that are trying to face the challenge of homelessness, this is the most unique. And I think it's going to be the biggest impact," he tells KVUE of the project.

With the capacity to provide shelter to approximately 200 residents transitioning out of homelessness, housing at the Community First! Village will consist of a hodgepodge of tiny houses, teepees, mobile homes, and converted RVs.

 

Says Graham of the neighbors surrounding the community site near Hog Eye Road and Decker Lane: “We haven’t converted everybody, but when people come out here they go, ‘Oh!’ They see a chapel; they see medical and vocational services on site, and they learn that residents will not live there for free; they’ll pay a monthly rent.”

Graham, who hopes to start welcoming residents to the community in early 2015, elaborates on the working aspect of life at Community First! Village: “We also have a giant wood shop where people are very gifted and talented in building things. So we want to empower people into a purposeful cultivating lifestyle of working.”

Bravo to the big hearted folks at Occupy Madison and Mobile Loaves & Fishes for truly opening up the tiny house movement to everyone, particularly those to whom dignified, independent housing, no matter the square footage, is difficult to secure. 

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