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Big idea touted: Tiny homes

posted Feb 19, 2015, 3:22 PM by Sherry Sims

Buzz is building for a big idea that could help shorten affordable housing wait lists: living small.
Enthusiasm runs high for tiny homes — some as small as 144 square feet — in Colorado, Minnesota, California, Washington State, Oregon and other states.

"There is one meetup group of tiny house enthusiasts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that started in September, so there is some grassroots interest starting here," said Erika Dani, New Jersey state chapter leader for the American Tiny House Association. "There also are a few groups in New Jersey that want to do tiny houses for the homeless."

But some housing advocates see possibilities for other low-income people, too, in the high-cost Garden State. In Morris County, they don't have to look too far for a model.

Back in 1967, the Boonton Housing Authority built its 663-square-foot Chestnut Street Cottages. There are 14 units. According to Sherry Sims, executive director, residents pay 30 percent of their household income, whatever it may be, to live in them.

Sixty-four-year-old Joanne Shanley, who works 32½ hours a week, has lived in a Chestnut cottage for five years. The red-and-white units share a common courtyard featuring a gazebo and picnic table.

For years, Shanley had her own apartment but, after a time, she couldn't afford the expense. Then she moved into her daughter's house for a time.

"I'm very happy here," Shanley said. "For just me, this is fine. I have the living room and a bedroom and a bathroom. The kitchen is small, but I don't cook that much. When the weather is nice, I plant my flowers in the front, and I have barbecues out back. The cats and my grandsons come over and I make them a hot dog.

"This is like having your own little house," she added, "but without the mortgage."

Many people would like to live in a Boonton cottage, or in one of the authority's 60 Riverview Apartments on Plane Street. The wait list for the cottages and high rise, which will reopen in April, is 500 long, according to Sims.

Duane Zadarosni, a 57-year-old resident of the Chestnut cottages, is a former auto mechanic forced by sickness to stop working and live on disability. When he stopped making what he once earned, he could no longer afford his large garden apartment.

"You can get shot down really easy," he said, "especially in today's world."

A New Jerseyan must make $24.92 an hour to afford a two-bedroom fair market rent apartment, without paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent, according to the "Out of Reach 2014" report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

For small households

Galvanized in large part by Tiny Home Pilot Program legislation introduced by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) in December, discussions about living small — in tiny homes or micro-unit apartments — are taking place at state housing conferences.

"By relaxing some state building codes and giving municipalities the ability to build tiny homes," Lesniak said, "we can create housing that benefits a lot of single individuals, empty nesters and senior citizens who, instead of paying $1,500 to $1,800 a month in rent, can be quite comfortable paying $500. That's a significant savings for them."

The issue caught the attention of Dan Maguire, housing director for Morristown-based Homeless Solutions, who listened to a panel on the topic at a recent conference of the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association.

"There's an opportunity for Morris County in micro-units," Maguire said. "Land is expensive. If we have a piece of land, we could build 12 micro-units as opposed to six market-rate-sized one-bedroom units. Which would people rather have — increasing the number of units that could be won in a lottery, or having bigger units? I think a large majority of people would say, 'More units, please.'"

Since a smaller unit would rent for fewer dollars, he postulated, micro-units may help stretch housing voucher money.

For the time being, Lesniak has held his bill, S2571, which calls for a $5 million, three-year pilot program to build clusters of micro homes, none larger than 300 square feet, in three regions of the state — north, central and south. While these tiny home villages are one way to go, the senator said, the bill also covers micro-unit apartment buildings.

"All the pictures we see on the Internet are of individual, free-standing units," Lesniak said, "but apartment accommodations may very well be the most cost effective and fit the demand that's there for more affordable housing."

Currently, the Homeless Solutions wait list for one-bedroom affordable units is three to five years long at the nonprofit's Abbett Avenue Apartments in Morristown as well as at its Jean Street Apartments in Morris Township. The wait is one to three years long for its Drakestown Road Apartments in Washington Township.

Search for funds

Right now, Lesniak is waiting for a prototype developer and home designs even as he looks for program funding since the $5 million needed for the pilot program can't come from state coffers. Still, he is optimistic.

"Certainly, I would hope to have something on the governor's desk by the end of June," he said.

"We're going to have to find the $5 million another way, and there are other ways," he said. "Municipalities may own vacant land, usually due to foreclosures, that are not generating any tax revenues. Suppose they allocated such land for micro housing and generated 50 percent of what they would have gotten in taxes if it were fully developed."

If the land is free and property taxes are reduced, he added, it may become possible for developers to make money on building a tiny home community.

Currently, anyone interested in living in a tiny home in New Jersey would have to buy one on wheels.

"It's the two wheels that put the home into the category of an RV or a camper," said Gregory Paul Johnson, a co-founder of the Iowa-based Small House Society, which has some 20,000 social media followers.

"So you're stuck at building eight-feet wide because of the width of the road," he explained. "As municipalities change their housing codes, you're not going to see as many tiny houses on wheels anymore."

In Ocean County, Thomas O'Malley, a Lakewood resident who advocates for Micro Homes for the Homeless, also proposes a potential way to fund tiny homes in New Jersey: redeploy the millions of emergency housing dollars counties spend on sending the homeless to hotels and motels.

According to New Jersey's annual Point-in-Time homeless survey, which counts the number of people who are homeless on a particular winter night, there were 11,818 homeless statewide in 2013 and 13,900 last year — an increase of 18 percent.

"The law is that if you have no place to stay, you go to your social service office, get a voucher, and present it to a hotel or motel," O'Malley said. "That pays for three nights and then you're out again. The county pays $55 for every day you stay there, even if that hotel is in shameful shape. At the end of the year, that money is gone."

For this fiscal year, Ocean County's line item for emergency housing is $8.2 million, said O'Malley, who would rather use it to build decent, easy-to-maintain tiny homes that can be reused for 50 years.

Micro Homes for the Homeless, a program of Catholics and Friends with a Heart, of which O'Malley is president, built an 8 by 18, 144-square-foot prototype home and displayed it at the Point Pleasant Borough municipal building for a week last fall. According to O'Malley, it will be displayed in other venues, too.

The unit cost $10,000 to build using volunteer help, said O'Malley, adding that Micro Homes for the Homeless is petitioning Ocean County freeholders and various municipal officials to allow a tiny home pilot program. In the meantime, the group is endeavoring to raise $200,000 to build a village of 15 units, and a community building in the middle, on a half-acre to an acre of land.

Beauty matters

Even at this early stage of bringing tiny homes to New Jersey, many agree they must be attractively designed inside and out.

"Back in the '60s, when low-income people lived in public high rises, there was a stigma attached to that," said Maguire, of Homeless Solutions. "In much the same way, you can imagine a stigma associated with somebody living in a cluster of tiny homes. People may say, 'Oh, that's the affordable housing.'"

With tiny homes or micro-units, the challenge is to be careful they don't become soulless little places, said Marianne Cusato, who led the design team that created the Katrina Cottage and, later, 1,000- and 1,400-square-foot permanent housing on the Jersey Shore after superstorm Sandy.

"The design element becomes really key," Cusato said. "The scale of the windows is important. So is the insulation between the walls and the rooms, so when you go in your little space, you don't hear your next-door neighbors.

"Privacy and light become really key as well as ceilings as high as you can get them," she added. "You want to be able to relax in the space and not feel like you're shoved in a corner."

Likely occupants

While tiny homes or micro-units may work well for low-income or homeless residents here, some experts say there are other populations who do — or can — benefit from them.

Dani, of the American House Association, also is a master's candidate in city and regional planning at Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. She was propelled into a high-profile position in the tiny homes discussion because she has written papers on the topic and is creating a guidebook to management styles of existing tiny house villages in the U.S.

As part of her research, she informally polled enthusiasts in tiny house meetup and Facebook groups, just to see who they are.

"We need to do more formal, funded research," Dani said, "but we found the largest demographic group interested in tiny houses were middle-aged people in their mid-30s and mid-40s who, in my observation, had gone through some significant life change.

"Maybe they got divorced," she said, "or their kids moved out of the house, or they lost their job, and they were wanting to minimize their material items or downsize so they can put their house on wheels and travel the country."

Here in suburban New Jersey, micro-units may hold promise for financially strapped senior citizens living in large single-family homes, according to Vito Gallo of Summit, a housing planner and former chairman of the housing committee of the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association.

"Most suburban homeowners are vastly overhoused," Gallo said. "An interesting possibility is to allow elderly homeowners to have a second source of income by converting a part of their homes, possibly garages, into smaller units. It would allow them to rent that space to a younger person."

That's the kind of adaptive reuse of existing housing, he said, that could make a difference to the many seniors entering their retirement years with mortgages, primarily because of home equity loans.

The percentage of seniors aged 65 and older who are carrying mortgage debt increased from 22 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2011, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For those aged 75 and over, the increase jumped from 8.4 percent in 2001 to 21.2 percent in 2011.

Culture shift

What also needs to happen on a fundamental level, according to Gallo, is a shift in cultural consciousness.

"There's a mindset in the country that bigger is better," he said. "The trend in the country, for many years, has been for housing units to get larger and larger. We need a major cultural shift. If the shift is going to happen, it's going to do so with smaller households."

That's a new mindset that Zadarosni, who lives in the Chestnut cottages, has embraced. In his cottage, he is perfectly content.

"You only need so much space," he said. "It's nice and good to be able to say you have a five-room house or apartment, but you don't need it. This gets the job done. It's functional. It's well maintained. And you know what? There's a lot less cleaning to do."

Staff Writer Lorraine Ash: 973-428-6660; lash@njpressmedia.com

Learn more

To read about—or become involved in— the tiny house and micro living movement in New Jersey and elsewhere, explore these links:

BLOG: Tiny House, Giant Journey, http://tinyhousegiantjourney.com

BLOG/BOOK: Tent City Urbanism, www.tentcityurbanism.com

CAMPAIGN: Micro Homes for the Homeless, www.microhomesforthehomeless.org

HOUSING COMMUNITY: Boonton Housing Authority Chestnut Street Cottages,www.boontonhousing.org/housing-complexes

MEETUP: Tiny Houses and Affordable Dwelling Units in NJ/PA,www.meetup.com/Tiny-Houses-and-ADUs-in-NJ-PA

ONLINE FORUM: The Tiny Life, http://thetinylife.com

ORGANIZATION: American Tiny House Association,http://americantinyhouseassociation.org

ORGANIZATION: Small House Society, http://smallhousesociety.net

REALITY SHOW: Tiny House Nation, www.fyi.tv/shows/tiny-house-nation

WHITE PAPER: "Macro View on Micro Units," http://uli.org/wp-content/uploads/ULI-Documents/MicroUnit_full_final_lo.pdf

WHITE PAPER: "Responding to Changing Households,"http://furmancenter.org/files/NYUFurmanCenter_RespondingtoChangingHouseholds_2014.pdf

WORKSHOP: Dream Big Live Tiny workshops,www.tumbleweedhouses.com/pages/workshops

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